Sometimes the best way to answer a question is to look at it from another perspective. Our Campbell Chats bring together our diverse team to talk about the toughest questions facing nonprofits today. By looking at these questions from several points of view, we share our expertise with each other—and with the nonprofit world!
Duncan Reilly, Marketing and Business Development Associate: Hello everyone, and welcome back to our Campbell Chats series! Today we’re going to be talking about all things campaign public phase—going through some of the big questions that institutions face when they take their campaigns public.
First question: Going public with a campaign can be a communications decision, a strategy decision, and a marketing decision as well as a fundraising decision. How do you decide when it’s time to go for it?
Julia McGuire, Executive Vice President: It’s a very complex decision, which is usually driven by the necessities of project timing. But you also need to consider how much you’ve raised, your progress on reaching out to major gift donors, your community’s awareness of your organization, and many other factors.
Caitlin Bristow, Consultant: Setting goals at the beginning of the campaign is critical. Although things shift based on progress, staff changes, leadership, etc., it’s important to have a guidepost. The number of donors in the pipeline, the buzz in the community, the building and construction timeline, and other factors will help inform the “go public” date.
Susannah Young, Senior Consultant, Communications: On the communications front, there’s a lot of upfront work involved. This is your opportunity to make a big splash and tell the whole world about your exciting plans—which generates a lot of additional work for your communications staff that you’ll need to plan for.
But you’ll also want to be strategic about how and when you talk about your campaign, and to whom. It’s advisable to make a communications plan specifically for the public phase before you launch into it, and I usually advise clients to begin working on that plan about a year before they decide to go public.
Kelsey Nelson, Consultant: Agreed. I think in the best-case scenario, the marketing and communications staff work hard to lay the groundwork for public phase communications and marketing strategy nine to twelve months in advance of when the fundraising team thinks the right moment for the launch will be.
Getting prepared early means you have all your multi-channel messages ready to go when you feel ready.
Julia: To Caitlin's earlier point, “going public” can mean different things in different vertical markets. In some situations, your community may already know about your project(s) and going public is really about starting your broad-based fundraising. In other areas, this may be the unveiling of a project.
Susannah: Absolutely—the former is especially true in the independent school sector where everyone knows everything about everyone and everything. Broad knowledge about your campaign plans doesn’t have to box you in from a communications standpoint, though.
A campaign can be a nice inflection point to think about ways to refresh your campaign messaging, so communications feel new, distinctive, and different even if most of your community already knows the big secret.
Kelsey: In cases where the main project is already public, I often hear the question from gift officers, "What will change since we've already shared our plans with the community?"
I think it's important to note that the biggest flip is in control: the organization is no longer initiating all of their campaign conversations, and instead people will be making decisions about how they may or may not fit into the campaign on their own. And Susannah, I think that's where a thoughtful communications plan is especially important.
Susannah: Agreed. Power to the people opens up so many opportunities on the communications front.
Duncan: Let's talk a little more about how the communications strategy shifts—starting with the initial case that you've used in the quiet phase, how do you adapt that messaging to a broader audience? What are the important considerations?
Susannah: The process is different for every client and campaign, but it starts with thinking about your new audience: who’s going to be hearing about this campaign for the first time, and what will engage and motivate them?
You’ll need to shift the campaign messaging to speak to folks who may not be as close to your organization and its work.
Julia: And sometimes that can means focusing more on the introduction to the project and less on the specifics. In the face-to-face meetings, you get to add detail and expand on your communications materials. In the public phase you don’t. Every piece has to be able to stand alone.
Caitlin: Leading with progress is important and motivating. The community can feel (and understand) that they can make an impact regardless of size of gift. If you can share a construction timeline and progress updates, you should—people love to watch time-lapse videos!
And even if you’re not raising funds for a building, it’s important to share how your organization impacts the community, while also getting specific about the impact of this campaign. Impact- and outcomes-based messaging tactics are important throughout the campaign but can be especially effective in the public phase.
Susannah: Adapting the messaging for different communications channels comes into play here, too. You’ll need to think about how you take that case statement or that glossy brochure and make that language work on, say, Twitter.
Duncan: Julia, you made a good point about how the public phase often includes less face time with donors. With that in mind, Board members and campaign volunteers are mainly tasked with connecting with donors on a peer-to-peer level in early campaign phases.
How does their role evolve when you’ve got a much bigger group of people who you’re soliciting? Keeping in mind that there's still major gift activity going on in the public phase.
Kelsey: One of the fun things about going public is that you have access to lots of new channels! How can you use your volunteers as ambassadors on your social media channels, in videos, letter-signers, etc.?
Caitlin: Volunteers can be highly effective at events and in tailored follow-up outreach. They can also conduct specific outreach to higher-level prospects in combination with mailings or other broader-based solicitations. A touch point like a phone call or email from a peer can go a long way!
Kelsey: Yes, and you have an opportunity with the public phase to engage new volunteers who weren't in the inner circle during the leadership phase and make them feel like insiders.
For example, in higher education, you might create a young alumni group and/or a student council to help with outreach to those audiences.
Duncan: Looks like we've got time for one more question. You're talking to a chief development officer who's planning the public launch of their campaign six months from today. What's the number one piece of advice you give them?
Susannah: Start planning your communications strategy NOW.
Kelsey: Revisit your existing goals and think about setting new ones. Review your pipeline, confirm your dollar goal, and then consider how else the public phase can set your organization up for success in the future by spreading awareness and engaging new donors, even at the entry levels.
Caitlin: Create a matrix with all constituents. Determine what is going to resonate with each and plan your communications for the next 6 months.
Use what you have, engage staff members to take the lead on different communication channels, and use fresh, new volunteers to take ideas and projects and run with them. Treat this as all hands on deck!
Kelsey: Oh yes—find roles for all of your staff and get them excited about the energy and opportunities for creativity the public phase of a campaign can bring to every aspect of the organization!
Caitlin Bristow is a dedicated consultant and thought leader around philanthropy in the higher education and independent school sectors, focusing much of her work on alumni giving and digital philanthropy. Her client partnerships have included several campaigns' public phases, all of which ended successfully.
With more than 27 years of experience as a fundraiser, Julia McGuire has led fundraising programs in several sectors and helped hundreds of institutions meet their campaign goals. Julia especially excels in volunteer management and enjoys the opportunity to help nonprofit organizations leverage their most committed stakeholders for greater fundraising achievement.
Kelsey Nelson has served colleges and universities, arts organizations, independent schools, human service institutions, and professional societies in her tenure at Campbell & Company. To each partnership, she brings her perspective as a former Annual Giving leader on how fundraising plans can include a public aspect to their fundraising plans, as well as her skills in building capacity.
As a senior member of our Communications Consulting team, Susannah Young creates messages and materials that help drive home the human impact of fundraising projects. By working closely with internal and external stakeholders, she can partner with clients to build excitement and engagement—skills that serve her well in her work on public phase communications plans.