Six Things We've Never Said to a Client

Read Time: 5 minutes

10-7-20 fundraising communications header

The state of the world has made us want to connect with more of you, more often. For the rest of 2020, the Campbell & Company Communications team is sharing a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from our work.

Whether it’s thinking about how to approach fundraising communications against the backdrop of current events or tackling an evergreen challenge we see time and time again in nonprofits across the sector, these articles focus on practical tips to empower fundraising leaders in their day-to-day work. Subscribe to the series here.


In addition to working with clients on case development, campaign branding, and all manner of fundraising communications projects, our Communications team also pitches in to help write the firm’s final reports for campaign planning studies and development assessments. That means that we get a front-row seat to all the strategic guidance our fundraising colleagues are giving to nonprofits every day.

Want to know what’s in all those reports? Alas, confidential. But I’ll tell you what’s in none of them.

Every Campbell & Company report is full of unique recommendations that arise from the unique goals, strengths, and challenges of the organization.

Yet across hundreds of these reports, there are still a few spots on our "report bingo" card that we’ve never called. (Maybe once or twice, but such office legends are hard to verify.)

Herewith, six things we’ve never, or almost never, said to a client:

1. Your qualification process is great!

Some organizations are great at cultivating and soliciting donors. Some are great at stewardship. Some are rich with identified prospects. Yet very few excel at qualifying prospects—analyzing and engaging the identified prospect list to determine which have the best capacity, interest, and inclination to move along to active cultivation—and almost none dedicate sufficient time and energy to it.

We get it—qualification is time-consuming and does not lead to immediate dollars. It’s exactly the sort of thing that ends up in the “important but not urgent” death zone.

The result is a pipeline with a core of top prospects you take very good care of, an ocean of potential prospects who might be viable but haven’t been qualified, and a yawning gap between.

If this sounds like you, do not despair: Our fundraising colleagues just collected all the best qualification practices they’ve seen in recent years and pulled them together into a comprehensive guide.

2. You need to spend less time on major giving and more time on events

Events are joy-filled highlights of many organizations’ years and can fulfill many purposes beyond fundraising…but as a way to raise money, they’re about as staff-intensive and cost-intensive as it gets.

That’s not just how it feels in the exhausting lead-up to a gala…it also bears out in the numbers: Typical ROI of a mature major gifts program can easily exceed 500%, while most events programs generate returns in the 50-150% range.

Of course, events are also packed with opportunities to introduce new prospects to your organization, connect with top prospects, open the door to a next conversation, and generate follow-up contacts that build relationships—so they can be an important part of a major gift cultivation program. In fact, from a fundraising perspective, that may be their best use.

A rule of thumb: Don’t do any more fundraising events than you can fully integrate into major gift cultivation: planning contacts for all key attendees, assigning staff and volunteers to engage with them at the event, and ensuring personal follow-up outreach for every major prospect in attendance.

If you don’t have the time to coordinate follow-up with that potential new donor your board member brought to the event, it’s possible you need more capacity for individual relationship building…or fewer events.

3.  Congratulations on making full use of your database!

If we’re going to shell out for a donor database instead of just chilling on an equivalently priced private island, we should probably at least try to get the full value out of it.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a database master to do this. Like all enterprise software, you can get about 80% of the possible value from figuring out 20% of the features.

In particular, focus on making full use of the basic relationship management features—tracking the cultivation strategy, assigned partners, target solicitation and timeframe, past actions, and next actions for all of your actively qualified prospects—and set up simple reports that allow you to pull up-to-date views of your overall pipeline, near-term projections, and relationship manager portfolios.

The rest comes down to day-to-day discipline with data entry/maintenance, usage, and training across your team.

4.  Your volunteers told us they feel totally comfortable articulating your case!

Every board contains between zero and three magical creatures who can knock a case conversation out of the park using only their own instincts, knowledge, stories, and skill.

The rest need volunteer friendly resources—distilled case messages in conversational language, talking points and FAQs—and training/coaching that includes practice with real-world scenarios.

No matter how impressive they are in their professional lives, your board members aren’t experts in communicating on behalf of your organization until you give them the support to do so.

5.  Your vision and case are good to go!

The basic problem with case development is that it’s nobody’s job—in fact, it’s the only existentially significant part of a fundraising program that isn’t anybody’s job.

Like qualification, it also bears the cursed mark of the important-but-not-urgent. As a result, most organizations need the forcing event of a major campaign to get them down to the task of rethinking and articulating their case for support.

In truth, there’s almost always something that would benefit from a little work.

If you’ve got a powerful high-level vision already sorted out, you might still need to work on the concrete plans and details. If your plans are solid, you might still need more work on translating them into a complete case.

Almost every organization would benefit from putting a little more time and thought into the case messaging that drives all of their fundraising activities—and that’s why we created our Fundraising Communications article series and webinar series!

6.  You have too many fundraising staff

I’m not saying it never happens, and we’ve all heard of a few scandal cases in which massive fundraising infrastructures and lavish spending seem to absorb the bulk of the giving they drive.

But the typical organization out there today hasn’t built its fundraising capacity out to anywhere near the point of diminishing returns—especially if the organization’s fundraising strategy and management are sound.

Of course, it’s very possible to underachieve relative to one’s existing staff capacity, and many organizations need to make fuller use of their staff before thinking about adding more.

And there are sometimes political complexities in building the fundraising staff while other areas of the organization have compelling staffing claims of their—especially if they’re facing staffing cuts.

But if you’ve got a big pile of identified prospects you haven’t had time to qualify; if half of your major gift portfolio doesn’t get regular attention and cultivation; if you’ve never gotten around to building out a robust planned giving program; or any other like scenario…you probably could turn additional staff capacity into greater fundraising results.

In every case, the best way to make the case for further staffing is to drive strong returns with the staff you have, build a credible strategy for future growth (which doesn’t have to involve a campaign), and remind your leaders that the ROI on a healthy fundraising program is vastly greater than any investment anyone can buy in the stock market!


Someday we’ll probably finally write the report that delivers one of these findings to an organization—and if you’re that organization, drop us a line and tell us your story! But until then, there might be some lessons for all of us in the curious never-happens of the fundraising world.