Reaching for the stars? Do your homework first!

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

Today, I am focusing on a post that John wrote that was inspired by the following quotation from Robert Browning:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?”

He uses Browning’s words to springboard off into two significant issues that every non-profit organization confronts during strategic planning.

  1. How lofty should the strategic goals be?
  2. What capacity building efforts need to be undertaken to support the new vision and strategic goals?

If you’re a non-profit professional who dislikes strategic planning, I suspect that John’s blog post might speak to you. I also suspect it will give you a much-needed new perspective before heading into your next strategic planning initiative.

While it is tempting for me to use John’s post to get on a soapbox and pontificate about strategic planning, I will resist doing so and instead talk about annual campaign planning.

As many of you know, I spent the last six years working with countless non-profit organizations on planning, implementing and evaluating annual campaigns. During the planning process, there are a variety of decisions that must be made including how big is the fundraising goal.

My approach has always been to starts off conservatively:

  • Identify prospective donors
  • Evaluate capacity to give and propensity to give
  • Set a suggested ask amount based upon what the prospect is likely to give (factoring in who is asking, giving history to the agency, and state of the relationship between the organization and prospective donor)

After going through all of these gymnastics, we have a spreadsheet with names and ask amounts. It is at this point that I urge the planning committee to sum the column of ask amounts and then divide by two.

Why divide by two? First, not everyone is going to say ‘YES’ to your request for a contribution. Second, not everyone who agrees to contribute will agree to the give at the suggested ask amount. Third, we sometimes miss the mark when setting suggested ask amounts.

This approach flies in the face of Robert Browning’s quotation and John Greco’s blog post.

But wait . . . there’s more!

Looking around the planning table, the sight isn’t pretty. Campaign volunteers are usually a little upset. All of that work and the goal seems small. The executive director or fundraising professional is wringing their hands and they look nauseated.

It is at this point that I like to introduce the idea of “reaching for the stars”.

In my opinion, timing is everything. To introduce the idea of reaching for the stars, before everyone has a realistic view of organizational and campaign capacity, is irresponsible.

Truth be told, this is my favorite part of the annual campaign planning process. Campaign volunteers are chomping at the bit to talk about what needs to be done to increase the size of the campaign goal. The following are just a few of the questions that get asked and answered:

  • How many more prospects need to be identified and added to our prospect list?
  • How many more volunteer solicitors need to be recruited?
  • Does the case for support need to be strengthened?
  • Is there more cultivation or stewardship activities that should be done prior to the solicitation that would maximize the chances of getting what we need to reach our campaign goal?

These are engaging and powerful discussions that are tons of fun to facilitate!

Finally, these conversations always end with a robust discussion about how the new annual campaign stretch goal should be included in the agency’s budget. This is where it gets interesting.

Some folks are conservative and advocate for budgeting the original smaller goal. Others want to go for it and budget the whole amount.

Over the years, I’ve given lots of different sounding advice to a number of different organizations. However, the common thread has always been that you need to have “skin in the game”. If you don’t hold yourself accountable to reaching the stretch goal, then you’ll never reach it.

Human beings normally don’t accomplish things unless we absolutely have to do so. Behind every audacious vision has been an urgent and pressing need to do it. So, whatever you end up budgeting, it needs to feel like a bit of a stretch.

In conclusion, I encourage you to set an annual campaign goal that is a bit of a stretch, but whatever you do don’t just pull the number out of the air or apply a percentage increase over last year. Do the hard work around prospecting and evaluating propensity and capacity, then conservatively divide everything by a factor of two or three.

It is only at this point that everyone will be ready to reach for the stars and focus on those capacity building questions that are necessary for success!

How has your organization set its annual campaign goals? What has worked or not worked for you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section because we can all learn from each other.

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on August 31, 2012, in Fundraising, leadership, nonprofit, organizational development, Planning, resource development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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