Feasibility and Campaign Planning Studies Still have their Place

(Deacon) Larry A. Vaclavik
(Deacon) Larry A. Vaclavik
An ordained minister in the Catholic Church, Larry understands service and servant-leadership. His personal faith grounds his work whether he is involved in a faith-based, interfaith or secular context. In every setting, he knows the value of our work is measured in the wisdom shared, the goals realized and the lives transformed. These are the reasons Larry is ready for every day and every challenge he faces as a Dini Spheris principal.


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In March of this year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article by writer Holly Hall entitled, “Author Says Feasibility Studies for Capital Campaigns Are a Waste”. The article is based on a forthcoming book by James LaRose in which he criticizes the time-tested practice of the pre-campaign feasibility study. In her article Hall writes,

“Feasibility Studies: the Crack Cocaine of Nonprofit Consulting” is just one of the provocative titles to chapters in James LaRose’s forthcoming book, which is beginning to get some attention.” (3/17/2015)

Hall continues to cite LaRose and others regarding some of the usual arguments against conducting feasibility studies: (1) organizations and their donors know the case better than any consultant, (2) consultants use studies to promote their next engagement as campaign counsel, (3) studies use money that would be better spent on mission and (4) consultants use studies to lead organizations into campaigning whether it is the right thing to do or not.

Over the years, others have criticized feasibility studies and questioned their value. For some, their objection stems from the number of study reports that relied on percentages and data related to canned questions in place of the studied insights of wise donors and skilled professionals. Some feasibility study reports are exhaustive listings of anonymous interview quotations with little serious analysis of deeper questions and issues that may surround an institution or its plans for the future. Still others are reports that seemed to be reproduced endlessly with just the change of the name of the client institution.

At Dini Spheris, we have approached the feasibility study process as an essential step in the campaign planning process and, in fact, often describe the study as the first step into the campaign. Dini Spheris consultants can be heard saying, “Once the study is launched, the campaign is effectively underway. All we need to do then is determine the goal and the strategy.” With our focus on (1) the discovery conversation with the highest capacity donors and prospective donors, (2) a genuine focus on donor engagement and listening and (3) a sense that the interview is indeed the first major gift call without a formal solicitation; we are able to conduct high impact campaign planning studies. Our studies have been known to change the course of campaigns and have effects which are felt to the last day of the campaign.

The president of the Mercy Health Foundation in St. Louis, Patricia Arnold, CFRE sees sure value in the campaign planning study process. She writes, “Mercy strives to make informed decisions with the interests of our patients and communities at the forefront. Campaign planning studies provide invaluable insights for strategic direction of capital campaign efforts. Careful planning allows Mercy to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us and better serve the needs of our growing communities now and into the future.”

In the world of professional fundraising consulting, we contend and do take a stand that not only are feasibility studies valuable, but in many cases they yield tremendous benefits to organizations and their campaigns. The following are eight reasons why campaign planning studies – our nomenclature for feasibility studies – are indeed valuable. These arguments are not true for all organizations, but they have applied in real life settings of organizations we have served.

1. Studies help organizations to clarify and refine their campaign goals, objectives, cost estimates and impact measures. In more and more settings today, organizations are too willing to hit the streets and start fundraising without clear objectives, solid plans and meaningful cost estimates. A well-managed study process can be used to lead the organization to better planning disciplines relative to the projects to be funded by the campaign.

According to Jim Rees, Chief Development Officer for the Sam Houston Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, “Our Council asked Dini Spheris to lead us through a campaign planning study for the improvement of our camps and endowment. We weren’t expecting the input we got from our board members, community leaders and potential donors who participated in the study. The vast majority of those interviewed told us that they would support the campaign, but they wanted Houston to be the best Scouting program and that our vision needed to be bigger. They also questioned an investment in a camp property that was dealing with significant encroachment issues and challenged us to investigate if this was the best way to move forward. We followed this advice and appointed a committee to determine if our camping vision was adequate and if our investment in our current camp property was the best long term strategy. Through this committee a new Camping Vision Statement was created and the determination to relocate our camp was made. We have now realized a major dream of building a new camp, almost doubling our Council endowment, and we have laid the groundwork for our Leaders of Tomorrow Campaign. This campaign planning study that Dini Spheris conducted changed the history of our Council and it was transformational, not just for our campaign, but for the entire Council.”

2. Studies can help organizations to right-size the campaign goal. The study process, if well-executed, can help organizations to avoid the mistake of embarking on a campaign based upon leadership bravado or upon inflated goal setting. Too often in our highly competitive world, institutions compete for philanthropic standing through competitive campaign goal-setting. The study process can help lower or raise the campaign goal based on a realistic reflection of the philanthropic marketplace, institutional positioning and the surrounding economy.

Our Temple Our Future Campaign Co-Chair and President of Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El , Mark Zilbermann said, “Early in our campaign planning we asked Dini Spheris to test our campus renovation goals in a feasibility study. Our total project cost estimates were over $60 million. At the end of the campaign planning study, Dini Spheris recommended $25 – $30 million so we went back to the drawing board. We are so glad we did. After four years, we just crossed the $35 million mark on our $32 million campaign. We think we can raise $2 million more. At that time, we will be ecstatic that we have the campus our community deserves and the largest and most successful campaign by far in our history. Without this campaign planning study, we might have blindly tried to raise $60 million which we know today was well beyond our capacity.”

Sometimes right-sizing means increasing the campaign goal, as was the outcome of the campaign planning study conducted on behalf of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in Dallas. Looking forward to its first capital campaign, CASA tested a goal based on its strategic plan objective of supporting 2 of 5 children in protective care in Dallas County. An interview in the study process with a foundation trustee challenged CASA to consider helping all of the children in the system. This interview led CASA’s leadership to regroup and accelerate their strategic plan so that every child in protective care in Dallas County would be served by 2019. They increased the campaign goal from $27 million to $37 million so that they could hire more supervisors to train volunteer advocates. As of the writing of this article, Dallas CASA has surpassed their tested goal by $7 million, raising $35 million toward their $37 million campaign goal.

3. Studies help to identify, engage and lead to the recruitment of campaign leaders. The campaign planning study process can demonstrate a level of institutional professionalism, preparedness and confidence that can move the reluctant potential campaign leader to say yes to serving on a campaign leadership committee. There are few motivators for prospective leaders as powerful as serious and intentional listening before the campaign is fully planned and launched.

On more than one occasion, studies have given Board members, donors and friends a chance to air questions, raise concerns and even express doubts about the role that they could play in a campaign; only to have these same interviewees take on the roles of campaign chairs or leadership committee members.

4. Studies teach the craft of campaigning. One of the tremendous benefits of the study process is the engagement of the institutional CEO, volunteer leaders and the advancement staff in the study planning, execution, oversight and evaluation. Sometimes subtlety and at other times directly, the study process introduces these key players to the campaign messaging, case, positioning, relationship dynamics, strategy and more. The study for many is a “school for campaigning” that helps to form stronger campaign leadership on both the staff and volunteer side.

5. Studies help to identify new, lost or forgotten prospects. In today’s analytics-driven marketplace, donors and prospects are sometimes overlooked because they lack the right profile for the organization. Studies consistently identify outliers who can, with cultivation and care, be enlisted as major donor prospects. Numbers of disenfranchised former donors have returned to the institutional fold because of the quality of listening that has taken place in a study interview. In a world in which so much time is spent mining data, the study process can help mine and find lost gems.

6. Studies set the stage for crafting creative campaign strategies. There are clearly models for the conducting of campaigns from the nucleus fund to the public launch. At the same time, institutional age, history, geography, mission, membership, leadership, campaign objectives among many other elements can impact the shaping of the right campaign strategy. Studies help consultants and institutional leaders to shape the right campaign strategy to fit the unique characteristics, context and circumstances of organizations planning a campaign.

7. Studies can uncover internal institutional dynamics and challenges. Sometimes there is discontinuity between the experience of key leaders and the realities of institutional fundraising and capacities. Campaign planning studies often unearth such challenges early and provide a context for creative problem solving before an institution finds itself wrestling with internal challenges in the midst of a campaign.

8. Campaign planning studies raise money! Time and time again, well-conducted studies led by experienced and talented consultants have led to specific gifts and pledges being committed to a campaign – from both prospective donors and suspects. The campaign study process often involves conversations that establish the confidence prospective donors need before making major, lead or transformational gifts. It is not uncommon for campaign lead gifts to flow from the discovery conversations that are part and parcel of a campaign planning study process.

According to Judith Pepper, Executive Director of the Brazosport Health Foundation, “During the study, our first $1 million dollar donor was identified which increased the hospital CEO’s decision to proceed with the campaign. The Dini Spheris team conducted a planning study for our hospital after twenty years without a formal capital campaign. Dini Spheris’s guidance, knowledge and personal commitment for the campaign to succeed encouraged the volunteers to excel in building relationships with new donors, resulting in completing our goal before the deadline to receive a foundation’s challenge grant. Dini Spheris will always be included in our significant fundraising design and planning.”

These eight reasons suggest that there is merit in the feasibility study/campaign planning study model. These reasons assume a well-directed, disciplined and donor-centric process that is focused on the discovery and cultivation of major prospects. Of course, poorly executed studies conducted as surveys without much creativity do deserve to be challenged. At the same time, the best campaign planning study process makes room for creativity and is responsive to the unique settings of client institutions. A consultant’s interview cannot replace the work of serious relationship building among an institutions funders and family. Yet too many institutions lack the experience, wisdom, insight and expertise to go it alone. For these institutions, the feasibility study/campaign planning process is an essential first step in a successful campaign.

As Gordan Thibedeau, President and CEO, of the United Way of Larimer County summarized his experience of the campaign planning study process, “As I contemplated a Major Gifts Campaign, I went into our work with Dini Spheris thinking I knew what they were going to get from their interview process. I was surprised to learn that my preconceived notions were seriously off base. Their process provided us with the insightful information we needed to inform our next steps and, I believe, set the stage for a successful campaign. We would not be where we are today without the thorough and professional efforts of Dini Spheris.”

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