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Season 2, Episode 40

Campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt talk about how to handle campaigns that look as though they won’t be able to reach their goal.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, May 23, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Welcome everybody. I’m Amy Eisenstein, I’m CEO and co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. And as always, I have my colleague and co-founder here, Andrea Kihlstedt. And today we are going to be talking about what happens if it looks like you are not going to reach your campaign goal. And we will be hitting on several topics today, strategies, which will help you get to your campaign goal, and also what to do once you’ve strategized, and perhaps it looks like you won’t reach your goal. So that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next, how many ever minutes, 20 minutes or so. Andrea, why don’t you kick us off?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Thank you, Amy. Yes. This is Andrea Kihlstedt calling in from the South Bronx, New York City. And this is such an important topic because capital campaigns are created and designed to enable you to raise the most amount of money possible for your project at that given time. Now, let me just restate that so you think about it carefully. They are designed to help you raise the most money that is possible to raise for your project and your client right now, right at that time.

Set Your Campaign Goal High

Now there are a couple of consequences to that. One, is that in the beginning of your campaign, when you’re just getting going, the appropriate campaign strategy is to shoot as high as you possibly and reasonably can, not to choose a timid goal, not to choose a goal that is small because you’re sure you can get there, but to choose a goal that is really quite ambitious and have the courage to actually head in that direction. Now, why do we do that? Because donors, particularly our largest donors are going to adjust their giving or may well adjust their giving proportionately to the goal and to the excitement of the project that you put out there. So if you put out a middling goal, a small goal and a timid project, you are likely just by doing that, to shrink the gifts that your donors would make. So begin your campaign process by selecting a goal that is a little off putting, a little breathtaking, a little —

Amy Eisenstein:
Heart-stopping.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Nervous-making. A little heart-stopping. Right.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. This is your chance to dream big, to think big and get your donors to come along with you for that big vision that you’re going to have. It’s not a time for small visions.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Now, the consequence of that of course, is that there may well be a time when you have solicited most of your large donors and you find out that some of those donors didn’t give the gifts that you hoped they would give. And that’s a sobering moment in a campaign when perhaps you were hoping a donor would give a million dollars and they only gave half a million dollars for example, and you’re not quite sure what to do with that. And the reason that happens some is because you chose the high goal to begin with.

So first point is yes, choose a high goal, have the courage to do that because when you get to the point in your campaign where you are kind of worried about whether you actually are going to be able to get to that goal or not, there’s several important strategies for you, so that you’re going to come out with your head high, no matter what. Amy, you want to start us off on that?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think that people are very nervous about setting a high goal because they think then not reaching it is failure. And we try really hard to not see it that way. First of all, when people do aim big and reach their goals and surpass it, it is so exciting for the community, for the organization, for the donors, for everybody. And honestly, it’s much more likely that donors will rise to the occasion when you have a big, exciting goal and a big, exciting vision as Andrea said, than if do sort of the bare minimum, then there’s nothing exciting to do. They’re not going to dig deep for that. And so part of being in a campaign is thinking big. But sometimes that also means that you may have overshot, whatever that means. Right. There are strategies.

There’s data to look at, at the beginning in setting your goal, but it’s part art and part science. So sometimes you do aim high and perhaps you find yourself that you are stuck or that you haven’t gotten some of the biggest goals, gifts, I should say that you were trying to do. So what are some of the strategies? So there’s a couple of things that we work with our clients on when they are feeling stuck, which honestly happens in lots of campaigns. In most campaigns there’s ebbs and flows. And the beginning’s very exciting. Those early gifts come in and then things perhaps sometimes start to slow down.

So what can you do? One, is revisit some of those lead donors to talk to them about who else you can talk to, what strategies they have, what else they might contribute. You might go back to donors who said, no, at the beginning. Some people don’t want to be the lead donors, but they are happier giving once the giving has begun. And so if you went to them right at the beginning and they weren’t quite sure, you can always go back to some of those donors. Another thing is to really think about who else is on your list that you haven’t approached yet. And what are the strategies going to be for those people? Andrea, what am I missing?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, we’re talking about the downside of this, right? That you shoot high and then you find that some of the responses are disappointing, but the other side happens too, which is that you shoot high and you find positive surprises that because you’ve had an exciting, inspiring idea, and you’ve had the courage to put a big number out, you might find that some of your donors actually have given more than you anticipated that they would give. So I just don’t want to leave that out because it really does happen, which is one of the reasons you need to start with a big goal.

Amy Eisenstein:
I actually think that that happens more often than the other.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes.

What to do When You May Not Reach Your Campaign Goal

Amy Eisenstein:
And we may not have framed this conversation well. I’m trying to think back how we should have framed it better because we want to address when organizations are feeling stuck or it looks like you might not get to the goal. But the reality is that the vast majority of campaigns do get to their goal when they plan well, when they have the strategy in place, when they have evaluated their donors, when they’ve done a good feasibility study. So, it’s an interesting topic for us to address. I think the reason to address it is that everybody’s worried about it, right? But the reality is that most people don’t find themselves or at least don’t find themselves in the situation for long, because there are so many strategies to get you towards your goal when you’re feeling stuck.

And like I said, there’s peaks and valleys to every campaign and motivation slows down and everybody gets tired. And so then what are you going to do to sort of get back on track? Reinvigorate the donors that you have and the donors you haven’t been to yet. But I think your point is a good one, both that it’s important to aim high because it’s more likely that you’ll get there than if you aim low, you’re going to only get to low or lower. That’s to me, that’s the bottom line, right?

If you aim low, you’re going to get to low or lower. If you aim high, you probably will get there or somewhere in between the low and the high, which is a great place to be in a campaign. I don’t know if you want to say any more about that, but then we should talk when people really do get stuck, because sometimes the goal has been set so high, which we encourage honestly, and people can’t get to it.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah.

Amy Eisenstein:
What do we do then?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, let me add just a couple of things before I move on to that, Amy. One, is people might be wondering, well, if you’ve done a feasibility study, don’t you know, aren’t you pretty sure? And the reality is that if you’ve done a feasibility study, no matter what kind of a study, some of the people you talk to are not going to want to give you solid dollar indications. So it is still somewhat of a guessing game, not as much of a guessing game as if you hadn’t done a feasibility study, but it’s still somewhat of a guessing game. So let me put that aside. I guess the other thing that I want to address here is this, that during, and we’ve said this before, but I think you need to remember it, that during this, what we call the quiet phase of the campaign, when you’re actually soliciting all of these large, largest donors, you have not yet publicly announced your campaign goal, you’re using what in the field we often refer to as a working goal or a draft goal.

That’s why we don’t encourage you to have a campaign brochure too early. That’s one of the reasons that we encourage you not to do that. So that you can be talking to your donors about their gifts based on a working goal where you mark everything draft so they understand that it might change. So that if you get to a point where you’re concerned that you actually, you may have overshot the mark, you have a perfectly reasonable solution, which is that before your campaign kicks off, you will consider lowering your goal.

Amy Eisenstein:
Before it goes public, which we refer to as the kickoff.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s right. That’s right. Yes.

Amy Eisenstein:
So before you go public and kickoff the public phase, then you will have an opportunity to adjust your goal and adjust your plans, right? I mean, we always want our clients to have a plan B and plan A is the dream, right? The big, big dream. But imagine that the big dream is $15 million. That gets you all the bells and whistles, the state of the art building, complex, whatever it is. And sort of the low vision is eight million, right? So between eight and 15 million. Let’s say you go for the 15 million and then you come in at 14. Is that a failure?

In my mind, that is not a failure. And as long as you’ve been working with that 15 as the draft goal, the working goal, and everybody understands that there are many ways to have this amazing building and a few things may need to wait. That’s okay. You have built this amazing new program, new project. Just because you didn’t get to the dream goal doesn’t mean you didn’t accomplish your goal of having this new state-of-the-art facility. Maybe it’s missing some of the bells and whistles. To me that is not a failure. That is a resounding success so.

Adjust Your Campaign Goal as Necessary

Andrea Kihlstedt:
People think there is shame in lowering the goal, right, before the public phase of the campaign. But quite to the contrary, I mean, I worry about the organizations that do campaigns, where they choose a goal that is so safe that they never encounter, kind of disappointment at the top end. If you’re not encountering some of that disappointment, you’re not shooting high enough in my opinion.

Amy Eisenstein:
And then what happens is you won’t be asking for big enough gifts and you won’t raise as much as you possibly could at this moment in time. And that was how Andrea started this conversation, is a campaign is about seeing how much you can possibly raise and going for it. And if you don’t go for it all the way, you will raise your safe goal, but you won’t raise as much as you possibly could have. And that’s an important distinction to make. Alright.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Amy, let’s talk a little about what this goal setting process in the beginning should be like, because it’s not a matter of saying, oh, there are some rich people in the country who have a lot of money. And if we just go to them or the big corporations around the country, they’re going to give to us. You can’t think that kind of, that’s magical thinking and magical thinking does not work.

You have to develop your goal based on, sort of fueled by your courage to think as big as is reasonable to think. And really solid analysis of who is in your community, who the qualified donors are in your community, that you believe have a reason to give and the ability to give at the high levels that you are envisioning. Then from that you can develop your campaign goal.

So these are not outrageous dreams that we’re encouraging you to take on. These are goals that come out of a lot of work, out of actually looking carefully at your donor base, looking carefully at your prior fundraising results, looking carefully at who the largest prospective donors that you already have built a relationship within your community are. And then sort of pushing those ideas to the edge of what you think might be possible. Right. And then you’ll have a goal that actually you might reach. If you’re saying on the other hand, well, there’s got to be somebody in the world who’s going to give, who’s going to love our cause, right? That’s not what we’re talking about. I just want to be really clear about that.

Proper Planning and Good Strategy Matter

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we have a specific strategy, steps that we take in helping people identify their specific goals, their campaign objectives, how much they’ll cost and putting together that plan that we then test, of course, in a feasibility study. And so we are testing and starting with the biggest goal possible, and then there’s strategy to help you get there.

Now on the occasion, we did start with the topic of what happens if you’re not going to get to your goal. Well you’ve set up things in place like using the working goal and not announcing publicly your goal until you are through the silent phase, the quiet phase, and you have a pretty good sense of what you can reach, but what happens when it looks like you’re not going to make whatever the goal is? There’s a couple of different things we can do. You want to start?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well yeah, sure. One thing I think you need to do is to sit down in the cold light of day and do a serious analysis of what you think is possible. You need to look at the donors who have already given to you at the highest level and see if you might go back to them to ask them to increase their gifts and a standard way to do that is to invite them to add another year onto their pledge. If someone’s pledged a gift over three years, you might say, would you consider paying the same amount in a fourth year and increasing your gift that way? So one is to imagine what it would be to go back to your big donors and ask them to consider increasing their goal.

The next thing you should do is to look at all the people you have not yet been able to solicit for one reason or another, or all of the gifts that you’ve solicited, but you haven’t yet gotten a firm answer from. So you need a number for that. You need a number for how much can you really account for in the broad base of your campaign. Now be aware. It’s really tempting to think, well, we missed a half million dollar gift at the top. We’re just going to make that up at the bottom. That’s not what’s going to happen. You need a really careful and thorough look at how much money you can raise through the broad base of your campaign. And what you’re going to find is that it’s very difficult to raise lots and lots and lots of gifts of $500 or $1000. It just doesn’t happen that way.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. Let’s give an example of that, right?

So if there’s somebody at your organization who says, well, we didn’t get a million dollar gift at the top, one of the million dollar gifts we needed, but now we’re going to do a direct mail piece and make that up, figure out how many, $250 gifts it would take to do a million. And you’re going to find, you’re not even sending the mailing to that many people, right? And so you can say with confidence, we’re not going to get there, it’s mathematically impossible. Right. So run the numbers. How many people are likely to give you a $100, $500, $1000, whatever it is. But that broad base appeal is not going to make up for those gifts at the top. So, but in some instances, right, hopefully before you go public, but sometimes even after you go public, if maybe you’ve gone public too early, or you didn’t have the Capital Campaign Toolkit strategy when you did it, sometimes you do have to lower your goal.

And sometimes you need to extend the timeline. And those are two other strategies. You don’t want to extend the timeline too long, because people are going to get burned out, your donors, your volunteers, your clients, everybody, your staff are going to get burned out. But if extending the timeline by six months because you need to solicit another 30 people in person will help you get to your goal, then sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to extend the timeline. And other times it’s time to call it. And you lower the goal and say, this is what we were able to accomplish with the money we raised. Even though we didn’t get to this, we got to that and we were able to accomplish that much of the goal. All right, what else do you want to say before we wrap up this part of the conversation Andrea?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I have one more thing to say, which is that to do this well requires a remarkable combination of skills or temperaments. On one hand, you have to be willing to take some serious risk. You have to be willing to let your inspiration drive you to just the edge of what’s sensible, right? And that takes a certain kind of a person who’s willing to do that. On the other hand, you have to be very analytic and really understand what the potential is and to be willing to shift and change what your approach is in keeping with what’s really going on and what’s possible.

So we’re asking you to do two things that seem like they’re in conflict with one another, just in terms of how people function. And the people who are the best at this capital campaign business actually managed to do both of those. They managed to be aspirational. They managed to be enthusiastic and excited and reach for the stars. And then without blinking, they’re willing to adapt and adjust as the reality becomes clearer. And if they do that graciously, no one’s going to say to them, gee, you didn’t get to the $15 million goal. They’re going to say how exciting that you raised $14 million, we’re all for that.

Amy Eisenstein:
And look at what you were able to accomplish with $14 million. And that’s what you need to promotes. Look at what we were able to accomplish with what we did raise. And then you will have had a successful campaign, whether you get to the actual goal or not.

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