The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

Our work on campaigns with hundreds of different organizations, of all types across the US, gives us a unique 30,000-foot view of evolving trends in fundraising campaigns. Here are some recent observations:

1 – Too many campaigns are launched without completing the proper pre-campaign planning work.

Pressure to get started is very real with a very real impact.

It doesn’t matter if the pressure is coming from a President, senior staff person or volunteer leader; pressure on the development office to start a campaign “NOW” is increasing. Even experienced campaigners rarely understand all the precampaign work that is required to launch and execute a successful campaign. They fail to understand that the campaign is added to the workload of an already busy development office. None of the other fundraising activities stop when you start a campaign. The result is a campaign launched before the necessary plans, staffing, policies and systems are in place to adequately support it.

This rush negatively impacts the pace and success of the campaign, and has a trickle down negative impact on all other fundraising areas.

2 – Peer pressure is driving organizations to pursue larger goals, no matter the cost.

I recall my mom asking as a kid “if your friends jump off a bridge would you do it too?”

I can’t tell you how many times we encounter an organization that is basing its campaign goal on what a peer/competitor raised in their campaign. Projects are added to the campaign to reach the number, rather than based on strategic objectives. Often, the goals are unrealistic, but leadership is determined to “keep up with the Joneses”. In these cases, we see unhealthy strategies.

Some organizations continue to extend the campaign timeline until they reach the goal – as long as 10 years in one case. Talk about donor/volunteer fatigue. At ten years it’s safe to say your campaign is stalled.

Liberal accounting is another symptom. Organizations abandon best practices and count everything, including the kitchen sink, in order to reach the goal. Life insurance at face value on a 24-year-old alumnus is one of the more egregious examples.

Perhaps most damaging, reaching the campaign goal based on extending the timeframe and fuzzy accounting and not having the money to fund the objectives of the campaign.

3 – Campaign Chairs are an endangered species.

Musical Chairs? It has been a trend for some time, but it is increasingly difficult to recruit leadership to serve as a Chair for a campaign.

This was first observed right after the recession and was attributed at that time to increased pressure at work and a fear of failure in a challenging fundraising climate. But, it has lasted well beyond the immediate post-recession years. Many campaigns launch without a campaign chair. Sometimes co- or tri-chairs are recruited to spread workload, and there are campaigns that are executed with a Campaign Executive Committee or Cabinet providing the top-level leadership, never naming a chair at all. This is not necessarily a bad trend, but one that needs to be taken into account.

4 – The donor pool is shrinking.

More money, fewer donors.

In campaigns of all types (annual, capital, comprehensive) fewer donors are contributing, but more money is raised. This was noted in the recent Giving USA findings. It is causing some panic among those who place high value on participation rates, but it is real and it is happening across sectors.

5 – Everybody wants a bigger endowment.

Every organization – even a start-up we met with recently – wants a bigger endowment.

This is natural, right? I want a much, much larger personal endowment myself. You must be able to justify why you need a larger endowment and how it will impact your mission. And no, “So we don’t have to raise as much money every year” is not an answer that will excite donors. It is perfectly ok to want more endowment, but you must be able to validate how that endowment is vital to advancing your mission or to serving your constituents.

Have thoughts on these trends, or maybe a few that I didn’t discuss? I’d love to hear from you. Email me and let’s discuss.