March 24, 2013

Midcourse Reviews Can Make for Better Capital Drives

Nonprofits often raise more money when they review what's working and what's not

Photographs courtesy of Clemson University

When Clemson University overshot its $600-million campaign goal last year, it opted to push on and raise $1-billion. It stoked employees’ enthusiasm for the project at a staff retreat and hired more fundraisers.

In the middle of a campaign to raise $180-million, the leaders of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center got nervous. They had been counting on at least one gift of $25-million to meet their goal.

When that donation failed to materialize, they hired a fundraising consultant to reassess the campaign and determine whether it could still succeed.

“Someone told them they needed $25-million, and if they couldn’t find that they were doomed,” says Jim Kitendaugh, the consultant.

He advised the arts center to “set aside the mythology” that it needed a $25-million donation and figure out another way to raise the money. Among other contributions, including a repeat gift from a million-dollar donor, a wealthy individual who hadn’t been solicited yet provided $12-million, allowing the campaign to surpass its goal.

'Little Room for Error’

Midcourse corrections like the one at the arts center have become increasingly common in the charity world.

That’s partly because colleges, medical centers, and other wealthy institutions are seeking ever-bigger sums. But it’s also because the tough economy of recent years has often made it impossible to stick to a campaign’s original fundraising plan.

Some experts now believe big fundraising drives are unlikely to succeed without a midway review, whether it is conducted internally or by outside consultants.

“As goals get higher, you have more wannabes, and almost every president feels under pressure to have a billion-dollar campaign now, even smaller institutions,” says Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development at the University of Virginia. “There is very little room for error.”

Campaign Setbacks

Mr. Sweeney knows what he’s talking about.

He and his UVA colleagues were forced to re-evaluate the university’s ambitious $3-billion campaign more than once after it failed to cross the finish line as originally planned on December 31, 2011.

One setback was the financial crisis, which erupted at a critical stage in the campaign and caused big gifts to stall for 20 months.

Another was a public-relations crisis last spring when Teresa Sullivan, UVA’s president, was forced out and then reinstated, which further slowed the campaign’s progress.

“All of this was very challenging,” Mr. Sweeney says.

After extending the campaign’s closing date at least twice, UVA now expects to reach its goal in mid-April, more than a year after the original end date.

With such large goals, Mr. Sweeney and other seasoned fundraisers have found that reassessing a big campaign usually leads to hard questions. One is whether billion-dollar-plus campaigns, often championed by board members, can or will survive.

UVA, Mr. Sweeney says, could have declared victory after it ran into problems at the $1.4-billion mark; after all, that was the most ever raised by a public university at the time. But campaign leaders decided to press ahead with the bigger goal, Mr. Sweeney says, and that caused problems.

When Ms. Sullivan was forced out of her position, for example, Mr. Sweeney says he read in a news article that the board was displeased that the campaign had failed to reach its goal on time and held Ms. Sullivan accountable. That, he says, was the first he had heard of that concern, and it was more bad publicity for the campaign.

“If you don’t reach the target, there is some level of failure,” says Mr. Sweeney, “and we experienced the perception that the campaign had failed.”

Another reason giant campaigns are problematic: “The numbers are so large and make the institution look so rich that donors find it off-putting,” Mr. Sweeney says.

In the future, he predicts, “you will see less hoopla around the campaign” and more project-specific fundraising for smaller amounts. Already, he adds, UVA is planning another fundraising drive for a fraction of the campaign’s goal to help recruit new faculty members.

A Way to Inspire Gifts

Sometimes when a big fundraising drive falters, a campaign re-evaluation shows that the institution has done a poor job of pitching gifts in a way that inspires multimillion-dollar checks.

Ron Schiller, a former chief fundraiser at the University of Chicago who was recruited to revive its $2-billion campaign when it stalled at $1.1-billion, says, “You have to have inspiring causes, so I spent a lot of time shaping projects that would draw big gifts.”

For example, instead of simply raising money for scholarships, he says, the university set a priority of “removing the student-loan burden for every single low- and middle-income student, because they were graduating with tremendous debt.”

When presented with that goal, which seemed to make a real difference in the lives of students, a donor provided $100-million, enough to eliminate loan debt among the university’s neediest students for the next two decades. The campaign ended about a year later with $2.3-billion.

Better Than Expected

In other cases, a campaign re-evaluation shows that momentum is strong and it might be possible to raise far more than anybody expected. Last year, when Clemson University reached the end of its $600-million campaign with an extra $8-million, campus leaders decided to keep the drive going with a new $1-billion target.

To make it work, the university hired June Bradham, a local fundraising consultant—not so much to revive the campaign, but to re-energize the development staff.

“I was personally exhausted,” says Brian O’Rourke, Clemson’s chief development officer. “My brain was dead, and it took a couple months to get my mojo back. We had to stop and regroup.”

Finally, at a staff retreat with Ms. Bradham, he says, “this team found a way to get its energy back.”

At the retreat, Mr. O’Rourke and his colleagues decided they needed more employees to keep the campaign going. They made a pitch to the board to increase the development staff from 13 fundraisers to 40 and got it approved. Among other new hires, Mr. O’Rourke recruited two fundraisers to solicit bequests and other planned gifts and five people to focus on corporate giving.

Creating Momentum

Campaign reassessments aren’t just about finding a new way to reach the goal; they can also help an institution keep raising money long after a campaign ends.

The University of Denver hired a consultant to reassess its capital campaign in 2012, two years after publicly announcing it, partly because Scott Lumpkin, its chief fundraiser, had stepped into the top development job and wanted to figure out how to keep fundraising returns high when the campaign wrapped up.

But even before that, officials had to find ways to revive the campaign when it ran into doldrums after the 2008 stock-market crash. Their solution: telling donors that any gift to a new endowed scholarship would now be matched dollar for dollar with up to $35-million from the university’s coffers.

The matching offer wasn’t much risk to the institution since it was earning so little interest on money on its endowment, and the idea “created momentum to generate new gifts,” he adds. “It jump-started our fundraising and is helping us finish the campaign.”

While most campaign re-evaluations help, some derail a fundraising drive and prompt fundraisers to leave.

That’s what happened when the new CEO of a youth group on the West Coast re-evaluated its campaign and decided to “pause” it, according to current and former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. At that point, the campaign had raised $72-million toward a $150-million goal.

At issue was the new executive’s fear that the youth group would lose money if it proceeded with the campaign plan to build a new facility in a poor neighborhood, even though $21-million had already been raised for that purpose, says the former chief fundraiser. She says she left the organization soon after the campaign was halted.

Though the group had raised more than enough to pay for the new $20-million building’s construction and had plans for meeting its operating costs, she says, “the CEO and board members began to get nervous and said there wouldn’t be enough revenue from membership.”

That left the charity in a touchy situation with donors who had earmarked their gifts for the new building.

The former chief fundraiser says she had to return big grants from two foundations and large gifts from two prominent families for whom the building would have been named.

The biggest mistake the organization made, she says, was not spending enough time getting top officials ready for the campaign.

If board members had been more committed to the campaign, she adds, they would have been more resolute when the new executive, who had very little fundraising experience, asked for a campaign evaluation.

Flexibility Helps

Staff members and volunteers are often demoralized when a campaign falters, says Peter Fissinger, a fundraising consultant at Campbell & Company.

He describes one client, a private school he declines to name, that reduced its $100-million goal to $80-million because of the bad economy—and then hired his firm to evaluate whether even that goal was possible.

“People felt like they had failed and were beaten up,” he says.

Volunteers and staff members are often more fearful or embarrassed than they need to be when a campaign runs into problems, other fundraising experts say.

One solution is to end a stalled campaign and declare success for what has been raised. Or, as Mr. Kitendaugh, the consultant, says, “change hand wringing into celebration.”

More often than not, staff and board members are surprised when a campaign does not unfold as planned, but that situation is quite common, says Robert Hartsook, head of a consulting firm that bears his name.

“There is fear among board members about having to do it exactly that way,” he says. “I tell them I have never ended one the way it started. That is a big relief to them. If you go in with that attitude, you have the agility you need.”

Why Charities Put Campaigns on Pause

  • Economic turbulence keeps many donors from making large, multiyear commitments.
  • The campaign goal proves to be too grand (or too modest).
  • The institution needs more fundraisers to finish the campaign.
  • Pitches are not compelling enough to inspire big gifts.
  • Top leaders disagree about a campaign’s objectives.
  • Leaders exert pressure on fundraisers to keep raising large sums after the campaign ends.
  • New chief executives are skeptical that a campaign already under way can succeed.

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.