Through our work as capital campaign consultants and a fundraising consulting firm, the members of Custom Development Solutions (CDS) are, at any given time, talking with representatives of dozens of non-profit organizations across the US and Canada. Serving as the hub for that much dialogue allows us to make observations and draw conclusions about the charitable industry. Out of that analysis we provide our current and potential clients with feedback as to how they can best conduct their fundraising and capital campaign operations. That professional objectivity is a luxury for us, and a resource for the organizations with which we communicate.
One of the most difficult tasks we have is to encourage non-profit organizations to dream big. Charities often prefer to think very conservatively, and rightly so. Non-profit groups have very little margin for error, and therefore decide to avoid risk of any kind. They are dependent upon individual donors whose charitable decisions have a very direct impact on the charity’s ability to function. When charities take risks, they wager their ability to serve a population dependent upon them, often for the bare necessities of life.
Nonetheless, non-profit organizations are often the groups making the most innovative strides against the issues prevalent in our society. Charities often employ highly skilled staff members who bring to their work a level of passion that is missing among many for-profit companies. They attract volunteers who use their own passion to amplify the efforts of the professional staff. A committed donor base can empower the charity financially to reach as far as possible.
These are the very resources to which we direct a charity’s attention when we begin talking to them about a major capital campaign. So often we hear the leadership of a charity talking about a tremendous amount of need for their services, but the fundraising effort they are considering only addresses half that need. When we probe to learn what is keeping them from going for the brass ring, we often find a conservative philosophy that prevents them from seeking much beyond their immediate grasp. With a little coaxing, and an objective analysis of the resources lying dormant within their base of supporters, we are often able to raise their sights to a much higher level, one commensurate with the full scope of their mission.
There is a great saying I see from time to time that illustrates the mentality to which we try to steer organizations: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? It is a tremendously liberating thought, setting the mind free to wander down paths that might previously have been off limits or restricted. This is the basis from which a non-profit should conduct its “dream sessions”, fantasizing about how they might best serve their constituencies if there were no limitations on their resources, no doubt of their success.
It seems that we rarely hear such daring in the proclamations of any organization, much less non-profit groups. We are conditioned to “under promise and over deliver”, and there is no crime in that approach. But there is a certain magic in starting off from a bold declaration of your intentions
Some years ago, Rotary International declared that it would eradicate polio on Earth. Not fight polio, or eradicate polio in all but the least-developed nations; they asserted that polio could simply be made to go away. Is it a coincidence that a dream of that magnitude and grandeur attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable support, surpassing all fundraising goals set for the campaign? Despite the passage of years, and the stubborn refusal of polio to loose its hold on the world’s darkest corners, Rotary continues to raise tremendous sums of money to achieve this dream.
Beginning the capital campaign plan and fundraising process with a “no limits” approach can yield tremendous success, if the organization then tempers those visions with a detailed analysis of what is feasible, given the organization’s current base of support and infrastructure. We talk with organizations all the time that err on one side or the other of this critical balance. Many groups are content to maintain the status quo, believing (falsely) that it is possible to just chug along in third gear for the rest of their organizational lifespan. Many other organizations have tremendous dreams, but no basis in reality for suspecting they have the slightest chance of achieving those visions.
The well-organized and well-led groups walk a fine line between those two realities. They encourage themselves to dream big, and then achieve the fullest measure of their dreams based on their objective capability. They execute well-managed fundraising campaigns, which have at their core a case statement that communicates a profound opportunity to make a difference. They attract the strongest possible leaders because they present bold solutions to challenging problems. They secure tremendous financial support because donors want the biggest bang for their buck and want to make a real difference.
A lot has been written, and should be carefully read, about the need for beginning a major fundraising campaign from the objective starting point of a thorough feasibility and planning study. However, that is not to the exclusion of some grand unfettered dreams about the difference your organization can make in the world. Have faith in yourself and your mission, know that you have the power to succeed and attack your organization’s dreams with abandon. In short, go for it!