Why Most Campaigns Are Long Term Failures

Some folks are going to be upset when they read this.

Reason?    They’ve invested their entire careers in campaigns, and for a bozo like me to come along and say that most campaigns are long term failures is a sword thrust to their soul.

But I must say it.   Here’s why.

Jeff and I have been saying over and over again in this blog that the whole thing is about donors – getting them, keeping them and loving and caring for them.  It is about relationship. It is about life.  It is not about one transaction.  It is a long term thing.

Key words:  LONG TERM.

By definition, a campaign is a short-term event.   There is a specific project and a time-limited specific goal.  And that’s where, in most cases, the problem starts.  I say “most cases” because I have met some fundraisers who have this right.

So, picture this.  A major gift program is humming along experiencing double digit growth from year to year but, because of budget, the manager decides they need to have a campaign.  So they hire these capital campaign folks to “do” their operational campaign – a time-limited, specific focus, specific dollar campaign.

Now, the major gift team is focused on making the campaign happen.  So they are talking to their caseload donors, not about an ongoing long term relationship in this great cause, but about whether they will participate in this campaign with a gift of X or Y.

Here’s where it gets really subtle and, unless you listen really well, you will not be able to hear the nuance that causes this whole thing to go bad.  If you listen well you will hear that the language is about a transaction, NOT about a relationship.  It is about filling a spot on a gift pyramid, NOT about this important cause.  It is about when this all has to be done in order to reach goal, NOT about outcomes and lives changed.

OK, hold on.  Stay with me.  Yes, all the relationship, cause and outcomes language is buried in there, but it is really campaign dressing, not core messaging.  It’s very subtle, which is why it’s hard to hear it.  But that subtle language is seeping into the relationship with your donor, believe me.  And that is something to be very worried about.

All this is happening because a manager somewhere is focused on the campaign, the timeline and the goal.  He or she is NOT focused on the donor, the cause or the outcomes.

In the retail world it’s like having a big sales event so you can grab the one transaction vs. grabbing the customer.  I know you have to do it – gotta reach that quarterly target!  But in the meantime,  you really haven’t brought the customer into the house and loved and cared for her.

And this is the tragic – very tragic – thing that is happening in a lot of campaigns.  Some managers and board members are very aware of this dynamic.  We recently had a non-profit in Philadelphia approach us on this very subject.

The manager, a highly skilled, donor-sensitive professional, wanted to be sure that their capital campaign was intimately linked to an ongoing major donor program that was donor focused.  The stated reason:  “So the donors giving to the campaign will see that they are a part of a living, ongoing program to support the cause we are both interested in.”  Brilliant!

I can’t tell you how many times we have performed donor file analysis for non-profits around the country in which we’ve seen a huge drop off in donors and giving after a campaign because the organizers of the campaign thought it was about dollars and goals vs. donors and cause.

Oh sure, they raise millions for the campaign and everyone is all giddy about it, whacking themselves on the back, giving each other high fives, walking around all puffed up.  Yup, it’s quite a high. And then the rest of life sets in and the MGO and other fundraisers are left to pick up the future.  Pretty depressing.

I have never been impressed with how many millions or multiple millions or zillions a campaign raises.  Never.  What impresses me is donor value retention over the LONG TERM.  That is real work.  That is real accomplishment.  That is discipline.  Keep a donor over a long period of time and you really have accomplished something!

And the thing is that very few non-profits are really aware of how donor value is just slipping away year after year.  To be clear, I am talking here about analyzing and being in touch with dollar values from the same donors year after year.  I am not talking about “body count”, i.e., how many actual donors have we retained.  Two different things.

So, the next time someone in your organization announces that he or she is considering a campaign, you have been warned about it!  Watch out and take care of those good donors.  And if you are right in the middle of a campaign, you still have time to influence the messaging and strategies.  If you don’t do it, I promise that your revenue will suffer in future years.

Oh, the organization I mentioned at the top of this post that has a very successful major gift program, but is now launching into a campaign…well, two things:  (1) the campaign will be successful – they have hired a group that knows their stuff, and (2) their major gift revenue will suffer in the year after the campaign.  I won’t be able to confirm this till 2014 or 2015, but I would bet a fair chunk of money that I am right.

In our post on Wednesday I am going to talk about members vs. donors.  Hmmm….  Which one is more important?  Stay tuned.

Richard

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About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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