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In Praise of Pragmatic Fundraising Campaigns

FCW 10.27.20

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.

“I’m not sure if our campaign is sexy enough.”

I can hardly count how many times I’ve heard this worry from a client over the years—a potentially self-defeating apprehension that their campaign isn’t exciting, sparkly, or new-and-different enough to attract serious consideration from donors.

We can all picture the kind of campaign they’re imagining—the glitzy temple-building project where you get a name-brand architect, recruit all the biggest names in town to your committee, print a 30-page brochure with bold statements over gorgeous renderings, and build a landmark new building that you probably can’t afford to operate and might glimmer-glamour you to the brink of insolvency in the next recession.

Those campaigns sure can be fun. But they were never more than a highly visible fraction of successful campaigns to begin with, and their true heyday was probably all the way back before the Great Recession.

They certainly aren’t going to be the norm when we emerge from our bunkers and cautiously begin planning the first wave of post-pandemic campaigns.

2021: The Year of The Pragmatic Campaign

We’ll get back to our sky-high aspirational campaigns in time, but for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need an awful lot of fundraising initiatives that help organizations recover from the setbacks of 2020, adapt to new realities, and reclaim a confident future for their missions.

What does that kind of sensible-footwear, extra-cupholders, phone-holster-on-belt campaign look like in practice?

  • Shoring up financial reserves, recapitalizing missions, and building endowments
  • Pragmatic renovations to get more use and more years out of a building you already have
  • Investments to sustain proven programs and make them accessible for more people
  • Incremental program innovations that extend your reach and adapt to your community’s needs

These are campaigns that set achievable goals and make strategic use of resources. They don’t make news and don’t win awards—but they sustain your mission and keep your promise to your community. And I don’t care what anyone says about “sexiness”—these pragmatic campaigns are still just as handsome as the day we met them.

Keys to Success

What does it take to succeed in a campaign like this?

Inasmuch as these are back-to-basics campaigns by nature, all the usual campaign fundamentals and best practices apply. That said, there are a few distinct guidelines for approaching this kind of campaign with confidence:

1. You don’t need a centerpiece capital project

It’s a funny paradox in our business: When you start a campaign without a flashy building project, people in the organization feel certain they’d be more confident if they had one.

But when you start a building-driven campaign, everyone is at pains to say that the campaign isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar—it’s about what the building will do and the kinds of programs and mission impact it will support.

Mostly what this tells you is that campaigns are hard and the grass is always greener. But the second group of people do fundamentally have this right: most strong campaign cases are about mission impact. And capital projects can actually be harder cases to make in that respect, because they’re so dang expensive.

Did you know it costs like $20 million to build a multilevel parking structure? Compared to investing in programs, staff, outreach, scholarships…bricks and mortar can start to look like an awfully expensive and indirect way to change people’s lives.

So build a confident case about what you’re going to do for people in your community, and don’t worry if it doesn’t involve any fun building projects.

2. You do need a vision

While your pragmatic campaign may not feel “visionary” in the sense of being wildly aspirational or transformational, a clear sense of vision is still what makes a campaign a campaign.

Your case must give donors a vivid depiction of the future your campaign will build—a sense of before-and-after that they can understand through a simple message, picture in their minds, and feel instinctively drawn toward without a lot of additional explanation.

In practice, your campaign vision can be quite simple and concrete:

  • to double the number of families we serve within five years
  • to renew our home facility to support the next 30 years of our mission
  • to ensure that financial barriers don’t stand in the way of a great education for the next generation of students

Even the dourest debt-relief campaign needs a sense of vision—a sense that it leads to a future we all want.

3. Consider different “campaign” structures 

The structure and definition of a “campaign” is a lot more flexible than we sometimes realize, and sometimes it’s not the right framework at all. This might be a time to lean into that flexibility:

If you mostly just need to rally your closest friends to help recapitalize your mission or fund a few specific projects, maybe you can dispense with the public phase of the campaign or simply consider it a “major gifts initiative” that doesn’t require the full branding and broad-based communications infrastructure of a community-wide campaign.

If you were about to launch an aspirational campaign before the pandemic but now have more immediate needs, perhaps you create a phased campaign in which Phase 1 gets your organization back on solid footing with mostly insider-y support from current and former board members, leading directly into a Phase 2 that expresses your grander ambitions.

If you were previously planning a comprehensive campaign with a traditional multi-year phased structure, perhaps you rally your broader community immediately for easily-understood priorities like scholarships or hunger relief, while running a more targeted major gifts initiative for special projects in parallel.

The possibilities are quite open-ended, and you have considerable freedom to design a strategy that best fits your needs, priorities, and donor opportunities.

4. Keep the case and the communications simple

Campaigns are communications efforts as much as fundraising efforts, and they have vital communications goals that can be just as important as the dollar goal. For a back-to-basics campaign, a simple communications strategy can deliver what you need:

  • Stick to the heart: In times of tumult, focus your messaging on the heart of your mission, the people you serve, and your continued vital role and relevance
  • Don’t overcomplicate the story: Equip your fundraisers with a simple case that boils down to a few absolutely clear core messages
  • Keep your materials simple: Start with one highly versatile, well-developed cultivation piece (potentially in deck format) that can support a range of uses, and supplement it with supporting resources like talking points, FAQs, and one-pagers for particular projects as needed

In total, these guidelines are a reminder that campaigns are supposed to work for us, not the other way around.

And even in what might feel like the most inhospitable terrain for visionary fundraising, we have a clear opportunity to advance initiatives that deepen our donor relationships, restate our missions in clear and powerful terms, and strengthen our footing for the visionary future beyond.

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Andy Brommel
Andy Brommel
About Andy Brommel Andy Brommel leads Campbell & Company’s communications consulting and creative services, manages our Communications team, and serves on the firm’s management team. He also leads our thought...
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