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Lessons Learned: Advice from the Campaign Front

This article was first published October 5, 2014.
Introduction by Trish Jackson, Interim Senior Vice President for Development & Alumni Engagement at The New School

While I am not a big fan of "Top 10" lists, I am a huge proponent of asking my peers and mentors for wisdom and advice, and also one who prefers simple counsel in that it is so much easier to heed! Therefore, I shall keep the clear and concise lessons learned below close at hand as Dartmouth begins the quiet phase of its next campaign. I shall also share the list with colleagues and friends and ask them to add to it, to challenge some of the assumptions with their own suggestions, and to keep the practice of learning from each other alive and well in both campaigns and the advancement profession writ large!

1. Stand behind institutional leadership from the beginning.

This begins with your Board of Trustees and President or Head of School. Planning a campaign is often the most challenging part of the effort, yet committed leadership and a strong advancement team will be successful when there is strategic and thoughtful work completed at this stage. Some specific additional tips include:

  • Wait to appoint chair(s) for a campaign until the quiet phase wraps up.  Only then will you know if you have the right volunteer(s)to lead.  In the meantime, appoint an “executive committee” of volunteers to handle the quiet phase solicitations.  This tactic will show who has the skills to lead in ways that will help carry the campaign through to a successful conclusion.
  • Recruit a campaign cabinet that is engaged and provide them with meaningful and credible assignments that can be seen to result in tangible success;
  • Create a volunteer pipeline akin to your prospect and donor pipelines; maximize the engagement of volunteers at all levels including staffing and preparing them well; the impact will be the size of gifts your institution can secure.

2. Know and believe in the vision.

Understand fully the vision of your institution and the role(s) that the campaign plays in contributing to such. Make sure you understand and can articulate the vision of the president/head and that of the board. (It also helps to believe in the vision if you want to be a credible representative of the institution!)

3. Think long term.

Yes, this is a campaign with specific priorities to be met. It’s also an opportunity to position the institution within the greater fabric of society, whether that is locally, nationally or internationally. Such success can place the institution in a much more enviable position for future leadership: president/head, board members, faculty and students.

4. Keep focused on the big stuff.

It is especially important for leadership to maintain campaign oversight from a “35,000-foot” perspective (as in the altitude where planes fly.) Yes, the infrastructure including take-off and landing are very important and must be securely in place. With the “big stuff” thinking comes “big results."

5. Ask for help.

Always. It’s truly a sign of leadership.

6. Invest in talent.

Invest in all levels of the organization – from data integrity to the front line officers and their corresponding success.  This well-laid groundwork will have a profound impact on the effectiveness of the campaign.

7. Know what sells.

Test your campaign priorities with those closest to you—and with those whom you want to bring closer.

8. The back of the house matters.

While the leadership focuses on the “big stuff,” it is critical that a team is in place internally to make sure it all happens, from timely gift acknowledgments and creative stewardship of donors, to overall communications and effective campaign budget management.

9. Show--not tell.

Demonstrate the importance of your campaign priorities with students, faculty and recipients of your programs and services. Share stories of challenges, successes and much more. Allow the donors inside the proverbial tent, so that they learn, touch, ask, experience. As a result, they are more likely to engage, participate and give.

10. Some final lessons learned.

  • Postpone setting a final goal until after the quiet phase is complete.  Use a “working goal” in the meantime.  This is important because once you set your goal success is only achieved by reaching or exceeding it, no matter how much good is accomplished in the process.  Setting a goal prematurely can lead to failure, questionable accounting, extended time lines . . . none of these outcomes are good.
  • Don't forget the hometown folks, meaning your campus constituencies.
  • Find ways to encourage giving among multiple reunion classes so that each class cohort has the same opportunities for campaign involvement and success.
  • Consider a participatory challenge near the end of the campaign so everyone feels "asked."
  • Include your annual fund as a key campaign priority.
  • Connie Harris, Senior Executive Fundraising Professional
  • Jody MacArthur Johnson, Director of Advancement, Shore Country Day School
  • Diane MacGillivray, Senior Vice President for University Advancement, Northeastern University
  • Craig Smith, Associate Vice President for Development at Rochester Institute of Technology

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