A campaign feasibility study is a tool a non-profit uses to determine whether it should go ahead with a capital or endowment fund-raising campaign. It is essential for an organization to assess the likelihood of success for a campaign before entering into it. A non-profit that does not do so puts the campaign, the project for which the money is to be raised, and even the organization itself at risk.
An assessment of the feasibility of a campaign can be conducted by the organization itself or by outside professional counsel. If the organization is very well prepared (more about that later), it should be capable of making an internal assessment of feasibility. However, if a full-blown feasibility study is needed, then that study is best conducted by outside counsel having no ties to the organization. The reasons for this will be delineated later in this article.
At one time, a feasibility study for a capital or endowment campaign was little more than a process of identifying where the money was -- who had it and how much they might be willing to give.
No longer. In today's donor-centric world, an organization needs to assess the:
1. Community's perception of the importance of the need for which money is to be raised.
2. Feelings, both positive and negative, about the organization and its mission.
3. Size of the potential donor base and its ability to give.
4. Availability of strong campaign leadership and effective volunteers.
5. Internal resources available for the campaign and the preparedness of the organization to undertake it.
6. External factors that could influence the outcome of the campaign.
Let's take a look at these six points, each of which is critical to a campaign's success.
Community's Perception of the Importance of the Identified Need
While we may understand and believe deeply in the importance of the cause for which we wish to raise money, the community at large, potential donors, or those who influence the views of others may not. A "Statement of Intention" for the proposed project must be prepared and presented. Don't confuse this Statement of Intention with the proposed campaign's Case for Support, which is a document developed from the knowledge gained from a feasibility study. The Case for Support is then used to recruit volunteers and solicit contributions. It is the reasoned argument for support.
A Statement of Intention is not an argument for support. It is a description of an identified need and the organization's intention to fill that need. It is a hypothesis. We hope that others will see the "obvious" relative importance of this need, but that is not guaranteed. That's why we must trot out our Statement of Intention and have people say, "Yeah, something needs to be done about that now," or, "There are too many other things far more important that this community must address first."
Feelings about the Organization
If we're going to ask people for money, it sure helps if they think highly of both our organization and its mission. Do they see our mission as vital and valid? Are we perceived as being successful at carrying out that mission? Has our organization earned and maintained trust and respect? Have we been efficient stewards of donations and resources? Has any controversy been associated with us? Have questions about any of our leaders arisen? Do people believe we are the right organization to address what we describe in our Statement of Intention? And finally, do they know enough about us to have formed any deeply held opinions?
This is the part about where the money is. Given the fund-raising goal we are likely to set, is there a large enough group of potential donors for us to reach that goal, and how will we reach it? Can we identify a pool of lead donors? Will we be able to find the 20 percent who give 80 percent of the money?
Maybe there is a belief in the importance of the need, a feeling that we are the right organization to address it, and a base of donors able and likely to give at levels that make it probable we will reach our campaign goal. All that tells us is that we have the potential for a successful campaign. If strong campaign leadership and volunteers cannot be found, the campaign has no chance to succeed. That's the reality.
We need to assess our likelihood of attracting a campaign chairperson capable of putting together a winning leadership team and a cadre of engaged volunteers. Without these people, our campaign is simply not feasible.
Internal Resources and Preparedness
Is our organization ready to take on this campaign? Do we have the staff needed? Do we have the money to invest to get the campaign off the ground? Do we have the know-how? Can the organization continue to carry out its everyday activities and simultaneously manage the campaign? If things go wrong, will we be able to recover? In a fund-raising campaign, like a military campaign, if our resources are stretched so thin that we have no reserves, we will not be able to overcome additional adversity.
Okay, everything that we can control is right for the campaign, but what about the things over which we have no control? Are other organizations about to kickoff campaigns that will draw from the same donor and volunteer base? What's the economy in our community like? Is unemployment up or down?
There are other questions. Has any non-profit organization in the community been involved in a major scandal? If so, it is possible that public confidence in all non-profits will be lessened? Is local government turmoil great enough to distract attention from positive initiatives such as our campaign? Is it an election year? I could go on, but you get the idea.
External factors that can influence a fund-raising campaign will always exist. Some will be positive. Most of the negative ones will require nothing more than that we grit our teeth and charge ahead. We face them head on, take a positive position, and turn them into fund-raising strengths.
However, there are things that have the potential to be so strongly negative that a campaign may need to be postponed or even canceled. All external factors capable of influencing a campaign must be assessed. Their impact on the feasibility of our campaign must be analyzed individually and in the aggregate.
Can You Assess Campaign Feasibility Yourself?
In-house feasibility assessments can often be the just the ticket. Many organizations are well positioned to determine for themselves the feasibility of a campaign. These organizations know which of their donors can give how much money. They have a well-developed case for support of the organization based on its mission statement and core values.
Is your organization one that should undertake its own in-house feasibility assessment? The answer may be yes if you have the following key elements in place:
1. A dedicated, committed board of trustees ready and willing to lead, give money, ask for major gifts, and help provide access to persons of affluence or influence.
2. A compelling Case For Support of the project to be funded, emanating from a clearly defined, fully understood, and completely accepted organizational mission statement and compatible with the long-range strategic plan.
3. Rated and evaluated prospects sufficient to provide enough gifts in the needed amounts to raise the most money from the fewest sources in the least amount of time.
4. Timing that assures the new endowment or capital campaign is spaced so that any major givers who are still making pledge payments from an earlier campaign need not be solicited.
5. A written campaign plan that includes leadership, volunteer, and staff job descriptions.
6. A realistic and compressed campaign timeline.
7. An unvarnished view of the organization's fund-raising track record and the community's history of providing support to it.
8. The necessary staff and clerical resources to fully serve the campaign's needs, including generating lists, letters, proposals, meetings, progress reports, and posting and acknowledging gifts.
9. Assurance that the new fund-raising campaign will in no way defer, deter, or interfere with any other fund-raising activity, especially the
10. Knowledge of other organizations' current and planned major capital and endowment campaigns and what timing conflicts might arise, especially those involving availability of top leadership and other volunteers.
11. A budget for the proposed project the campaign will support showing as accurately as possible all line-item expenses, including direct fund-raising expense. The budget must be realistic and defensible.
Most organizations possessing these capabilities, resources, and knowledge will find internally developed campaign feasibility assessments sufficient. They will be just about as ready as possible to enter directly into a fund-raising mode.
Why Would You Turn To Outside Professional Counsel?
Organizations lacking the resources and the know-how described above are not in a position to evaluate the feasibility of a capital or endowment campaign. In addition, a number of external issues may need to be addressed. These can include problems with name and mission recognition in the community, or harmful misperceptions about the organization or proposed project. Many such organizations will find it necessary and practical to engage outside professional fund-raising counsel to conduct a feasibility study.
A feasibility study conducted by an experienced, competent professional can reveal a great deal. Properly planned and executed it is in reality a survey of the philanthropic "market" and an organization's place within that market. By asking affluent and influential persons the right questions, an organization can get information that has direct and positive bearing on its mission, governance, staffing, and the quality and delivery of its services.
I am a strong believer in using feasibility studies to explore an organization's place in the community and the perceptions that community holds of everything from the organization's fiscal responsibility to the value of its existence.
Perhaps the principal value of having outside counsel perform a campaign feasibility study is the opportunity to obtain candid answers to tough questions. A consultant is not part of the organization's "family," and that means the responses from study subjects will be more candid and complete.
An outside interviewer will not be placed in the position of having to respond to interviewee questions about why the organization does this or that. The interviewer should tell interviewees that their questions will be raised in the final report given to the organization's management. Also, the interviewer can offer to pass along an interviewee's specific questions, and request that the organization provide a direct response to the interviewee. In order to operate at this safe, arms-length distance, consultant interviewers must strictly adhere to three important rules.
1. Never speak for the organization or comment on it.
2. Never compromise the confidentiality of an interviewee without the interviewee's permission.
3. Never treat an interviewee as a peer or friend.
What Should You Expect From A Consultant?
If an organization chooses to use outside counsel for a campaign feasibility study, several proven and competent professional fund-raising firms should be considered. Key volunteers and staff should meet with representatives from each firm and apprise them of the organization's intended project, its purpose, the preliminary fund-raising need, and other relevant information.
The consultants should then present the organization with written assessments and proposals. Included in these should be a description of study methodology and process, a working schedule, and total cost. Careful review of the proposals should identify the best consultant for the job.
Once a contract is entered into, the consultant will prepare a plan for the feasibility study that fleshes out the methodology, process, and schedule. The contract should be contingent upon acceptance of the plan.
How Should A Feasibility Study Be Conducted?
Focus groups, mail surveys, and telephone surveys can be useful, but I believe the best way to gather information is to conduct one-on-one interviews with individuals of affluence or influence. For these interviews to be of optimum value they need to be candid and frank. That means interviewees need to be guaranteed confidentiality. In order to do that the interviewer must be someone who is neither a staff member nor a volunteer leader of the organization.
Whether comprehensive one-on-one interviews, or a mix of other information gathering methods is used, feasibility study planning must take into account:
1. Size and make-up of the constituency to be surveyed.
2. Complexity of the study subject matter.
3. Study timeline.
4. Adequacy of resources to perform the study.
5. Budgetary considerations.
What Should A Feasibility Study Plan Include?
Any plan needs to state what will be done, how it will be done, and who will do it. It is crucial that the consultant and organization agree in writing to what each is responsible for. A typical plan should be developed along the following lines.
Interviews: Consultant will conduct one-on-one, in person interviews with 25 to 30 individuals taken from a list of 40 to 60 of candidates supplied by the organization. These candidates will be key area stakeholders of affluence and influence identified by the organization as important to it. The goal of these interviews will be to discover:
1. The best candidates for campaign leadership.
2. Top donor prospects.
3. Effective donor-focused language upon which the case for support
will be built.
4. Challenges, opportunities, and barriers that may be encountered. All interviews will be completed as quickly as possible over a period of seven to ten workdays.
Candidates For Interviews: The organization will categorize and rank candidates for interviews as:
1. Must be interviewed.
2. Should be interviewed.
3. Could be interviewed.
A cross section of those whose support (financial as well as philosophical) is considered vital to the success of the campaign must be interviewed. Potential interviewees include:
1. Major donors to the organization past and present.
2. Corporate, business, financial, foundation, and government leaders.
3. Major donors to other organizations.
4. Current and former board members.
5. Civic leaders.
Statement of Intention: Consultant will develop a Statement of Intention from information provided by the organization's staff and board. The Statement will be no longer than two single-spaced pages. It will describe how the project will meet documented consensus needs and cite its benefit to the organization and community. The organization will review and approve the Statement.
The Statement of Intention will apprise, enlighten, and interest persons of affluence or influence about the organization and the proposed project. It is not the Case For Support. That document will be developed later to entice campaign leadership and to solicit major contributions.
Letter of Introduction: Consultant will write a Letter of Introduction for the organization's board president to send to interview prospects. (See Appendix A for a sample letter.) Included with the Letter of Introduction will be the Statement of Intention and a proposed budget for the project and campaign. The Letter will:
1. Ask its recipient to participate in the study.
2. Explain the role of the interviewer.
3. State that a follow-up phone call will be made to confirm willingness to participate and set up an appointment.
4. Assure that information collected will be confidential and not linked to specific interviewees.
5. Assure anonymity of interviewee.
6. Assure that no solicitation will be made during the interview.
The Letter and Statement will be sent in waves to the must-be, should-be, and could-be interviewees until a sufficient number have agreed to participate.
Scheduling Phone Calls: Consultant will provide a script and checklist for use by the organization to make the phone calls and obtain appointments. The checklist reiterates what was said in the letter of introduction. The script should include a request that the potential interviewee examine all materials received and be prepared to discuss the proposed project and campaign. These calls are best made by either the organization's board president or CEO and should again assure that no solicitation will be made during the interview. Great care must be taken to avoid scheduling conflicts. Interviews should be at least one hour apart to allow for travel. Interviewees should be asked to set aside one hour for the interview. One person should control scheduling. Assuming no unduly long travel time, at least four interviews per day should be scheduled when possible.
Appointment and Profile Form: The organization will develop a profile of each person who agrees to be an interviewee by collecting pertinent information about that individual and combining it with data from the organization's records. The organization will put each profile together with the time and place of the appointment to create an Appointment and Profile Form for every interviewee. (See Appendix B for a sample form.) These forms will be provided to the consultant for interview preparation.
Interview Questionnaire: Consultant will produce a series of questions to elicit information from interviewees in order to determine the feasibility of the campaign. These questions will be developed from the Statement of Intention and other information supplied by the organization. The organization will review and approve the questions. (See Appendix C for a sample questionnaire.)
Gift Table: Consultant will prepare a chart of gifts delineating size and number likely to be needed at each level of giving to achieve the campaign goal. (See Appendix D for a sample gift table.)
Interview: Consultant will conduct all interviews. The interviews will elicit important information relative to the proposed project and the campaign. Interviewees will not be asked to rule for or against the project. They will be asked for their opinions, not their recommendations. We can act or not act on opinions without a problem, but we cannot risk the alienation of individuals giving directives we cannot follow.
The campaign go or no-go decision is up to the organization's board and senior staff. Asking outsiders to recommend for or against a proposed campaign could hamstring the organization's ability to make the correct decision. No organization should be placed in the position of having to go back to a person of affluence or influence and explain why that person's advice was not followed.
Final Study Report: Consultant will produce a final report on the feasibility of the proposed campaign. The report will include:
1. A statement of methodology and process including the number of interviews conducted and the time span of the interviews.
2. Findings about perceptions of the project, feelings about the organization, size of a likely donor base, availability of campaign leadership, and factors external to the organization.
3. Conclusions and recommendations based on the study findings and the consultant's expertise and experience. Most important of a will be a recommendation to proceed with the campaign at this time, forego it altogether, or postpone it until the organization is better ready and/or the climate more receptive. If a campaign is
determined to be feasible, included in the study will be recommended goals, timeline, volunteer organization, leadership, public relations approaches, staffing, budgeting, and the potential role of outside counsel during the campaign.
What Are Some Of The Pitfalls For Feasibility Studies?
Don't withhold information. People must readily understand why they are being asked to participate in the survey. Confusion will breed more confusion and even ill will.
Don't compromise the process. Interviewees who doubt the anonymity of their responses are less likely to respond candidly. An interviewee will not trust a promise of anonymity if the interviewer is an employee or volunteer leader of the organization. Anonymity cannot be assured too early or too emphatically.
Don't mask your intentions. A campaign feasibility interview is not the place to make a solicitation. In fact, the interviewee should be assured that you will not be asking him or her to take on a role in the campaign or to make a gift. The interview invitation letter even makes that promise. An interviewee who believes that he or she is being "softened up" for the campaign is less likely to be candid - and could be offended. However, if the interviewee initiates a willingness to take part should there be a campaign, then the organization must respond later with an invitation.
Don't forget who helped you. After the feasibility study has been completed, an organization should provide at least a summary of the final report to all persons who were interviewed. If they cared enough to take part, they care about the results.
A Further Word On Having The Interviewer-Consultant
Ask For A Gift: NEVER!
Why would you want someone who does not have in-depth knowledge of your organization, and who is not a peer volunteer, to ask a potential donor for a gift? First of all, the consultant is there to conduct interviews -- to gather opinions and impressions. He or she is not there to solicit contributions.
You do not ask for money for a campaign when you are trying to determine the feasibility of the campaign in the first place.
A contribution made through the suggestion of an outside consultant during a pre- campaign interview is likely to be far lower than that achieved by a peer asking for the right amount at the right time.
Any commitment made so early in a pre-campaign study would likely be useless later. What was discussed months before, would be dulled or forgotten by the passage of time --- as are most verbal promises or intimations.
An organization might well have but one "golden opportunity" to obtain its one significant gift from its best and most promising prospect. Why risk losing the gift, or greatly diminishing it, by having the completely wrong person asking for it?
If You Can't Ask Interviewees To Give Or Lead, How Do You Get Them Involved In The Campaign?
Let's face it, some of your feasibility-study interviewees are likely to be people you will want to solicit for large gifts and ask to take on leadership roles in the campaign.
It may seem like that leaves you in a quandary. I've said you absolutely must not ask interviewees for money or to step forward and lead - but that's only during the interview. It's a matter of timing.
Remember, each person interviewed for the feasibility study is asked to list his or her OWN recommendations for:
1. The best candidates for campaign leadership.
2. Top donor prospects.
You ask each interviewee for the names of the persons THEY believe have the potential to give money to the proposed campaign in say, seven, six, or five figures --- relative to the gift table presented to them during the interview at the appropriate time in the review of the questionnaire. You also ask for the names of the persons THEY believe possess the required qualities to be the best leader for the campaign.
The aggregate responses will, at best, identify the same individual or individuals who were recommended the most number of times by the interviewees as potential donors in the top giving categories according to the gift table. And the same would hold with a hoped-for consensus recommendation for the potential leader of the campaign. (See Appendix E for an example of the results of interviews made in that way.)
If a number of interviewees cite other interviewees in these lists, of course you add those people to your list. After the study has been completed, and should you go forward with the campaign, you go back to those recommended interviewees, and ask them for their support as you would anyone else. Just let them know that the feasibility study process identified them as prime candidates. They'll understand. After all, they went through the process themselves.
What if the Feasibility Study Tells You What You Don't Want to Hear?
Once a campaign feasibility study has been completed and you've received a report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations, you're ready to start the toughest part of the process. Now, you have to listen and pay attention. It's the rare feasibility study that tells you only what you want to hear. The study could tell you that:
1. The proposed project is not something for which the community perceives a need or is willing to support.
2. The community doesn't believe the organization should take on the project even though it's worthwhile.
3. Campaigns being conducted by other organizations are perceived as having a higher priority than yours and the community cannot support both.
4. You will not be able to attract the quality of campaign leadership and volunteers you need.
5. You will not be able to raise the money you need in the timeframe of the campaign.
6. The organization needs to do specific things to get its house in order before undertaking the campaign.
Make sure that you take the time to go over every aspect of the campaign feasibility study. Don't skip over negative things that on first reading seem minor. Be even tougher than the person who wrote the study's report when it comes to deciding whether or not to go ahead with the campaign.
It is folly to take the time to conduct a study, spend the money on it, and then risk alienating people important to the organization by ignoring the study's recommendations. An organization that ignores some or all of a study's findings is making a mistake that can fatally damage the campaign, the project, and even the organization.
The study might recommend against proceeding with the campaign until the organization first repairs or installs new elements of its basic infrastructure - an updated strategic plan, a better defined mission, a strengthened board, or a myriad other things. Such recommendations should be diligently carried out.
If a feasibility study tells you what you don't want to hear, don't blame the people who conducted the study and don't try to hide the results. I am still awaiting the final payment for a feasibility study from an organization that didn't like what the 25 people they chose and I interviewed had to say. In another instance, I had to fight tooth and nail to get an organization's executive director and president to share the results of a study with the board. The more negative a study's results the more important that you heed them.
It is far better not to start a campaign, even if it means postponing or giving up on a project, than to begin a campaign that fails. The decision whether or not to go ahead with a project and a campaign is one that the organization makes in relative privacy. A failed campaign is a public event that reflects negatively on:
1. Campaign leadership.
2. Campaign volunteers.
3. The organization's board.
4. The organization's staff.
5. The organization's image.
A failed campaign makes it harder for future campaigns to succeed. People give to organizations they perceive to be competent. The best volunteer leadership for both fund-raising endeavors and governance is drawn to organizations that are perceived to be winners.
What Does a Feasibility Study Cost?
The fee will be based on the amount of time the consultant expends to prepare materials for the interviews, write the Statement of Intention and all other communication pieces, conduct personal interviews with 25 to 30 subjects, compile the results, cite the findings, make recommendations, and write the final report.
From my experience, the typical study will take place over a period of six to eight weeks. Total billable time spent on the project is usually around 200 hours (25 eight hour days). At the prevailing industry rate of about $1,000 per day, the consultant's fee would be in the neighborhood of $25,000 plus expenses.
Make sure that you keep the feasibility study process separate from whether or not you use fund-raising counsel for the campaign. These are two different functions and should be conducted separately even if you use the same consultant for both. In fact, you should never even imply that the firm doing the feasibility study will also be employed to assist in the fund-raising. Make that a separate decision to be arrived at after the study results have been assessed. You do not want the outcome of the feasibility study to be influenced by the prospect of a contract to consult on the fund raising campaign.
What's the Final Word?
Once the study has been received, any corrective preparatory action has been taken, and the campaign is given the green light, it should be started with as little delay as possible. If a period of some months elapses between the completion of the study and the start of the campaign, you run the risk of the study's findings becoming out of date. This can be particularly true for the findings about external factors and for recommendations of volunteer leadership.
So, the final word is time. Take the time to assess the feasibility of any campaign before you enter into it. Some organizations will be able to do this without engaging outside counsel. For others, a knowledgeable, effective consultant is absolutely what is needed. Take the time to figure out which way your organization should go. Once a feasibility study is completed, take the time to pay attention to what it tells you.
And finally, don't let time slip by between the completion of the study and the beginning of the campaign. In the end, a feasibility study is about whether the time is right to enter into a campaign.
Tony Poderis was for 20 years to 1993 Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, BlossomMusicCenter. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.