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Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should we expect from working with R. Miller Consulting?
    As a development professional with over twenty-five years of experience, I work on behalf of my clients to demystify the development process and focus your staff’s time on implementing best practices and often trying new approaches, with your institution's unique culture woven into the process. Often, development work is viewed as opaque and semi-mysterious. My primary role is to serve as a coach and confidant to help raise the functionality, accountability, and impact of your development team. I do this through regular and consistent interaction with the staff and leadership at an institution, either through phone calls, video conferences, or on-site visits. My goal is to meet the client where they are, without judgment, and focus on how to help the development and leadership team achieve their development goals.
  • I understand you “coach” and advise, but will you make an “ask” on our behalf?
    The development process flourishes when an organization nurtures long-term relationships with its constituents. Such relationships can only be built and sustained over the long term by insiders -- the president or head, trustees, and members of the development staff. For that reason, we do not attempt to manage or run a client's program as some firms do. I do not solicit gifts on behalf of my clients, but I can make arrangements to advise and guide conversations, including being present if the situation calls for it.
  • If an institution is thinking about a capital campaign in the near future, what are your thoughts on a campaign feasibility study? Is it necessary and a productive use of time and resources?
    Campaign feasibility studies can be helpful if they help an institution build confidence and clarity, but they are not necessary for success. In general, my approach is to short-circuit this approach and focus on the strategic planning process, applying a consultative process using a technique called the provocative proposition. In general, this approach reverses the traditional planning process and focuses on working from the whole to its parts, while engaging with the best stakeholders currently present. Generally, if you don't already know who your top 100 are and how they feel about you and your vision, then you already know the results of the study: You're not ready for a campaign.
  • What if your Board and other Alumni want us to kick off a campaign and a feasibility study because we have immediate needs? What's the best approach in that situation?
    In general, a campaign is not a substitute for a well-functioning development program, and the desire to launch a campaign often serves as a catalyst to do what the institution should have already been doing all along. Furthermore, a campaign is a tool to close major gifts – but this presumes that you have already done the necessary prep work, specifically, that the board and senior leadership have done the necessary visioning, prioritizing, and planning. In short, development programs build resolve; campaigns capitalize on this resolve, giving it concrete expression. The feasibility is not a silver bullet. Understanding the market -- learning how constituents perceive institutional leadership and the case for support, discovering their aspirations, values, and needs -- is fundamental development work. You need to be acquiring this information on a regular, ongoing basis, not simply because you want to launch a campaign. Lastly, a feasibility study is not an effective "change agent" in and of itself. Conducting a study won't make your prospects wealthier or more willing or ready to give. Focus on your major gift program by engaging with your donors, sharing the vision for your institution, and documenting their feedback is the best “first step.”
  • Do you place a greater emphasis on cultivating major gifts in an ongoing fashion over a traditional capital campaign? Are campaigns dead?
    Yes. I think an ongoing major gifts program is the best path forward. Regarding campaigns, no, absolutely not. I am only trying to de-mystify the capital campaign process and the exaggerated value people often place on it. Campaigns remain a viable strategy for institutions to employ, but there's nothing sacred or particularly special about them. Fundamentally, a capital campaign is a tool or methodology to raise major gifts at a strategic moment in the life of an institution. A major gift program is also a tool to raise major gifts, but in an ongoing fashion, recognizing that strong institutions continually redefine themselves and their priorities and that prospect commitment and readiness require constant nurturing.
  • The concepts of a major gift program and a campaign are not mutually exclusive?
    The desire to obtain major gifts drives both processes. Institutional or strategic goals require large gifts. Since only 2 to 5 % of the givers can make major gifts, the operative question becomes how best to secure such gifts. Should we launch a time-specific campaign or commit to an ongoing program of cultivation and solicitation? In both approaches, success is determined by how well you solicit the 2 to 5% who must give 95% of the money. Generally, the top 100 gifts determine success or failure. All the rest is a public relations exercise. In the end, videos, fancy brochures, volunteer committees, organizational tables, text messages, kickoff events, call scripts, etc.,will account for very little of the money raised.
  • Clearly, you believe that major gift programs are more effective than capital campaigns.
    Not in every case, but for the majority of our institutions, yes. Gifts of true capacity and legacy are more likely to result from satisfying a donor's value center than from selling institutional needs. They cannot be manufactured by simply conducting a campaign or following a call script. The great allure of the traditional campaign is the discipline it brings to staff and volunteers. In the long run, though, an ongoing, professionally staffed major gift program will generate far greater numbers because the focus is on the prospect’s value center and life cycle, not the campaign objectives and timeline. The structure, shape, perimeters, and "rules" of the process are determined by the prospects themselves -- their capability, readiness, and relationship to the institution and its leadership determine the ways and pace at which we proceed. Major gift programs are always organized around the prospects. This is an organic approach to fundraising. Such an approach is more likely to result in an ultimate or transforming gift-- a contribution that fundamentally changes the landscape and future of an institution, positioning it to reach for the Ignatian ideal of the Magis. Campaigns, with their rigid timelines and baked-in recipes, leave too much on the table.
  • Why? What goes wrong with campaigns? Why is an organic approach better for my institution?
    First, let's acknowledge all that "goes right." Successful campaigns erect buildings, increase endowments, promote goodwill, and raise the stature of our institutions in the marketplace. Generally, campaigns provide a net benefit. So, what's the issue? While campaigns generally result in "good things," the accepted methodology or "rules" of traditional campaigning can actually limit or cap success artificially. Too often, trustees and school leaders confuse meeting short-term campaign goals with true strategic success. Unwittingly, they "dumb down" the school's real potential to meet the artificial constraints of the "campaign manual." The greatest danger in capital campaigning is surrendering the high ground too soon to satisfy the board's natural desire for "successful closure." In this context, success is defined as meeting the campaign goal in a prescribed period of time. Very often, the goal is set below what the organization actually requires to realize its strategic vision or the gift table used to guide campaign strategy is set too low out of ignorance or fear. In either case, the resulting lowered donor sights become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the constituency behaves according to the defined expectation. Taking an organic approach addresses many of these shortcomings and prepares your organization for success during the current campaign and future fundraising efforts.
  • The Organic Campaign Approach.
    Instead of being confined by the arbitrary and fixed timelines of traditional campaigning, the organic campaign presents a more flexible, "fluid" approach, permitting us to shape and re-shape the campaign "as we go" by blending the best of the other models with contemporary major gifts theory and practice. Typically, the campaign is five to seven years in duration with a much longer nucleus or quiet phase; it will employ robust "moves" management techniques in a campaign setting. Most organic campaigns deploy a prospect "circles" approach based on affinity, readiness, and capacity instead of "divisions" based on geography, constituency, and gift range -- enlisting and organizing volunteers as needed. The organic approach will also focus on strategic goals rather than campaign goals to raise the donor's sights. Often, this involves positioning and repositioning the case for support as the campaign unfolds or gifts become available. The organic approach also looks for ways to leverage dollars and relationships -- bonds, tiered gift tables, cumulative giving, etc. Importantly, this approach encourages unrestricted gifts and deferred recognition. The organic approach connects the development program to the school's strategic vision and promise, and the board shifts its focus from "running a campaign" to accomplishing a specific set of tasks according to a timeline and instead focuses its attention on celebrating gifts along the way. The organic approach allows schools to focus on gifts or “investments” without the risk of falling short of a large publicly shared goal.Why is raising $49M bad, but $50M a success in the court of public opinion?
  • Is the Organic Approach, with an Ongoing Major Gifts Program, right for my institution?
    I believe this is the best approach to building a dynamic and successful fundraising program, for the long-term. The development team and leadership connect the strategic plan to the development team's yearly activities; furthermore, this approach prevents “mission drift” or distractions – because the goals are rooted in the strategic vision, and all fundraising is focused solely on advancing the bigger plan. And while a traditional campaign may result in raising lots of new money, it almost always touches off a vicious cycle. Because the board has set its goals according to how much money it thinks it can raise during the prescribed campaign period, it must decide how many of its priorities it can fund with that amount. Usually, they're forced to cut back on some priorities and to table others altogether. Then, once they meet the campaign goal, they shut down the campaign and all the major gift mechanisms that go with it -- prospect research, cultivation visits, face-to-face solicitations, etc. Since the campaign has been closed, the school is not capable of realizing the priorities still on the list. Eventually, the unfunded priorities create pent-up demand, and the school begins to plan for its next campaign. The cycle starts all over again. The result? Lots of wasted energy as the school starts and stops and starts again, and donor and volunteer fatigue.
  • Why, then, do so many institutions continue to favor the campaign approach?
    Comfort and familiarity. The classic three-year campaign provides a well-rehearsed formula with very precise steps and deadlines. Trustees are comfortable with the process because it is likely the only “discipline” they’ve been exposed to. "First, we do the feasibility study, then we set the goal. We conduct our advance phase during the first six months, then move to the special gifts phase, and finally go public…"
  • When will more institutions shift from periodic capital campaigns to ongoing major gift programs?
    When they finally realize that the things they do only periodically -- during a campaign -- are really things they should be doing all the time. Prospect identification and research, strategic visioning and case positioning, face-to-face solicitation for major and planned gifts on a daily basis, and the like produce big results during a capital campaign. So doesn't it make sense to do these things on a continual basis? Institutions that have made the shift are institutions driven by mission and vision, not by a particular development methodology (i.e., the campaign). Since vision requires a steady stream of major gifts they don't let arbitrary timelines or goals constrain them. Instead, set your sights on raising the full cost of their strategic priorities and invest accordingly. Instead of hiring expensive campaign firms to manage the process, they invest in their own professional staff and hold them accountable to develop relationships and make gift calls in an ongoing fashion. In this manner, they can synchronize the needs and scheduling requirements of individual prospects with the evolving needs of the institution.
  • What if we're already in a campaign? Is it too late to reshape our campaign to an Organic model and avoid the pitfalls you’ve cited?
    If you're still in the early "quiet" or "nucleus" phase, there are several things you can do. First, extend the timeframe for the nucleus phase to give yourself more time to “negotiate” with the top-rated prospects. The scale of gifts or gift table employed in traditional campaigns is often self-defeating. Once set, it cuts both ways -- lowering the sights of some and raising the sights of others. An extended nucleus phase, though -- conducted quietly, prospect-by-prospect --permits you to shape and reshape the table around the prospects as the campaign unfolds. For example, a prospect capable of committing a transforming or ultimate gift can be invited to invest at this level regardless of what the traditional gift table might suggest. And the extended period of time afforded by the nucleus phase may give such a donor the "space" he or she needs to reach such an important decision. Second, work from "the inside out," soliciting successive circles of prospects as they become ready. Begin with board members, extend outward to former trustees and select families, and then move to other important subgroups or segments within the parent and alumni constituency. In general, cultivate and solicit those closest to the school first, then turn to others. Invite each successive circle of prospects to join your expanding partnership. Move from one circle to the next only when you achieve"critical mass" in the former.Don't approach "outsiders" until the natural "insiders" have joined the partnership. Within each circle, some members will have greater influence and affluence than others. Consequently, the notion of working from the top down also comes into play. Start with individuals who will set the pace for others in their circle -- either because they have greater means or because they are perceived as "leaders" who must set the example. Third, as you proceed, shape the volunteer structure around the prospect pool. Resist the temptation to begin the campaign with a pre-determined, formulaic volunteer structure. Pre-set committees often "stand around" with nothing meaningful to do; pressure then builds "to do something," and before long, you will find yourselves rushing prospects in an attempt to meet the volunteers' need for "closure." Determine the number of volunteers, their duties, and strategies based on the unique circle of prospects you face. Whenever possible convert donors from one circle into volunteers for the next. Later, when you have achieved critical mass at the major and special gift levels, you can organize a larger group of volunteers to approach the growing number of prospects at the lower levels of the gift pyramid. During the extended nucleus phase, see how far you can stretch to meet your true strategic needs. Then, when you reach critical mass, make a decision: continue with the quiet major gift work or transition into a more “traditional” campaign. With either choice, you will be positioned to start an ongoing major gift program after the campaign is over.
  • We just finished a campaign. What should we do next?
    Transition to a major gift program by paying close attention to the campaign's top donors, while investing in your staff for the long-term. Implement a proactive and systematic stewardship process to recognize campaign donors, connect their campaign generosity to the school's long-term strategic plan, consult with them about the school's future direction, and raise the institution's sights.

My Approach and Other Musings*

*This document was written with contributions from Mark S. Seeberg, formerly of Seeberg and Associates.

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