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December 3, 2021
Avoid These Mistakes and Raise Big Money
By Kay Sprinkel Grace

It was James Joyce who said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” And certainly that’s true, assuming we carefully examine our missteps and learn from them.

Unfortunately, in working with thousands of board members and staff over the past three decades, I’ve seen a number of mistakes repeated over and over. Here are three that continue to recur despite my best efforts to dispel them.

1. Believing You Can Secure Big Gifts by Writing Letters
This is one of the biggest mistakes board members make and it happens all the time.

In fact, I recently heard of a letter asking for $3 million. Imagine. It seems the relationship between the asker and the asked was too strained for a personal meeting!

I'm not saying it can't be done. And there are instances when a letter is the right approach.

But for the most part big gifts are sought in person. The actual moment of asking is the end result of research, cultivation, dialog, shared values, and #147; most importantly #147; the creation of a relationship.

Yet we persist in writing letters for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps foremost, it means we don't have to put ourselves on the line, and face the possibility of rejection or embarrassment.

Second, many people insist they can present the case more effectively in a letter (in which case it should be used as a warm-up for the visit with the prospective donor).

Third—and perhaps the only reason that justifies a letter—are circumstances that make a letter the only option: schedules, geography, illness, or the prospective donor demands the request in writing. But the fact that you know these conditions means you've had communication with either the prospect or her representative. That is critical.

If you're tempted to write a letter because you feel clumsy about asking or don’t want to face possible rejection, work to overcome your own feelings and misgivings.

Ask for coaching. Ask for a partner to go with you. But don't jeopardize your cause by surrendering to your own fears.

2. Thinking You Need a Stable of Annual Donors to Have a Successful Major Gifts Drive
Certainly, it's easier to have a capital campaign if you have a large group of annual donors. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you absolutely need them to raise capital dollars.

Even established organizations with relatively small annual giving programs have been successful at capital campaigns. A food bank I'm familiar with had a limited number of annual donors. But because of the organization's visibility (it had conducted food drives in locations throughout the community), and because of its reputation, the group was able to convince would-be donors that a new facility was needed. People invested at high levels.

Start-up organizations often seek capital funding long before they have a base of annual donors. An independent high school in Southern California raised $34 million for the initial phase of its buildings #147; two years before the school enrolled its first student or started an annual fund. The promise was great, the values were clear, and the community rallied to help create this new opportunity for its young people.

It's important to build a strong annual giving program #147; for lots of reasons. But, if you've never attracted many annual donors or are just starting out, don’t be discouraged.

With a bold vision and a committed inner corps, you can raise the money you need.

3. Believing You Need a Feasibility Study Before Launching a Capital Campaign
A feasibility study, in which board and community representatives are queried about an organization’s image, its visibility in the community, its proposed campaign, and the likelihood of the interviewee contributing, used to be standard preparation for a capital or endowment drive. Increasingly, organizations are going forward without such a study.

The reasons vary. For instance, some organizations understand full well that no matter what the study shows, they must proceed anyway. The school has to be expanded. The roof needs to be replaced. The birthing unit must be built.

Other agencies, having delayed their campaign due to a previous study's recommendation, feel they have enough information now to go forward.

Still other organizations consider the cost of a study, usually between $15,000 and $50,000, prohibitive, and are convinced they'll succeed without one.

Lastly, more and more organizations are identifying leadership gifts in the earliest planning stages of their campaign, thereby removing one of the key purposes of a feasibility study. They are talking directly to the prospects, getting their buy-in on the campaign from the very beginning.

Whether your organization conducts a feasibility study is up to you. But it would be a mistake to think your success hinges on one.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is author of The Ultimate Board Member’s Book, Over Goal!, and Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too) from which this article is excerpted with permission from Emerson & Church, Publishers. For more information, visit or call 508-359-0019.
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