DickersonBakker Blog

Is Your Campaign Trigger Happy? Avoid the Dreaded Capital Campaign Slump

The Capital Campaign Slump. Nearly every nonprofit goes through it at one point or another. The culprit? Being trigger happy and going public too soon.

This slump happens in just about anything that requires endurance: marathons, climbing Mount Everest, starting a business, etc. They all have what Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” This is a pit of frustration and angst that can test your very being and that separates winners from losers.

One of my clients hit their slump at about 25% of goal. Seemingly, no matter what they did, the needle didn’t move. They were stuck and desperate for traction. Anything. When we are in such a place, most people reach for what is familiar, even when what is familiar is precisely the OPPOSITE of what will bring you success. In this case, my client really wanted to pull the trigger on the public phase of the campaign.

Now, I recommend “going public” when you reach 60-80% of the goal AND you know where the balance is going to come from. It can be hard to wait to fulfill both criterion. After a certain amount of time, steering committee members want to action. However, the timing of going public is more like changing your oil every 5,000 miles than scheduling a dentist appointment every six months. It is metric-based, not time-based.

Here are four negative consequences of pulling the trigger on the public phase prematurely:

  1. Leaving money on the table. Once the campaign becomes promoted publicly, major donors may interpret a community ask as an ask to them. It is rare to see a prospective major donor give on their own what you planned to ask them for. Instead, it is our job to help ask them to stretch for your worthy cause.
  2. If the “thermometer” is too low, small donors won’t go. What is a $5,000 gift when you only have $1 million raised toward a $4 million goal? Nothing. It’s a drop in the ocean. So why give at all? However, if you’re at 75% of goal, $5,000 is a step toward the finish line.
  3. Locking in the wrong campaign goal. In the quiet phase, you still have the flexibility to raise or lower your goal as needed. But once you announce a number to the public, it’s like a community pinky promise. You’re married to that amount, for better or for worse. Remember, if you fall short of the goal, your agency will be remembered as the one that doesn’t reach its goals.
  4. Ding! Game over! Did you know that announcing a capital campaign starts a timer to the end? Not a real timer, but one in your donors’ minds. For most campaigns/communities, that timer is somewhere between 6-12 months long. When the “timer” dings, forget it. You’re a lost cause and have lost the community’s confidence that the campaign can be completed. Don’t start that timer too early!

So, what happened to my client? At 25%, going public would have created a small blip of excitement and the campaign would have permanently stalled at 40%. Not a very attractive ending to the story, eh? Instead, respecting my counsel to stay in the quiet phase, they recently broke their stall, raising $120,000 in the last thirty days with more on the near horizon. They are gaining momentum again.

If you’re stuck in a slump, resist the temptation to go public early. Keep working your donor donor list and making your visits. Pull the trigger early, and you may end up shooting yourself in the foot.

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