What is the best way for a nonprofit to launch a capital campaign?

Nancy Dunleavy

By Nancy Dunleavy

If you’re an astronaut, you know you’re ready to launch when NASA announces, “All systems go!”

If you’re Kung Fu fan, you know it is time for the student to launch when he can take a pebble from the hand of Master Kan.

But if you’re a leader in a nonprofit organization, only a feasibility study can tell you when you are ready to launch a capital campaign.

Feasibility studies are designed to determine your organization’s readiness and the probability of achieving the campaign goals. They typically take between three and six months because they involve surveying employees, board members, volunteers, and potential donors.

For a nonprofit planning its first capital campaign, a feasibility study is essential. Among the many potential pitfalls to be identified and addressed are insufficiencies in staffing levels, board support, volunteer capabilities, and donor commitment.

Successfully completing a capital campaign requires an entirely different kind of fundraising than nonprofits use to solicit typical annual donations. In most cases, you’ll be asking for larger sums of money. So you need to determine if your supporters are willing and able to give more. Savvy donors may well ask if a feasibility study has been done before making a large donation.

Having successfully completed a previous capital campaign does not ensure that a new campaign will achieve its goals. You may be more confident in your ability to raise funds because of your past experience, but a new feasibility study will offer current insights that will enable you to better plan for a new set of circumstances. For example, you may learn that the market is not as strong as it was, and it would be best to adjust your aspirations and/or implement the campaign in phases, starting with a smaller goal and increasing it over time.

Communicating with prospective donors during the feasibility study can also garner new ideas for achieving campaign goals. For example, donors who will be asked to support construction of a building, such as a community center, might reveal that they would be more likely to donate if certain facilities were included, such as a basketball court or swimming pool.

Finally, feasibility studies should be conducted by an outside company or consultant, to ensure candid responses. Donors and prospects are unlikely to be completely forthcoming when someone on the staff or board of a nonprofit asks them about their level of commitment. Dunleavy & Associates has performed dozens of feasibility studies that have helped nonprofit organizations launch successful capital campaigns.

About the author: Nancy Dunleavy is the President and CEO of Dunleavy & Associates, which she founded in 2001. Chair of Gwynedd Mercy University Board of Trustees, Nancy also serves on the Board of Directors of The Union League of Philadelphia, and is Treasurer of Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.  She is a popular public speaker and has received numerous accolades for her work and leadership, but most prides herself on being an “extraordinary talent scout” in recruiting phenomenal clients, colleagues, and collaborators.

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What does strategic planning mean for a nonprofit organization?


By Stephanie Taylor

We’ve all been there before; we buy a bicycle or dollhouse or piece of IKEA furniture, and shrug off the big, bold “ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” warning. Things go well enough for the first few minutes, but suddenly one of the parts doesn’t fit. Then, you realize another is sticking out at a weird angle. Before long comes the defeated sigh. Where the heck are the directions?

Similar things happen, with predictable results, when a nonprofit organization tackles the challenges that arise each day without the “directions” provided by a strategic plan. In addition to setting the direction of the organization, a strategic plan determines the best strategies for an organization to fulfill its mission and ensures there is a concerted effort from all employees to reach clearly defined goals.

A strategic plan for a nonprofit usually is developed by the organization’s board or executive leadership, often in partnership with an outside consultant, who can provide an unbiased perspective. Typically, the consultant begins by conducting a SWOT analysis to ascertain the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

To prepare the analysis, the consultant performs an environmental assessment, which involves anonymous polling and interviewing of the board, staff, stakeholders, volunteers, and the public about their perceptions of the organization. The consultant also does quantitative analysis to determine the financial health and outlook of the nonprofit, particularly in comparison to competitors.

Using this objective knowledge, a nonprofit will typically create a 3-5 year strategic plan. This leaves time enough to achieve stated goals, and guides the organizations’ responses to inevitable internal and external changes.

A strategic plan provides both internal and external benefits. Internally, it enables the nonprofit’s governing body to coalesce around a few areas of focus, and informs key decisions, such as whether or not to diversify the funding pool, expand or add programs, or establish an endowment. Externally, it communicates to supporters that the leaders have well-defined goals and are united behind a strategy to reach them.

Strategic planning can benefit every nonprofit organization, regardless of age or size. A start-up will require a strategic plan to achieve financial sustainability in the tenuous first few years. Experienced organizations also need one to ensure they stay on track for continued success.

Strategic plans are most useful when they are preemptive, not reactive. The time to develop one is before your organization reaches a fork in the road, not after you’ve already set off down the wrong path.

About the author: Stephanie Taylor has spent 15 years in the nonprofit sector working in almost every capacity, from program delivery to operations. She specializes in leadership, change management, and nonprofit operations, and holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Eastern University.

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