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Re-thinking Campaigns

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I’m at a session presented by Chris Pipkins and Rob Scott titled “Is It Time for a Re-Think of the Conventional Comprehensive Camoaign?” originally designed by Darrow Zeidenstein, who could not be at the presentation. This is a topic of great fascination to me, and I’m really excited about it.

The 80-20 rule became the 95-5 rule. Chris says, “We celebrated that arms race…Life in a campaign tends to be a bit sexier.” It’s true — in a campaign, you have more funding, you can hire people, it’s exciting, there are big gift “glamour moments.”

Now we are in a constant campaign mode. New Presidents feel they must be in a campaign within two years of arriving, and we now have only a year or two between campaigns. Dollar goals and possibilities may conflict with institutional priorities, and may drive the campaign. Annual giving and alumni relations are in decline. Chris notes that alumni relations has an opportunity to be reinvigorated through promoting engagement.

Darrow asked VPs, is it time to call a time out on campaigns? Their message was overwhelmingly “no.” Campaigns are still a great way to align constituents with university goals, drive investment in advancement, coalesce the university community around high-level themes, and compel donors to their largest philanthropic commitments. Disturbingly, driving investment was the top pick of VPs, and compelling donors to their largest commitments was the lowest pick.

There are some concerns related to campaigns: pressure to accept unacceptable gifts, obsession with campaign trappings, donor fatigue.

The question to ask: “Is it an efficient and effective way to achieve our broader institutional strategies?”

Institutional strategies (vision/mission/positioning and competitive pressures) and operational readiness (maturity and capacity of advancement operation, breadth and depth of prospect pool, and leadership buy in of operation) must be assessed prior to developing the campaign model.

Chris is quite funny. He got the audience to moo in response to discussing the “herd mentality” with which many institutions approach campaigns.

Somewhere between the comprehensive campaign and the marketing campaign is what Darrow has identified as an “area of innovation.” This involves “strategic micro campaigns” and “income growth strategy.” The micro campaign is targeted and short, and the income growth strategy focuses on growing your base.

This presentation is dense, and I know I’m leaving a lot out. One fascinating concept: what if we evaluated our campaigns based on funding completion rate (initiatives achieved) rather than dollars raised.

There’s a great data visualization showing how all the pieces of development come together (“A Steampunk View of Development”), which may be the exact view I was trying to think of when Tufte challenged his audience to come up with the one big idea graphic. I’ll ask Rob and Chris if I can get a copy of this to post here.

Apparently the new CASE standards are now referring to an eight-year campaign period. Holy cow!

Now Rob is talking. MIT has run three mini-campaigns since their last comprehensive campaign ended in 2004. That said, their mini-campaigns were $500 million campaigns. But they were very targeted around specific initiatives, with the last being for student support. In some ways, this is like returning to the classic capital campaign model, because some people (donors, program/academic staff) will be left out. This was especially true for MIT’s energy and cancer research campaigns.

This has definitely got me thinking about how we might implement a series of “phased initiatives” rather than doing a traditional campaign. Susan Hayes-McQueen from University of Washington just asked what I was thinking about: how does this model look different from distinct pieces of a comprehensive campaign? Per Rob, it could look very similar, but did not require the same kind of campaign superstructure that a true comprehensive campaign did, e.g. volunteer leadership, campaign collateral, etc.

Someone just asked how to measure the impact of changing the logo and brand. Rob: “I have no idea.” A discussion ensued as to the efficacy of doing this kind of work, and the amount of time often spent on logo design, vs. actually getting out the door and raising money.

Use a micro-campaign to create a buzz around areas of excellence for the institution, your institution’s “big hairy audacious goals.” This can be a great way to ask people we would ask anyway, but to give them the opportunity to join something big and great.

This can also be a great way to make sure the institution’s priorities drive the gifts you raise, rather than having the gifts you raise drive the priorities.

There’s an interesting conversation about whether this kind of campaign should include a “dual ask,” for the annual fund and a major gift. This campaign model involves a smaller number of donors, so may not include an annual fund ask. This is interesting, as in general, campaigns have been conceived of as a way to elevate annual giving in perpetuity. That doesn’t seem so much to be a feature of the micro-campaign, which is largely driven by principal gifts.

Marijana Radijc from Oregon Health Sciences University is talking about their experience following the mini-campaign formula. One challenge they’ve faced is constant planning for mini-campaigns, as well as continuing to fundraise for “core/evergreen” needs. Rob recommends maintaining core staffing for core needs, while adding incremental staffing for the campaign. There’s also some question as to whether academic leadership has the patience and tenacity to a) hold off on their priorities; b) be in continuous planning mode. One political advantage of the comprehensive campaign is that a lot of planning can be done all at once, and everyone gets a seat at the table.

I asked Rob about the old saw that a comprehensive campaign elevates the baseline level of annual giving, and asked how this plays into that. Rob responded that this has more to do with increased investment in advancement, a revenue generator, rather than the magic of campaigns. In fact, he has seen institutions cut their staffing after campaign, followed by a concomitant drop in annual giving.

Rob now proposes a radical difference (“The folks on FUNDSVCS will probably skewer me”): do a total resources campaign, which looks at private philanthropy, sponsored research, and institutional investment (“Our skin’s in this game; come and join us.”)

Rob is a big believer in using campaigns to illustrate the efficacy of investing in advancement. “Give us a dime, and we’ll return a dollar.”

2 thoughts on “Re-thinking Campaigns

  1. Mini campaigns is exactly the idea that has been brewing in my mind since I began fundraising a few years ago. Although I see how planning for a comprehensive campagin can be efficient, there's something to be said for establishing a competency in strategic planning that gets used consistently throughout the life of an organization, and not every decade when its time for another campaign. Good share, Amanda!

  2. I love your idea around consistent strategic planning — things happen so fast these days, it's really hard to realistically create a plan that will last 5 years, let alone 10! There is a huge need for nimble planning skills.

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