The post-recession capital campaign

Bob Zimmerman
Bob Zimmerman

PJ’s Ret Boney talked to fundraising veteran Bob Zimmerman about the recession’s impact on capital campaigns and how best to launch or revitalize a campaign in the wake of the downturn. Zimmerman is president of Zimmerman Lehman, a fundraising consultancy based in San Francisco.

Question: What are the most important things to keep in mind when launching a capital campaign in the wake of the Great Recession?

Answer: The single most important thing to remember is there’s still a great deal of philanthropic money out there.

I have to deal with the recession every day. I can see that it has had an impact on nonprofits, but not the impact they think it’s had.

It’s true that private giving went down in 2009, but it still was more than $300 billion. Can we make it on that? I think so.

Some organizations think they shouldn’t launch campaigns until things get better. But what does that mean?  It’s not as if a new day will dawn at which time everyone will know that “better times” have arrived.

Since there is money available, I believe the main issue is confidence. We’re finding that donors are somewhat reluctant to make commitments because of their personal situations, but they are still interested.

So campaigns are getting longer. But that’s not necessarily a problem. If you solicit someone for a gift, but they can’t make a commitment right then, then you simply need to turn solicitation into cultivation.

Fundraising is not a quick-fix business. It’s a process of cultivation over time.

Skimping on fundraising, particularly cultivation, is akin to a for-profit company cutting its advertising budget during hard times. If you haven’t planted the foundation for when things get better, then you’ll be way behind the curve.

As a fundraising consultant, I’m a professional cheerleader, so my advice is to get out there and tell your story as compellingly as possible. If you do that, the money will be there.

That said, one difficulty is that most capital campaigns require money by a particular date. If you’re going to pour concrete on a certain day, you need a certain amount of money.

But even with that I remain optimistic. I believe nonprofits often are their own biggest enemies. For too many organizations, the recession provides a reason not to ask for money.

If you look at the revenue streams for nonprofits, the revenue producer that has taken the biggest hit is foundation grants. But individual donors still have money.

Capital campaigns are rooted in major individual donors and that’s still where the action is. It’s time to do the research on who the best donors are and go after them.

If a nonprofit is dedicated to doing a major-donor campaign and doing it the right it the right way, they’ll be successful.

Q: What is the right way?

A: First, fundraising is not a stranger-based business, it’s a relationship business. Who do we know personally and have access to?

It’s very simple: Prospective donors will make contributions to nonprofits where they know people and where they’re being kept informed of what’s going on.

The willingness to put the arm on friends, relatives and colleagues is the major point here. Often board members are afraid of that.

Good major-gift fundraising begins with preexisting relationships. Board members and development officers must be willing to exploit the connections that already exist.

Second, board development is key. Think about who else you can put on the board who has money and has the ability to go after money.

Fundraising isn’t the only thing a board is about, but it’s an important thing.

And third, organize the campaign intelligently.

Put together a committee with the primary responsibility of soliciting major gifts. They should be people who love the organization and have good connections.

Determine whom to ask and who the best people to make the ask are. Then develop a solid case statement. Also be sure to train the solicitors so they can ask comfortably and effectively.

Q: Now that the recession seems to be waning, what is the best way to reenergize a capital campaign that’s already in progress?

A: Bring new blood onto the capital campaign committee.

I don’t believe in donor fatigue, but I do believe in solicitor fatigue. If people have had bad experiences in asking for gifts, they burn out.

The chair of the committee and the executive director need to get together and figure out who else to bring on.

Also, nonprofits don’t do enough meetings with the committee to celebrate successes. It’s such a psychological game – if we bring people together and tell war stories about successes, we can build confidence.

Sometimes it can help to bring in an objective third party to help out with some of those psychological barriers if a campaign is stalled.

Q: Have you seen any recent successes?

A: I recently helped with a campaign for a big social-services agency that is buying and renovating the building it currently leases.

They just completed the campaign with a combination of major gifts, modest individual gifts, foundation grants, and federal, state and county money.

They went out of their way to make sure people from all over their geographic target area were part of the effort. They had a large and wide-ranging committee and they understood the importance of diversifying the funding base.

The United States is an extraordinarily philanthropic country and even in bad times, the amount of money given is jaw dropping. If nonprofits are willing to do the hard work, there’s no question they will prevail.

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