Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2001, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
“But how do we know this campaign will work?” wailed the executive director after a four-hour planning meeting. The goal: A $1 million capital campaign to renovate a recreation center, including installing state-of-the-art solar-powered lights for the tennis and basketball courts so people could play late at night. Prior to this meeting, we had spent three months outlining the case statement, creating the gift range chart, identifying some key prospects, and involving the board in planning and designing the campaign. At this meeting, prospects were assigned, three board members announced how much they were giving, and we set a launch date for the public phase of the campaign. I thought we were ready to go.
“I mean, how do we really know we will be successful?” she was practically keening now. “You could call the Psychic Hot Line,” I said, trying for a lighthearted note.
“I’m serious!” she wailed again. “What will happen if we fail?”
“Yes, what will happen?” squeaked the board chair who moments earlier had practically been ready to begin construction.
“We’re not ready,” said another board member who had just pledged one of the lead gifts and offered to ask for other lead gifts.
“We need more time to think things through,” the director, now much calmer, stated.
And thus another group talked themselves out of actually starting their campaign in favor of planning to start.
Capital campaigns are scary, and I think it is strange when a board member or staff person isn’t a little nervous about starting a campaign. But too often this nervousness is interpreted as “We’re not ready,” or the more nebulous, “This doesn’t feel right,” and the group aborts its start in favor of more research, more meetings, more adding and subtracting of numbers, and so on. It is at this point that many grassroots groups hit on the queen of stalling tactics — the feasibility study.
And so it was with the recreation center. They elected to pay a consultant $20,000 to study whether their campaign would succeed. The consultant talked to each board member, each of whom affirmed their support; he talked to the key donors, who expressed their support; and he talked to people in the neighborhood, who expressed their support for a place their kids could play even at night. The consultant estimated that the group could raise $750,000. After some discussion, the recreation center decided to do the campaign for $1 million and plan to borrow the last $250,000 rather than scale back their plans. In the end they raised $1.1 million.
I want to use this example to talk about what a feasibility study is and is not, and when and how a group should do one. I go on record now saying I am not against feasibility studies. I have conducted them, I have worked on campaigns that had done them and found them very useful, and I have worked on campaigns without doing them and have regretted that decision. But I have also seen people spend a lot of time and money on a feasibility study only to reject the information the study provided or to have a completely different fundraising experience than the study predicted.
A feasibility study is a survey of anyone whose agreement and support you would need to succeed in your capital campaign. Included in such a study would be prospective donors, board members, community leaders, and program officers at foundations and corporations that might be approached. The survey asks them to state anonymously what they think about your capital project and what the level of their support might be. Generally, the survey is done in three parts: a written survey sent to all the prospects who will be asked for major gifts, a phone survey to a smaller number of donors who will probably be asked for lead gifts, and a handful of in-person interviews or a focus group with key leadership.
The written survey consists mostly of structured multiple-choice questions so that the results can be tabulated. Once those results are in, the consultant looks for any pattern of response or issues that need to be clarified. The results of the written survey form the basis for the questions on the phone survey. On the phone, the surveyor can probe a little more, record anecdotes and examples, and even say, “Our written survey showed X. Do you agree with that?” The in-person interviews are optional; many studies don’t include them. They are usually used to help clarify the case or further probe any anomalies found in the phone or written surveys.
A feasibility study is complicated and time-consuming to conduct, which makes it expensive. The cheapest study will cost at least $5,000 and many studies run as high as $25,000. The size of the campaign will not correlate directly to the cost of the study because a campaign with a low goal will not necessarily involve fewer surveys or fewer phone calls. Because of the costs involved, these studies are usually reserved for large campaigns.
There is no need to do a feasibility study in the following situations:
- If you intend to do the campaign no matter what the study shows. I have known half a dozen organizations that spent money on a study only to conclude that the results (showing lack of support) were wrong. They proceeded with their campaigns — some succeeded and some failed.
- If you are going to use the study simply to find out whether or not you can make your goal. You can discover that easily enough by asking for lead gifts from qualified prospects before the campaign is announced publicly. If they all say no or give much lower gifts than you needed, don’t announce your campaign and go back to the drawing board.
- If your goal is under $2 million, the cost of a full-scale study is not justified. You can decide to do a written survey only or a limited phone survey if you have some specific questions, but what you really need is to go to the lead prospects and see what they say.
You will need to do a study when the following are true:
- The key leadership in your organization has a mixed reputation. I conducted a study for an organization whose executive director had been there 13 years. She was well liked, but as one key prospect said, “The organization has gotten too big for her and neither she nor her board can handle the responsibility of a building.” The study showed that unless the group made significant changes in staffing, such as hiring an associate director who could handle a lot of the administration and human resource issues the executive director was not good at, no one was going to contribute.
- Your building project may be controversial in some way. A proposed homeless shelter discovered that they would face major neighborhood opposition if they expanded in the way they envisioned. By slowing the process down, they were able to address neighborhood concerns with public education programs. Once that was done, the campaign proceeded successfully.
- You want to raise more than $2 million and you have never done that before.
- You want to know exactly what each person will give. Remember that when you get the results of your study, you don’t learn that Sally Jones can give $250,000. You learn that someone has the capacity and willingness to give $250,000. You will need to figure out who it is.
Let’s go back to our recreation center. They seemed to have everything in place, but then got cold feet. Once their study was complete, however, they proceeded with their goal with the confidence of having a back-up plan to borrow money should they fall short. They could easily have formed this plan without spending $20,000 on a feasibility study. They would simply have had to ask themselves, “What if we fall short?”
Sharp-eyed readers will also have noted that the recreation center raised $1.1 million — $100,000 more than they needed and $350,000 more than their study showed they would raise. Often feasibility studies predict a lower amount than the campaign actually raises. One reason for this is that many consultants prefer to underestimate than overestimate the amount that can be raised.
The main reason campaigns exceed their goals, however, is that it is impossible to factor in the effect of excitement on the prospects. It is very different for a prospect to talk on the phone about what theoretically they might do for a campaign, should it be launched, than for them to be asked in person by someone they admire. On the phone, a person is sober and serious, and not wanting to mislead. They name an amount that is perhaps a stretch for them, but that they feel confident they will be able to pay. Later, during the real campaign, a friend or colleague comes with a staff person to ask for their gift. They are excited and the prospect gets excited, too, and winds up giving more than they told the interviewer during the phone survey.
Perhaps on the phone a prospect said they wouldn’t give at all, but now they don’t want to be left out. Their objections, which seemed so big during the phone call, fade in the light of this campaign. This does not mean you should add on a few hundred thousand to whatever the study tells you, but it does mean that you can be quite confident that a well-done study will give an amount that is at or below what you can really raise.
How do you know any plan will succeed? The fact is, you don’t. You have a better chance of succeeding if you have a plan than if you don’t, and evaluating your success will be easier if you have a plan — in fact a plan is what makes evaluation possible. A feasibility study gives you an added measure of assurance and will help you define and counter big problems. When raising very large amounts of money, a feasibility study will allow you to discover the capacity of your donors in a way that would be difficult otherwise, since we have such a strong taboo about talking about how much money a person actually has.
In my experience, grassroots organizations that are able to raise the first third of their goal from four to eight people will raise the rest of the money to get to their goal. I advise groups to use that guideline as the most reliable indicator of whether their campaign will succeed.
If you want more assurance without having to buy a feasibility study, you can first talk to the people who would have to take the lead for your campaign to succeed. Tell them about the possibility of the campaign and ask what they think about it. Tell them you are “testing the waters,” or “getting feedback on this idea.” Make the conversation very casual, but pay close attention to what they say.
Make sure your board of directors is on board. If a board of directors does not want to work on the campaign, the campaign is going to go nowhere. People look to the board for leadership. Your board may well be made up of people who cannot make big gifts to the capital campaign. That’s fine. They need to make some gift, and they need to be involved in planning the campaign.
The best way to know if you are going to succeed is to take the time to plan properly as outlined in the previous two articles, then implement the quiet phase of your plan. The requests made during the quiet phase give you the most accurate information with the least amount of public risk.