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Going inside a feasibility study interview

Weldon Fruth doesn’t remember exactly how or why she was invited to participate in a recent feasibility study for Good Shepherd Home (Fostoria, OH). What she does remember is that the interviewer “let me sit in ‘my’ chair. As long as I can have my chair, it’s fine!”

Completion of a feasibility study is typically an important first step in any anticipated fundraising campaign. While many of our clients realize the value of this activity for measuring potential constituent interest in a project, they may be less familiar with the approach Advancement Associates (AAI) takes in conducting such studies.

It goes without saying that the success of a feasibility study depends on the quality of the interviews conducted. Unlike fundraising consultants who use mail-out surveys or other impersonal approaches to gather information, AAI’s method acknowledges the centrality of direct, personal interaction between consultant, client and constituent.

Whenever possible, AAI conducts interviews face to face in a setting chosen by the interviewee; as in Fruth’s case, this is often in a private home. And a detail as small as the seating arrangement can foster the goodwill that will yield valuable and valid information.

Most often the consultant is interviewing someone whom he/she has never met and will likely never see again. In such circumstances, the interviewer faces a daunting task: to earn the participant’s confidence and learn his/her opinions about several different topics—some of them personal—in a relatively short amount of time. A typical interview lasts about 45 minutes.

Creating a casual conversational manner is important to build rapport and trust. Some participants will be reserved, others flamboyant. A skilled interviewer will find a personal style that is most effective, while remaining adaptive to the style of the respondent.

At the same time, consistency in interview technique from respondent to respondent and between various researchers is important. Bias can be introduced if the questions are not asked consistently. Furthermore, it is important that the questions be asked in every interview and that the consultant does not create data after the interview based on personal impressions of what the respondent said or what the consultant thinks he/she would have said.

AAI prepares interview questions based on information provided in a case summary, a brief description of the project under consideration and the fundraising campaign that would underwrite it. Along with a short introduction to the AAI consultant conducting the interview, these details are included in a letter mailed to feasibility study participants about one week in advance.

The interview format combines Likert scales (i.e. scales that allow respondents to rate their responses from “strongly agree to “disagree”) with questions that explore attitudes, motivations, and possible behaviors, yielding both quantitative and qualitative data.

“In conducting feasibility interviews,” says AAI Principal Rich Gerig, “I tell participants there are no wrong answers and that spouses don’t have to agree with each other. This sometimes creates some interesting conversations that continue after I’ve gone out the door!”

During the interview, the consultant is to be an informed, but objective, outside listener who has no vested interest in the project or campaign under consideration. As such, he/she is able to listen carefully and without bias, looking for recurrent themes and important ideas. And interviewees must be assured their responses will be kept in confidence.

Gerig has been surprised many times at how transparent people are willing to be with a near stranger. “It is inspiring and a privilege to hear major donors and other key stakeholders describe how they decide to support special projects and campaigns. Often, gifts made reflect donors’ confidence in the organization, belief in its mission, and understandings of stewardship.”

Past participants describe the feasibility study interview as, at worst, “harmless” and, at best, “enjoyable.” More importantly, participation gives stakeholders the chance to speak into and take ownership in an organization’s planning, rather than just being asked to finance it.

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Assessing campaign readiness

My organization is considering a fundraising campaign. How do we know if we’re ready?

A successful campaign offers a number of benefits, including achieving important priorities that strengthen mission; raising the profile of the organization; building development capacity for the future; and establishing and strengthening relationships with key stakeholders.

A poorly planned and implemented campaign also carries risks, such as burnout of leaders and volunteers; too much emphasis on immediate results; loss of focus on larger mission and vision; a post-campaign fundraising lull; and long-term impact of failing to reach goals.

As these two scenarios suggest, it is essential that “all systems are go” before an organization attempts a campaign. Here is a checklist of key elements that will help you know if a campaign is in your near future:

  1. Do you have adequate commitments of time and support for campaign activities from the board, CEO and development staff? And do they understand and embrace the roles they will need to play?
  2. Do the goals and purpose of your campaign emerge directly from a formal visioning exercise or strategic plan? There must be a direct connection: the sole purpose of a campaign is to support mission.
  3. Are fundraising goals realistic and connected to related plans and budgets? A “pie-in-the-sky” goal helps no one.
  4. Do you have a compelling case for support? Why should donors care about your campaign priorities?
  5. Is competent staff in place in the development office? Staffing a campaign with inexperienced development officers who have no relationship with major donors and other key stakeholders is a tall order.
  6. Can you allocate adequate funding for campaign expenses? Campaigns can require 10 cents of every dollar raised to pay staff salaries, produce communication materials, organize special events, and more.
  7. Will you retain an outside consultant who can help create campaign strategies and guide board, staff and volunteers in implementation? To raise a lot of money in a short period of time, campaigns cannot afford to spin their wheels.
  8. Are you willing to invest in a formal feasibility study that helps determine if volunteer leaders and major donors are available to support the campaign? Particularly in today’s uncertain economic climate, such a study is essential.
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Resuming a capital campaign

Some organizations were in the middle of a campaign when recession hit and wonder, now what? How does one know if it’s time to re-engage and, if so, how does we one go about it?

Restarting a campaign in a good way assumes that an organization has done its homework—i.e. maintained open communication and strengthened relationships with current and prospective donors and volunteers—in the interim.

Even then, resuming the process isn’t simply a matter of picking up where one left off. Consider “patience” and “diligence” virtues. At the same time, assuming your case was strong at the outset, your needs cannot be put on hold indefinitely without, in some regard, compromising the service you’re able to offer.

Here are several steps we recommend:

1. Re-engage with those who have already contributed. Let them know the campaign is back on track. Invite and answer their questions. Use these visits to check the pulse of the constituency. Are your stakeholders still committed to the project?

2. Study the original campaign plan in the light of several important questions: Is the case still strong and accurate? Is the original campaign goal still realistic? Do we need an updated feasibility study? How many of our major gift prospects are dependent on the economy? Has there been turnover in key staff or board positions? If so, allow sufficient time to bring new members up to speed and gain their support.

3. Reassemble the campaign cabinet. Begin with the volunteers that were already in place, but respect that, in the meantime, other commitments will most likely have taken priority for some original members. Additional recruitment and training may be necessary; these steps will take time.

4. Adjust the process as necessary. Be creative in the types of gifts you allow donors to consider and respect their timeframe. Longer pledge periods may be helpful for some. Others may need to wait longer than desired before making an initial gift to allow assets that have depleted in value to recover.

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Congregational fundraising

When working with a congregation, AAI first provides an overview of the capital campaign and introduces key campaign principles in the context of fundraising as ministry. Next, we assess the congregation’s readiness for such a highly organized fundraising effort. Based on this assessment, AAI can enter the process at one of several points, described below.

Visioning. Often, AAI’s first official role is to engage leaders of the congregation in visioning. This kind of exercise typically takes place during a weekend retreat and asks participants to reflect on the following questions:

  1. In light of our mission, what are the opportunities and challenges presented by our surrounding environment?
  2. In light of our mission, opportunities and challenges
    • What program priorities should we establish and pursue at this time?
    • What priorities should we establish for our facilities?
    • What financial resources are required to meet our priorities for program and facilities?

Campaign feasibility study. A feasibility study helps determine the level of support for the goals identified during the visioning process and, therefore, the probability of success for a proposed capital campaign and building program. The feasibility study includes a series of both personal and mail interviews conducted by AAI staff; interviewees are shown a case summary of the project at hand and a gift table. AAI compiles results into a report and makes a recommendation regarding the campaign goal to congregational leaders and/or the congregation as a whole. A feasibility study takes approximately two months to complete.

Campaign. Congregations can also enlist AAI’s help with the campaign itself. Campaigns are typically completed within four months, during which campaign leaders receive regular consultation and unlimited access to the consultant(s). Depending on the needs and desires of the congregation, AAI’s involvement can also include:

  • creating an action plan that lists specific responsibilities for the various persons involved in campaign leadership; outlines how these persons report to and interact with one another; and sets a timeline for implementation of various campaign steps
  • developing any necessary communications materials
  • training of key personnel
  • attendance and leadership at campaign meetings

While many professional firms offer campaign services similar to the four just mentioned, AAI encourages five additional practices that distinguish our approach from others’:

  1. Our philosophy of “fundraising as ministry” seeks to incorporate the capital campaign into the life and worship of congregation.
  2. We provide actual templates of the communication materials the congregation will use during the campaign.
  3. We emphasize personal solicitation and direct requests for campaign commitments.
  4. We utilize mail and telephone solicitation for distant members and friends.
  5. Three-year pledge commitments give donors the flexibility they may need to make the most faithful gift possible.