Teaming with Counsel

In this 4th of four related posts on the alternative of a staff-led campaign feasibility study, let’s take a minute to look at the role of counsel as partner in the process.

Making the decision to conduct a staff-led feasibility study does not demand that the organization’s staff go it completely alone. While the greatest organizational benefit comes from having development staff conduct interviews, there are three points in the entire study process at which experienced campaign counsel can add value. The stronger your familiarity and trust relationship with counsel, the better to leverage their targeted involvement.

Study design: Counsel can assist in developing the process and materials for the interview phase. This would include developing the participant selection criteria, the case/briefing document, the interview guide, and the scale of giving.

Training interviewers or interviewing: Your staff’s confidence may increase if the interview team has been trained by professional campaign counsel to conduct the interviews. You may desire to have counsel conduct some of the interviews so as to foster first-hand knowledge of the findings, especially if counsel is to be subsequently involved.

Analysis and strategy development: You may desire to have counsel assist with or completely handle all data transfer, content analysis, and development of study conclusions, including recommendations for implementation strategies.

By developing your objectives and plan for the study, you will be in a position to consider whether and when it is preferable to team with outside counsel in conducting the feasibility study.

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Timing the Study

In this 3rd of four related posts, I’m offering some guidance on discerning when the time is right to conduct your campaign feasibility study.

The feasibility study should be completed before solicitation begins in support of the project(s) to be funded. The study serves many purposes, including testing the case for support, identifying issues that will shape campaign strategies, and positioning leaders and donors for subsequent involvement.

The study is most effective when the following criteria are met:

  • Organizational plans and goals have been articulated in a preliminary case or briefing document.
  • Awareness-building efforts and presentations have been made to key individual prospects and small groups of prospects, thereby assuring at least a baseline of knowledge among first-tier prospects and influencers.
  • Development staff members have determined their readiness to implement the campaign and have at least begun efforts to fill voids.

Feasibility studies sometimes occur before all these criteria are met. Meeting criterion #1 means study participants will be reacting to a well-developed and well-articulated case for the organization’s desired impact. While still a draft document seeking refinement, this version of the case/briefing document should be as clear and compelling as available information allows. In dynamic environments, it is unlikely that development staff will have perfect and complete information from which to write the case to be used in the study. Despite that, a study conducted around a grossly premature case yields little return on the significant investment of time and energy.

Meeting criterion #2 means that study participants will have become at least somewhat familiar with organizational and campaign plans prior to study participation. In this way, reviewing the case/briefing document in preparation for the study interview is not the first encounter with the organization’s thinking. Rather, it serves to deepen and amplify earlier knowledge transfer.

By meeting criterion #3, campaign planners avoid unnecessary delays in moving from the planning stage (during which the feasibility study is conducted) to the implementation phase. Anticipating requirements of staff, budget, communication, and leadership should have allowed the organization to resolve those issues prior to commencement of the study.

Benefits of a Staff-Led Feasibility Study

In this 2nd of four related posts, I’d like to share my experience to help you explore whether an alternative to the traditional counsel-led feasibility study offers you the right kind of benefits.

There are numerous ways that conducting a staff-led feasibility study can benefit your organization.

  1. It strengthens donor relationships with staff by using targeted conversations.
  2. Donors feel better knowing the conversations are about them first, rather than simply about their money (a huge benefit for a principles-based fundraising philosophy).
  3. Staff members gain experience asking sensitive questions about personal giving and interests.
  4. Interviews conducted by staff allow the organization to obtain valuable donor/prospect information that can be imported directly into database management software without being filtered (or lost!) by the consultant. Some consultants prefer to treat the entire interview as confidential, in part to retain information that subsequently makes the consultant more valuable to the client in providing campaign counsel. Said another way, the consultants who conducted the study must be retained in order to find out what your donors think and feel about the project.
  5. Consultants must often designate their availability so as to accommodate other clients, thereby reducing scheduling flexibility with donors. A staff-led interview process allows for greater scheduling flexibility for completing interviews.
  6. Depending upon the size of staff and the interviewing team, this approach may field multiple interviewers to gain multiple perspectives.
  7. Staff members feel a greater sense of ownership of the information, having harvested it in real time as opposed to simply receiving aggregate information in a report.
  8. Conducting a study with one’s own staff is a sign of growing professional maturity and experience, thereby increasing staff credibility among internal constituents.
  9. Given the competitive world of attracting and retaining professional development staff, such a staff-led effort builds valuable career experience, thereby helping to retain gifted staff.
  10. Finally, this approach may save money in consulting fees, making this savings available for other budgetary needs, such as prospect research, cultivation costs, publications, etc.

Campaign Feasibility Studies: New take on an old idea

In this first of a four-part post, I’d like you to consider the merits of conducting campaign feasibility studies in a slightly different way—by using your own trained and experienced staff. Subsequent posts will add some detail to this introduction.

A feasibility study can play an important part in campaign preparations. In the past, organizations automatically turned to outside consultants to conduct such studies. In part, there was a sense of objectivity and confidentiality that came with the use of a third party between the institution and prospective campaign leaders and donors. However, it also resulted from limited major gifts experience and lack of professional development staff. As the profession grows and matures, both issues are less of a barrier than ever before.

Today, there are alternatives to the traditional approach. There are more development professionals employed now than in previous years, and many of these professionals have valuable experience that can be harnessed in campaign planning phases.

Feasibility study interviews are as much about cultivating the prospective donor as they are about ascertaining answers about the case and the individual’s giving interests. Therefore, in some cases, it is appropriate to maintain the relationship continuity of the major gifts field staff and their prospects/donors, rather than “inserting” an unknown third party (the consultant) for a single interview.

Conditions that warrant having outside counsel conduct the interviews include the following:

  • Development staff has limited or no experience with major gifts.
  • Known sensitivities exist around institutional leadership, making confidential interviews preferable.
  • Demands of fundraising and other pressing work do not permit staff to invest the time to conduct interviews.
  • Conditions that warrant having the development staff conduct feasibility interviews include the following:
  • Mature development staff with prospect portfolio management responsibilities are available.
  • There is strong relationship continuity between development staff and prospective campaign donors (also referred to as prospects or interviewees).
  • Prospective campaign donors are weary of “one more feasibility study,” having participated in many, which eventually begin to resemble one another.
  • Prospective campaign donors signal some objection to “experts” from “outside” coming in for a short period and then leaving.