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Season 2, Episode 32

In this episode, campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt discuss the many aspects of campaign timing, including how to determine the start and length of your campaign. They discuss the wisdom and importance of starting your campaign planning as soon as you know a campaign is heading your way.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, March 28, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
We do have sort of a juicy topic for you today. And it’s one that doesn’t sound like much, but the more we thought about it, the juicier it got. And the question is, the topic is about when your campaign really begins.

Campaigns are funny things, we talk about a kickoff when you’re about three quarters of the way through your campaign. But clearly your campaign doesn’t begin at the kickoff, even though kickoff makes it sound like it begins then. It begins way before that. The public phase begins at the kickoff. And as we were tossing this around and thinking about it, I came up with my sense of when a campaign begins is way back to when you have to get yourself into what I think of as campaign mindset. And when you should get yourself into campaign mindset is as soon as your board or your organization has approved a plan to do something big, that needs a lot of money to jumpstart it or to springboard it to the next level of operation.

So if your board, for example, has done a strategic plan, or a long range plan, and they come back and they say, well, we’re going to build a new building. Or, we’re going to have an expansion. Or, we’re going to start three new programs. Or, we’re going to add equipment to make us more efficient and effective. And we’re going to need to raise 5 million, 10 million, a hundred million, you name the number. Whatever you’re saying. We’re going to need to raise all of this money. Then instead of thinking to yourself, well okay, they’re talking about a capital campaign, and we’re going to sort of lollygag our way down the road to that. You need to change your mindset immediately and say, okay, we don’t actually have a campaign now, but I am going into campaign mindset.

Adopting a Campaign Mindset

Now, what do I mean by campaign mindset? So what I mean is that, if you are experienced in capital campaign fundraising, you know that the success of your campaign, no matter how big a goal you have, or how small a goal, the success of your campaign has everything to do with your top 10 gifts. And probably to bring in those top 10 gifts, you’re going to need to identify and cultivate and engage at least 30 people to get those top 10 gifts. And what I mean very specifically about moving into campaign mindset is starting to say, all right, who are those 30 people, that if we are going to go into a campaign to raise five or $10 million, we’re going to need those 30 people to be part of our process. And let us think, right from the very beginning, the ways in which we can engage and involve those people in the planning of this process of the campaign, even of the project going forward.

You will never have a better opportunity or a better way to actually engage significant donors than when your project is still in the early stages and still has some fluidity to it. And you can really be asking people what they think, and what advice they have, and whether they’re willing to serve on a small committee to help evaluate whether you should go in this direction or that direction. So the cultivation, the real cultivation opportunities you have, for those 30 people from whom you will be able to raise 60 or 70% of your campaign goal, starts right smack as in the beginning, as soon as you know a campaign is in the road in front of you. Did that make sense, Amy?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. All right. Let me back us up just a minute. So I wanted to share how we got on this topic, and I think it’s important to think about everybody, when they come talk to us, to see if we can help them with the campaign, asks how long should a campaign take. Right. And I mean, of course our standard answer is it depends and two to three years, but it really depends on when you start counting. And I think that a better question might be, how long will it take us in active fundraising mode? So that might be narrowed down to 18 months, perhaps. The active fundraise, the quiet phase and the public phase.

Now we talk about a campaign, a capital campaign in seven phases, and only two or three of them are sort of active fundraising phases. There’s so much planning that goes on before a campaign.

So when do you start counting? How long will it take, but Andrea’s right. When are you going into that fundraising or campaign mindset? When is everybody at your organization on board with this idea that you are going to do something big. And sometimes that starts a year or two years before you ask for your first gift. So there is often a lot of preparation and planning, and sometimes identifying a project site or a new building. Lots of things happen before you ask for your first gift or really start to fundraise. And so it got us thinking about how long does it can campaign take? When does your campaign officially start? Is there an official start? Does it matter? And if you want our more cogent thoughts on this, you can go to our blog because we’ve also written a blog post that will be posted this week about the topic.

And we’ve shared some different ideas and thoughts there. But really got us thinking about this idea of how long does a campaign take. When does it start? Does it matter when it starts. It matters probably when it ends. So we also talk about this in campaign policies when the, what gifts count? When are the earliest gifts counted for a campaign in terms of donor recognition? When do you stop counting your gifts for campaign? So it’s a really important conversation that you need to have at your organization. It’s not going to be the same answer for every organization.

When Should You Start Counting Campaign Gifts

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So Amy, I have two things to say. One is thank you for kind of setting the stage. Nothing like jumping onto a stage that’s not there, and then having Amy kind of nicely set a stage under my feet. I totally appreciate that. But it’s interesting to think about when you’re going to start counting gifts. You just brought that up. And there are many campaigns that actually count gifts way before the campaign ever started.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
They decide they’re going to count a gift that came in three years before that was undesignated, and they’re just going to count it towards the campaign. The board decides they’re going to count it towards the campaign goal. Whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, I don’t know, but you can do that, but it should be documented in your campaign policies. That in the campaign goal, you are going to count the gift from Aunt Jesse that came in three years before through a bequest that matured, and that’s going to be the starting gift for the campaign. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. As long as you’re not doing it at the end to make your numbers match.

You don’t want to cheat at end. You want to be transparent about it, if you’re going to be counting gifts that have come in before the campaign. You just need to be sure everyone understands how you actually have gotten to your goal. And that you’re not, a lot of people kind of wiggle their way to a goal to have, make sure the campaign goal, they actually get to the goal. And I think you need to be clear and transparent, right from the beginning. You need to say campaign’s starting here, campaign’s starting there. We’re going to be counting gifts from such and such a date, or including such and such, in your campaign policies. I mean, that’s one way to look at when does your campaign begin?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I mean, frequently we’ll get a call and somebody will say, you know what? Somebody wants to give us a million dollars to do this exciting thing. And that sort of sparks and spurs the sort of initial campaign, because it becomes a reality in people’s minds when that first big gift comes in. So there’s some chicken or the egg type of does it start here or there, or how does it get started? When your board votes to approve the idea of a campaign. We sort of wrestle with lots of these ideas in the blog post. But I think it’s interesting to bat around and have a conversation about, and there’s probably not too many wrong ways, but there’s lots of right ways. Is that a way to think about it?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I think there are many, there are many timelines. You just need to know what it is you’re establishing a timeline for. And you could, so there’s a timeline for what gifts you’re going to count. When is the first gift going to come in that you’re going to count? And when is it going to end? That’s one kind of a timeline. There is what I think of as this mindset timeline, which in my opinion, is the most important timeline.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes.

Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

Andrea Kihlstedt:
What we see often is that people don’t think they can go to or talk to their largest donors until everything is perfect, until all of the details are set. They don’t want to look foolish in front of their largest perspective donors. And that mindset is just plain old wrong. You don’t want to be waiting until you’ve tied everything down, and you have fancy materials, and everything is official to start talking to your major donors. You want to start talking to them as soon as you know a campaign is heading down the road for, your organization is heading down the road to a campaign. And that’s the idea of a campaign mindset. That you want to be focusing your attention on not on making everything perfect and pretty, but on actually having robust conversations with the people who are going to be the ones that can make your campaign successful. And I think that’s just so important.

It makes you remember that it’s not just about asking for gifts. It’s about preparing to ask for gifts. And that is, in my opinion, probably the most important part of your campaign. So when does your campaign begin? Way before you ever thought it did.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. Way before. I think that’s such a perfect way of putting it. And for those of you listening, and this is a perfect opportunity to share this with board members who really don’t understand the importance of involving and including those key potential donors early in the planning process. So they can hear the ideas, the iteration, they can have some input, potentially influence. I mean, they may or may not. You won’t make the project what a donor says if it doesn’t work for you, but it’s a perfect opportunity to go get different ideas of different people in the community, rely on lots of different expertise, get donors to weigh in. I mean, you want to get these big potential donors excited about the project and the idea long before you ask them for a gift. They need to start being involved, invested, figuratively and literally, way before you ask them for a gift.

Always Keep in Touch with Your Largest Donors

Andrea Kihlstedt:
It’s interesting, Amy, because one of the thoughts that has been rolling around my mind about this topic is the question, well, why aren’t people in touch with their largest prospective donors all the time anyway? I mean, why does this mark a shift? Why should it mark a shift? So in here I think is an answer to that. That there are large donors, excuse me, large potential donors that you probably go to year in and year out for your annual fundraising or for this, or for that, or for the other thing. But you don’t go to them as thought partners usually. And because many of them actually don’t care to do that for you in the regular day to day operation of your organization. They’re busy. They may have many more bigger fish to fry. But when your organization is getting ready to do something really significant, to really jump forward, that’s your opportunity to engage them at the scale that they might be willing to be engaged.

And that I think is a really important distinction. Because you, for example, have lots of people who wouldn’t care in the least to serve on your board. Major donors. They don’t want to be involved in you, with you, but will they help if they think you’re going to be doing something significant, that’s going to let you serve the community in a much better and different way? Maybe so. So it’s not just your mindset that you should be talking to your donors all the time. The fact is that planning a capital campaign provides an opportunity to do that, that you don’t have in the year, year out fundraising. And you should grab it.

Amy Eisenstein:
So maybe a campaign starts when you have that first meaningful, deep conversation with a potential donor about a seed of an idea that maybe a year or two or three years away.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I like that.

Amy Eisenstein:
Anyways, this was a fun conversation to have. I think it’s smart to think about these things and will generate good discussion among boards, I hope, and staff members. So whether it’s this conversation or the post on the blog, I hope that this has been a worthwhile topic and conversation.

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