Conducting a campaign ‘post-mortem’

Edith Falk
Edith Falk

PJ’s Ret Boney talked to fundraising veteran Edith Falk about the importance of conducting a “post-mortem” after completing a capital campaign. Falk is chair and CEO of Campbell & Company, a national consulting firm, providing fundraising, marketing and talent-management services. She also serves as chair of the Giving USA Foundation.

Question: What is a post-mortem and why is it important?

Answer: A post-mortem involves taking an honest look back at the lessons learned during a campaign, both positive and negative.

Understanding what worked well and what didn’t is a helpful exercise moving forward, not only for your next campaign, but for your entire fundraising program.

Many organizations come out of a capital campaign having identified as much or more giving potential than they had going into the campaign. So, in conducting a post-mortem, be sure to look at how you are engaging both your donor and prospect bases.

Stewardship for donors is critical, but it’s also important to have steps in place to get in touch with those people identified as potential donors that you didn’t quite get to during the campaign.

To capture all the potential developed over the course of the campaign, you want to move everyone through the pipeline to a gift, to support some aspect of the institution’s program post-campaign.

A post-mortem is a time to look back at your volunteer leadership and determine who was effective and how you can engage them going forward, who was less effective and why, and how can you better utilize them in the future.

It’s a time to look at the systems supporting a campaign. Did the staff get the information they needed in a timely fashion? Do you need to revamp your database systems and your prospect-research efforts? What are the tools and supports you’d like to have going forward?

It’s a time to revisit the campaign budget. Did you spend money how you thought you would? Was the travel budget or the communication budget too low or too high? How was the return on investment?

And it’s a time to take a look at the campaign staff. Often at the end of a campaign, staff move on to do other things. How do you keep those high performers? Ideally, those conversations ought to take place long before the end of the campaign.

Q: When should a post-mortem be conducted and who should be involved?

A: Ideally, the process should be completed within the first three to six months after the campaign is concluded.

Depending on the institution, the process can take 30 to 60 days, although a post-mortem for a large university or other multi-unit organization campaign can take significantly longer.

In order to complete a thoughtful post-mortem in a timely matter, you need to assign the responsibility to an individual.

There’s so much energy that goes into getting to the campaign goal, then putting on a victory celebration event and wrapping things up.

If you don’t assign responsibility for the post-mortem before the campaign is done, it’s easy to shortchange the process.

Leading the post-mortem is a good role for a number-two or number-three person in the development office. While the development director likely won’t have the time to lead the process, whoever is in charge needs to have enough authority to get the needed information.

As a first step in the process, all senior development staff need to be involved in identifying the goals of the post-mortem, and should be consulted in follow-up conversations to get their perspectives on what did and didn’t work.

It’s also important to engage some of the key campaign volunteers, particularly the campaign chair or co-chairs, and perhaps even committee chairs, to find out if they felt supported in their work and what additional support would have been helpful

Senior staff of the organization, including the CEO, chief financial officer and chief marketing officer, should be involved, as should program staff who had a role in the campaign.

Sometimes when counsel has been involved with the campaign, conducting the post-mortem could be their responsibility. They can help shape the post-mortem, conduct interviews and gather, crunch and evaluate data.

Q: What are the steps involved?

A: The first step is to sit down with the entire development staff and talk about what data and information – both qualitative and quantitative – is required and where it can be found.

Then there’s the data collection piece and the field work, which includes conversations with key campaign volunteers and staff, as well as people who were impacted in some way by the campaign.

Once all the data are gathered, there is a period of evaluation when the information is synthesized and analyzed to discover what it all means and implications for the future.

There should always be a written report that contains the findings of the post-mortem, conclusions and recommendations for next steps.

Once complete, the report should be distributed in its entirety to the development staff.

However, it typically is sufficient to provide only the executive summary, which includes major findings, to key volunteers, the board and the leadership of the institution.

Q: What are the primary pitfalls in a post-mortem?

A: There’s always a possibility that you don’t ask questions in a way that elicits the feedback and information you need.

And sometimes you may tread too lightly around problem areas because you don’t want to hurt feelings.

While you may uncover something that didn’t work well, and find it necessary to restructure or move staff around, that’s not all bad. A post-mortem is about moving your operation forward.

Q: Once completed, how should a post-mortem be used?

A: Don’t wait until the next campaign to put your findings into action. A good post-mortem can tell you things about your ongoing fundraising program – about how you’re structured and how you engage volunteers, for example. Look at what you can put into place right away.  And use this information to help shape the plan-and timing-for your next campaign.

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