Let's Call It the Listening Phase
by Erin Lynch Moran
reposted with permission from iWave's Blog at www.iwave.com
When your organization takes a deep breath and jumps into a multi-year campaign, you begin what is commonly known as “the quiet phase.” The quiet phase is the period of time, often measured in years, before your campaign is announced to the world. It’s a time to test your ideas, see what your most generous supporters will give, and course-correct if needed before you make a formal campaign announcement. And it’s critical to take that time, because once you announce your campaign, you’re strapped into the ride, unable to get out until the roller coaster comes to a complete stop.
The quiet phase is, therefore, a critical time for your campaign. This is the time to build the campaign’s “nucleus fund,” which is the amount of money you will have in hand before your campaign announcement. It is generally made up of major and principal gifts contributed by your campaign steering committee, members of your board, and other individuals and organizations that have been your most ardent supporters.
The reason it’s called “the quiet phase” is because the campaign has not yet been made public, but I like to think it’s also “quiet” because it is the time that you are listening the most. It’s an opportunity to ask important questions and listen to the answers even if they’re not the ones you want to hear. First and foremost, you will want to be asking your organization’s leaders about their vision for the future. What will your organization need in order to carry out its mission in the years ahead? What would it take to increase the impact you make on those you serve? What is the world going to need your organization to become in the next five to ten years? And only when you answer those questions can you answer the next one: how much money will it require for you to go from where you are today to where you need to be tomorrow?
The answer to that last question is the beginning step in determining a campaign goal. While you will need to consider other factors (e.g. see my last post on feasibility studies), deciding on a goal should begin with having an idea of what it will take, financially speaking, to truly transform your organization. If you don’t stop and ask those critical questions first, your campaign goal is likely to represent the sum total of a wish list of items, each of which may be helpful but may not cohere into a larger vision that will propel your organization forward.
There is a story I heard from a campaign consultant once that illustrates what can happen when that foundational work isn’t done. He said that an institution came to one of their largest and most loyal donors to ask that he commit an amount of money that would successfully bring them over their campaign goal. The donor said he wasn’t able to commit to their proposal at that time. Shortly thereafter, the organization’s campaign team learned that their donor had made a much larger gift to a different organization. They were surprised that he turned down their comparatively modest request only to give a much larger gift somewhere else. The head of development decided to call the donor and ask if he would be willing to share why he chose to support the other organization instead of theirs. The donor said “You asked me to finish your campaign. They asked me to cure cancer.”
The quiet phase is the time to encourage your leadership to dream big dreams that will inspire donors to join you in a noble cause. Campaigns are not an end unto themselves; they should have a greater purpose that is clear, exciting, and motivating to your whole community. The quiet phase is when you listen carefully enough that you can identify those dreams and synthesize them in a way that is meaningful to others.
One common approach that campaign teams take during the quiet phase is to engage the organization’s top donors in briefing dinners. Briefing dinners are intimate events where the aspirations for the campaign are presented to key donors to gather their feedback. This is another moment in the quiet phase where careful listening is critical. By the end of dinner, you will know where you stand. If they seem riveted, or if they ask how they can help, you know you have a winning case for support. If, however, they seem skeptical, bored, or otherwise uninspired, it’s important to listen to them and shift your approach. That can be a bitter pill to swallow, but if your very best friends aren’t excited about the campaign, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to excite anyone else.
This doesn’t mean you need to throw out your entire campaign plan and start over. Rather, think about how you’re communicating with people and focus on answering these questions:
1. What problem or problems does your organization help solve?
2. How does your organization do that in a way that’s uniquely effective?
3. If your organization were to raise the funds you are seeking in your campaign, how would it become even better at fulfilling its mission?
4. Why is it urgent to take action now?
If you can answer these questions in a credible and compelling way, you should be able to develop a case for support that your entire community can rally behind. The best way to begin is to consider the quiet phase as the “listening phase.” If you listen carefully to your organization’s leaders and its lead donors, you will ultimately see your organization’s objectives and your donor’s objectives come together and become one. The path to getting there is difficult, but once you find it, your organization will know it can announce the campaign to the world with confidence.