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Caution when using the word “Campaign”

You see the term everywhere, and not just in the political arena – “Campaign.”  Nonprofit organizations have been using the term “Capital Campaign” or “Endowment Campaign” for years to describe large-scale, large-goal fundraising efforts to build a new facility, increase financial stability or renovate existing structures.  But as fundraising and nonprofit management continues to grow in complexity, and as donors become increasingly overwhelmed by the growing number of organizations turning to them for support, is the word “campaign” become overused?  Has it lost its meaning?  Is it taking on a different meaning?

 I’ve been running into a lot of instances where nonprofits are using the word “campaign” to describe a new effort:  “We’re developing our new major gifts campaign.”  “Our board has created a campaign to build our annual gala.”  The sense I get from many of these organizations, however, is that in choosing this term, they seem to be looking for a way to quickly undertake something that’s really hard, get it over with, and go back to business as usual.  My worry is that when they think “campaign,” they are thinking of something that will have a beginning, middle and end, as opposed to creating a permanent effort that supports expanded ongoing fundraising, sustained donor relations efforts or a changed organizational culture.

Major gifts, for example, is not something that has a beginning, middle and end.  To launch a “major gifts campaign” runs the risk of implying to staff and board that when the goal is met, the work is all done.  The truth is, those new major gifts are just the beginning.  All organizations must establish ways through which they can systematically and continually engage their current donors in ways that encourage increased giving and stronger relationships.  And whether you have a handful of major donors or hundreds, it is still an ongoing process and must be integrated into your organization’s ongoing work.

Likewise, for most organizations, there will always be a need for special gifts, endowment support or contributions for capital improvements.  I know few organizations that couldn’t use more endowment or who haven’t had some unforeseen event come up and require some extra fundraising.  For organizations that live in the mindset that only a formal “campaign” can solve such issues, they will often never tend to these important funding opportunities.  On the other hand, organizations that stay in perpetual “campaign mode” run the risk of wearing out their donors, and burning out staff and volunteers.

Instead, organizations should build into their ongoing fundraising program permanent opportunities for supporting these needs.  If there are consistent, accessible options available, such as a “special needs fund,” or a named endowment, for example, organizations will have a ready-to-use tool with which they can effectively engage donors right away.

smalltreeandskyMy firm, Capital Development Strategies LLC is a member of a nationwide network of consultants who work with nonprofits of all sizes and who advise capital campaigns, ongoing fundraising programs and more.  The members of the Association of Philanthropic Counsel (APC) routinely share thoughts and ideas on a range of topics.  I posed this question to my colleagues and got some interesting responses.  Many concurred that they are turning away from using the term “campaign.” Some suggested that the term is off-putting to potential donors or intimidating to smaller groups; others felt it implied a level of sophistication in their development program that was simply not there.  They also are turning to terms such as “project,” “effort,” or “initiative” to describe these fundraising programs, thinking these terms more appropriately implied forward movement, or being pro-active. 

One APC colleague in particular, George Nehme of the Innovative Resources Group, offered that many organizations are migrating towards words or phrases that are more about the organization than the key stakeholders they seek to engage.  The “Campaign for XYZ” simply implies, “This is all about us, if you want to come along, please feel invited.”  George is finding, interestingly albeit slowly, that some groups are trying to break out of the “campaign” phraseology and trying to identify “action” words or phrases that embolden/inspire their key stakeholders to recognize that the effort is/needs to be a partnership.  It’s a provocative thought and offers nonprofits a chance to get creative.  His comments also remind me of one of the key aspects of successful fundraising – it’s all about the donor.  What steps is the nonprofit taking to meet the donor’s needs?  How is the fundraising program going to match up with the donor’s priorities and interests?

Should nonprofit organizations stop using the term “campaign” altogether?  No.  There are still plenty of times in which it will be appropriate.  However, nonprofits should resist the urge to use the term “campaign” as a way to confine, limit or box in a fundraising program.  Use caution.

When your organization last created a new fundraising effort or launched a new donor outreach initiative, what did you call it?  What went into creating that name?  How has that name influenced the design and implementation of that effort?  When was the last time your organization used the term “campaign?”  What effect did it have?  Tell us your story.


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