Why Campaigns Fail

A capital campaign is a series of well-planned, well-orchestrated strategies all designed to reach a specific dollar goal within a specific timeframe. Campaigns move forward one conversation at a time.  The four phases of a campaign are:

1.  The pre-campaign survey/ feasibility study – This step involves asking tough questions and getting good answers.

2. The quiet/leadership phase – In this step you solicit board, staff, and key donors first.

3.  The public phase – Campaigns can engage 30-60 volunteers organized in seven to nine committees that solicit various segments of your constituency and community.

4.  The fulfillment phase – It’s important to do a great job of saying thanks for every gift.

Getting Off to the Right Start
No organization plans to fail; sometimes they just fail to plan. Take inventory of your crumpled campaign plan by asking yourself these questions:

•  Did we clearly communicate a well-crafted mission/vision statement to our board, staff, parents, and constituency?

•  Was our strategic plan current?

•  Did our capital project fit into our strategic ministry plan?

•  Did our board give generously to the organization? Did they help us raise money and find new friends?

•  Was our president/executive director an effective fundraiser or friend-raiser?

•  Did we prove that our organization used the gifts wisely?

•  Did we emphasize the eternal impact of our ministry and this proposed capital project?

Good analysis of what didn’t work will help you pivot for the next campaign.

Internal Challenges
Dave Auker, Executive Director of Covenant Harbor Bible Camp and Retreat in Wisconsin, explains “If a campaign fails, it is almost always an internal challenge.” Campaign failure is rarely tied to the economy or timing. The real issues are often poor planning, unclear project goals, miscommunication, or insufficient staff or volunteers to effectively implement the campaign strategy. Create positive momentum by secureing the lead gifts during your quiet/leadership phase, prior to announcing the campaign to your constituency.

External Challenges
George Coleman, Director of Operations at Lake Swan Camp in Florida, did everything right for success. They conducted a feasibility study, organized committees, and cultivated lead gifts. Then an external challenge torpedoed their campaign. Nearby homeowners opposed their expansion and filed a lawsuit. George shared, “We invested at least 500 staff hours and spent more than $100,000 defending our right to conduct a campaign and grow our ministry.”

Minimize Negative Impact
Your campaign will face internal and external challenges. How can you minimize their impact and reduce the risk of future obstacles?

•  Be careful not to print time-sensitive literature. Don’t raise expectations that you might not be able to meet.

•  Communicate with your donors. Keep them updated on your progress.

•  Do not accept verbal commitments. Secure all pledges in writing or they may evaporate.

•  Maintain a high level of integrity. If the donor wants their dollars to be used in a specific way or for a specific portion a of the project, use them that way. You must use dollars where designated, even if their desires are outside the scope of your campaign. If you can’t accommodate the donor’s intent, don’t accept the gift.

•  Be Transparent. If your campaign stalls, speak personally with your lead donors and develop a communications plan for your entire constituency. If you have lost momentum, your best path may be to shut down your campaign and retool for the next phase.

•  Thank every donor. If you choose to limit the scope of your campaign, thank your donors for what they helped you accomplish and communicate what your next phase will address.

Start Fresh
You did everything possible to keep your campaign strong, but it fizzled. Open communication is the key to rebuilding credibility with your constituency and community. Most of time there are legitimate reasons for failure. Admit it and clearly share your alternative plans. One option may be to restart the campaign with new leadership, fresh methods, and a renewed focus.

Another option is to retool the project. You may not be able to build everything you planned, so break it into phases. Most large campaigns raise money and build projects in phases.

If you need to retool, seek advice from your board, key donors, and stakeholders. If you are unable to implement the original plan, ask donors for their permission to reallocate their gifts to other projects. By accomplishing part of the project, you demonstrate integrity and your desire to continue moving forward.

A failed or delayed campaign is not the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to regroup, retool, and refocus. Don’t give up! Turn a failed effort into a positive experience for your next round of ministry advancement.


About the Author: Pat McLaughlin President/Founder – Pat started The Timothy Group in 1990 to serve Christian ministries as they raise money to advance their missions. TTG has assisted more 1,800 Christian organizations around the world with capital, annual, and endowment campaigns. More than 25,000 of Pat’s books, Major Donor Game Plan, The C Factor: The Common Cure for your Capital Campaign Conundrums, and Haggai & Friends have helped fundraisers understand the art and science of major donor engagement. Pat makes more than one hundred major donor visits annually and provides counsel to multiple capital campaigns.

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