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Season 2, Episode 27

In this episode, capital campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt provide reassuring tips and strategies for getting your capital campaign goes through unnerving quiet periods. Learn three approaches to breaking through the lull and getting your campaign back on track to success.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, February 21, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Today, we’re talking about stalled campaigns, what to do when it seems like your capital campaign has stalled. Now, Amy, I’ve been in this business for a very long time, as you well know. And as many of the people on this call know and I have been involved in a great many campaigns, and I don’t think I can remember one that didn’t have this sense somewhere in the campaign process that it had stalled. This uncomfortable, white knuckle, anxiety producing, right? Stomach churning.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Heart throbbing moments. Oh my goodness, we’re never going to get to the goal. What are we going to do now?

Amy Eisenstein:
Right.

What to Do When Your Capital Campaign Loses Steam

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s the topic. What do you do when that’s the sense you have? Maybe what happened is that you started out in a great situation because you got, let’s say, a million dollars in from a donor you have been working with for a long time and maybe you got a half a million dollars in, so your numbers started to shoot up and everybody was excited by looking at the numbers. And maybe you got a couple other large gifts in, and then while you kept getting gifts in, they started to be smaller, so the numbers didn’t go up.

Amy Eisenstein:
As quickly.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
As quickly, right? And you started getting a little uneasy.

Amy Eisenstein:
And the more people you ask, the more no’s or smaller gifts that you’re likely to get. Not everybody is going to give you the gift that you ask for, so people start to get anxious because you start to get a few no’s or maybe not no’s, but not the numbers that you’re asking for, so that is anxiety-producing, for sure.

Don’t Panic — This is Often Typical

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. And first of all, let me tell you all that this really is part of most every campaign’s trajectory. I mean, it just is what happens. Part of it is because of the way campaigns are structured, where you have a pretty good idea of where those largest gifts are, right? And once the campaign goes with some luck, you will bring them in quickly. And then you go down in your strategic order of solicitation, you were soliciting smaller gifts, so even if a lot of gifts are coming in, the numbers, as Amy said, aren’t going up as quickly, and it seems to people and it may seem to you as though, oh my goodness, are we in trouble? Right? Have I done something wrong? Have we done something wrong? What are we going to do now? Do I need to quit my job? Do I need to go to bed and put a pillow over my head? Do I need to go to the refrigerator, right?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes, the refrigerator. Oh my goodness. Yes.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So the question is what to do? That’s the question. How do we address something like this? And Amy, you want me to just start it and then pass it over to you? I do have …

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think it would be helpful to think through how do we know when it’s really stalled and how do we know when it’s just part of this natural process of things? So I don’t know if you want to start there or …?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, that’s where to start.

Amy Eisenstein:
But I think there is an important distinction. I mean, sometimes campaigns do “stall” and then there’s a strategy for that. Sometimes it’s just a natural slowing down of things and it’s part of the process and it’s not as panicky. How do you distinguish between them?

Check Your Gift Range Chart for Clues

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. I think Amy has raised exactly the right point, which is that you need to know how to distinguish between them, and the way to distinguish between them is to sharpen your pencil and get out your good old gift range chart, which should be the primary tool of your campaign and the associated depth chart, right? Which takes the numbers, the category, the levels of giving on your gift range chart and puts names associated with each level of people you will be soliciting. And if you’ve done your campaign right, you will have done a lot of work on this in the pre-campaign planning phase, in the very early part of your campaign because you will have done that as you’re trying to figure out what the goals should be.

So you have to pull … You can’t just put those away in a desk and think that they’re going to do anything for you if they’re in your desk drawer or are on your desktop hidden away when the campaign feels like it’s going to … It’s stalling, you pull those out and you start checking off. All right, what have we asked for? Which gifts have come in? What’s still pending and we just haven’t heard yet? What are the gifts that we … The donors that we know about that we haven’t yet asked? What are we lined up? How are we lined up to do those things? And when you take a close look at those, it’s going to give you a sense of whether there actually is a clear path towards your goal still, even if it hasn’t happened as quickly or immediately as it did with the first few gifts.

Amy Eisenstein:
I think that’s right. It is about campaign math, and that’s, I mean, to me, that is really what people need to understand to be able to tell the difference between truly stalled. If your depth chart says that you have two or three or sometimes four names per gift that you need to close the campaign, and these can be names of individuals, corporations, foundations, but real people, companies, or organizations that you’re going to be asking for gifts of each size gift that you need to get to your goal, then you’re not really stalled. You’re just in a…

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Lull.

Amy Eisenstein:
In a lull, yes. In a lull. In a valley. And so sometimes it might take that anxiety of oh my gosh, can we do this? To get you back on track and to get everybody meeting and all cylinders firing again so it’s sort of that good natural anxiety that gets you pumped up. If on the other hand, you look at your gift range chart and say, “Oh my gosh, we don’t have two or three or four names for each gift that we need on the chart.” The campaign math is not going to add up, and then you say, “Okay, we do have a problem.”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, and sometimes when that’s the situation, inexperienced people in this field and inexperienced board members will start to get a little panicky and think that the answer must be Oprah Winfrey, right? Or Bill Gates, or whatever rich famous person they happen to think of at the moment, right? We just heard about somebody like this actually on one of our calls today, where an organization thinks that the people who have the very, very wealthy foundation in town that they’ve never been in touch with and know nothing about their project, but that somehow they’re going to be able to go to them and ask them for $5 million on their campaign. And these people are going to say yes.

Well, that’s nonsense, right? They don’t have a relationship with them. Their mission does not align with the mission of the foundation. There are not people who are rich, who have a lot of money, whom you don’t know and don’t have a connection with your organization that are going to bail you out when it feels like your campaign has stalled. So you have to work your list. You have to work your pipeline, as our advisor Paula likes to say. When in doubt, when you’re having a question, go back to the pipeline. Who is still in the pipeline? Who haven’t you asked yet, right? What asks are out there and what can you do to sweeten the pot on those asks, right?

A Real-World Example of a Campaign Stall

With one of my clients recently, that was interesting. They had applied to an organization for a significant amount of money, and actually whether they get it or not will be very important to whether they can reach their goal. They don’t have four prospects anymore. They’re in the later stage of their campaign. So they brought this donor, this organization that they had submitted a proposal to the steering committee meeting, and they said to the people on that committee, they said, “If we get this, our campaign will be in very good shape to be successful. We can point our way to the rest of the campaign, but this is a critical gift, right? We need to do everything we can to get there.”

Well, lo and behold, after that meeting, several committee members it turns out had connections, had real personal connections with the people who were making those decisions, so they reached out to them and they started getting word back that the auguries … Is that the word? That the auguries were positive. No, we haven’t heard yet, but my guess is that they’re going to get that gift, and part of the reason they’re going to get that gift besides it’s being a good proposal, was that they brought it to the steering committee and said, “This is really important.” And steering committee members who were in a position to be able to help behind the scenes did just that. Now I’ll let you know on a future call what happens when I know. But it was a good example.

Amy Eisenstein:
These are all nail biters.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes, they’re all nail biters.

Amy Eisenstein:
Sometimes they’re nail biters, right?

Improper Campaign Planning: 3 Options to Proceed

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right, right. Now there is another situation, of course, which is that your organization didn’t do the work that it should have done on developing an appropriate gift range chart, and a depth chart, that you didn’t look and make sure you had a pretty good idea where the money was going into the campaign, and that you picked a goal that was higher than you were ever likely to reach, right? These are what we might think of as a hope and a prayer kind of organization, hope-and-prayer campaign, campaign planning, right?

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. Not our favorite strategy.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
No. I mean, hopes and prayers are fantastic but they work a whole lot better if you’ve really done the homework before you start hoping and praying. So if your organization, for whatever reason, and sometimes board members insist on going ahead in ways that aren’t wise or aren’t smart. Sometimes you simply didn’t know better. If you are in a position where you don’t see any way to get to the campaign goal, then you have two choices. Well, three choices:

  1. You can lower the goal.
  2. You can extend the timeframe for the campaign.
  3. You can do both.

Now to extend the timeframe and lower the goal, now you have to do your homework because if you’re going to lower the goal, you better lower it to something that it is really clear you’re going to reach, right? You can’t lower the goal and once again have a campaign that’s going to fail and extend the timeline by three months, six months, 12 months, 18 months. You can’t go out … Every campaign that goes out for 12 or 18 months or 36 months because they don’t know what to do, that is a failed campaign and that’s a bad idea. You have to bring the campaign to a close and you have to come up with a revised goal that is possible that you really know how you’re going to arrive at that.

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. And I think an important point is you’re not extending the goal indefinitely, or the … I’m sorry, the timeline.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Timeline.

Amy Eisenstein:
Indefinitely. You’re not saying we’re just going to do this for the next three to five to 10 years. You’ve got, as Andrea said, you go back to the drawing board, you do your homework, you do campaign math, right? You need to have certain number of donors or potential donors that are realistic, right? Not Oprah Winfrey, not Bill Gates, but realistic donors in your community who could and realistically might give those gifts that you’re looking for. And when you do, you put a timeline in terms of how long will it take you to solicit it, to solicit those people, and it can’t go out for years. Your donors, your community, you, everybody will get burned out, your campaign volunteers. So extending it more than six or 12 months is not a smart strategy. At that point, you may say, “We’ve got to lower the goal and scale back the project.” That’s what that means, lowering the goal. I know some people are sitting thinking, “Oh my God, how are we going to lower the goal?” So the project gets scaled back or changed or modified.

Making Your Decision

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Now there are a couple of things to know here, of course. One is that as a development director, or even an executive director, you can’t make these decisions by yourself, right? You have a board to report to. You probably have a campaign steering committee. You may have other committees that have been involved in these things, and you need to go to them and discuss your strategy with them. And you need to be very clear and straightforward. Say, “This is where we are. This is what we see going forward. This is what we think we can bring in, and this is why we think it.” Right? “And we want your permission to lower the goal. We want you in agreement on this.”

So this is a process. You can’t wake up one day and decide all right, we’re going to, we’re going to go from $10 million down to $4 million, right? That simply isn’t appropriate. You need to go through a careful and thoughtful process in lowering your goal. Your organization and organizational leaders will get behind you if the work has been done, right? If you have thoughtfully and carefully analyzed the situation and come up with a plan for how to move forward.

A Fourth Unorthodox Option

Now, Amy, I have one more strategy that I don’t want to leave out of what happens when your campaign really is stalled, and we do see this sometimes, and it’s kind of a hail Mary strategy, but I periodically advise people to do this, and that is declare success.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes, right? Wherever you’re at.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Declare success. Wherever you are, figure out what you’ve … How much money you’ve raised, realize how amazing it is that you raised that money, decide what it is you can make happen with that money, right? And celebrate the fact that you’ve done that, right? People will buy into your celebrating success even if you are short of your goal. So if you have to … Now I’m not advocating that as the primary strategy, but it’s better than letting a campaign go on for years unfinished, and we hear from organizations like that. Organizations get in touch with us, they say, “Well, we started a campaign in 2017 and we never got to our goal, and now we need to figure out what to do to close the campaign.”

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. We didn’t do the project.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right.

Amy Eisenstein:
We didn’t get back to the donors. We didn’t quite do anything. We never got there. This is not a good response. So everybody is frustrated, everybody is left wondering, the community is left wondering, but part of the campaign strategy is that you don’t announce an official campaign goal in the community until you’ve gotten to 60%, 70%, or even 80% of your goal. So that’s part of the strategy of preventing some of the embarrassment and community strife, whatever you want to call it.

We Can Help Steer Your Campaign Right

I think that some of the things that we’re talking about are so obvious to us because this is our business, right? We do campaigns for a living, and so designing a gift range chart and completing a depth chart where you attach specific names to each gift that you need, this isn’t something that you should be winging at your organization. I mean, there’s actually a reason that organizations use campaign consultants and campaign help because it’s hard. It’s complicated. And so if you feel stuck or confused or concerned or anxious, I mean, that’s normal, if nobody at your organization has lots and lots of campaign experience.

So it’s not something to take lightly. Oh, let’s just try and see if this works. That’s where organizations get into trouble because there is actually a strategy and there’s correct ways to run a campaign and then there’s winging it. And sometimes it works, but oftentimes that’s when we see people get stuck is they come to us and they say, “Well, we’ve raised 30% or 40%, and that was easy, and now we don’t know what to do.” And that’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s when it gets hard. And if you had designed the campaign correctly in the first place, and often it takes the help of a professional, if nobody at your organization has extensive campaign experience.

So, I mean, listen, we’re giving a lot of this advice away for free but we also have clients that are paying us to help them design and strategize their campaigns so that they don’t get into those situations. So if you, of course, want to talk to us, we want to talk to you.

So please do visit the Capital Campaign Toolkit website, sign up for a strategy session with us, send us an email, ask us your questions, and if it’s appropriate, we’d love to talk about how we do support organizations through campaigns.

Well, thank you for exploring this topic, Andrea. I think honestly, it’s such an important topic because everybody is worried about stalling or failing or not getting through their campaign, and there are ways to prevent it by setting it up correctly in the first place and doing a feasibility study and putting that solid plan into place. And then if you do get into trouble, there are different options to get out of it, depending on where you’re at. So thank you for that thorough and detailed explanation.

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