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August 15, 2020
What to Look for When Recruiting Your Campaign Chair
By Andrea Kihlstedt

Of all the jobs in fundraising, being a campaign chair is both the most frustrating and most exhilarating. Frustrating because it falls to the chair to be dogged when others come up short. Exhilarating because there’s nothing quite like having someone tell you he’ll contribute a large gift to your project.

Let’s look at the chair’s actual duties:

First, he or she will make a personally significant gift. In many cases, the chair’s gift will be one of the largest. But in some cases a truly generous smaller gift that represents a stretch will suffice.

Second, the chair will play an important role in soliciting gifts #147; the largest gifts. And, yes, while this is a challenge, many of the campaign chairs I’ve worked with have warmed to the task because of the generosity they’ve encountered.

Third, your chair will help to shape the campaign. Exactly how will depend on the strengths of the specific person, but a campaign chair often works side-by-side with the executive director and development director, with each complementing and supporting the others. When this arrangement works, it’s like a good marriage: gradually, your chair and the campaign team learn to trust one another and build on each others’ strengths.

Fourth, your chair is the public face of the campaign, lending his or her name to the project and letting the organization piggyback on his or her credibility in the community. You can imagine just how risky this is if there isn’t strong assurance the campaign will succeed.

Finally, your campaign chair has a grab bag of other duties. He or she runs committee meetings, encourages the staff and other board members, talks to the press when needed, helps celebrate milestones (large and small), and thanks the people who make success possible.

As you can surmise, the job takes a special kind of person! And from my experience of working with dozens of campaign chairs, I believe that to do the job well a chair needs three specific traits:
  • A passion for the cause
  • Personal generosity
  • Follow-through; the ability of the person to do what she says she’s going to do
And with apologies to the 70s rock group, Meatloaf, I learned when working with Morris that two out of three is bad.

A retired college president, Morris had sway in his community. He knew lots of people and had time on his hands. And for years he had known Larry, the director of the child center. So Morris seemed an obvious choice to chair the campaign. Without much consideration, Larry tapped him for the role, starting the campaign on an excruciating path.

While Morris really did know everyone and everyone knew Morris, and most people even liked him, the ex-president didn’t follow through when it came to asking for money. He just couldn’t muster the courage to sit down and ask someone face-to-face.

Again and again, Larry had to pick up the pieces. Morris would write a letter to a major donor asking for the gift, but he wouldn’t make the all-important follow-up call. Or, rather than scheduling a meeting to ask for a gift, he would mention the campaign casually at a cocktail party where he happened to run into a donor he was supposed to solicit. And once again, he wouldn’t follow up.

To make matters worse, once Morris was ensconced as campaign chair, he wasn’t about to relinquish the post. He liked chairing the committee meetings. He loved taking credit for all of Larry’s fundraising successes. And he liked feeling important #147; the way he had when he was a college president!

What might have been a smooth-sailing campaign became an immense burden for Larry. He had to do his own work and cover for Morris.

So even though Morris had passion for the cause, and he and his wife made a generous personal gift, he lacked the third and perhaps most important quality #147; the courage and will and determination to follow through.

Andrea Kihlstedt, a capital campaign consultant, recently launched Republished from Contributions Magazine
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