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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Beyond the End Zone

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Remember that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest scores the winning touchdown for the Crimson Tide and keeps running, through the chute, out of the stadium, and across the United States? Reaching the end zone is hard enough in a capital campaign, but with the right preparation for solicitation teams and the right back-end support, schools can capture donor information in the course of a capital campaign that will help their advancement teams build momentum in fundraising efforts long after the campaign is over.

For advancement professionals in higher education and at more mature independent schools, this is Major Gifts/Moves Management 101, but at smaller, younger independent schools, it's too often a critical missed opportunity. The result is not only in lost revenue for the school in its major gifts and annual campaign efforts going forward but in expenses for future capital campaigns. I call this the Ground Hog Day scenario (as in the 1993 Bill Murray masterpiece) in which the school, lacking any real information about its donor base and therefore any real stewardship, must invest in an expensive feasibility study and send out solicitation teams with flimsy information and no organic, stewarding relationships to donors, and hope for the best. Solicitors in these tense scenarios often fill up the air space with their own nervous talk and miss the opportunity to truly listen to donors. And, even if solicitors have designed good, open ended questions AND listened AND taken notes on the donors' interests, there's no one on the back end to collect and record that precious information. Five years later, as the next campaign goes into motion--Ground Hog Day all over again.

In order to break this cycle, I encourage schools to invest their time and treasure in two critical capital campaign strategies. First, employ a capital campaign whip for the first year of the campaign. This person serves as point for scheduling, organizing materials, riding herd on event details, and most important, collecting and recording solicitation notes. Find someone with excellent organizational skills, a basic understanding of fundraising, strong database skills, and the maturity and confidence to be politely insistent. I am not an advocate for assigning this role to the school's Advancement Director as it results in too many missed opportunities for that person to build and grow relationships with donors. I am also not an advocate for seeking a volunteer for this work, particularly a current parent, no matter how enticing it might be to access free expertise. And, I am very much not an advocate for the fanastical thinking that some smaller schools apply to this matter when they offer an eager classroom teacher a stipend to do the work in the evening, or tack it on with a little additional salary to an existing staff member's job description. An hourly, full-time wage for a single year represents a tiny fraction of potential future revenue and is often, in my experience, eerily identical to the dollars the school will spend on consulting help in another Ground Hog Day campaign.

The second strategy comes at no cost: namely, to design and practice solicitations in which the case is clearly described but where the conversation is otherwise focused on eliciting donors' interests and relationship with the school. Use the solicitation of trustees for practice by pulling down the fourth wall after the solicitation is over and asking for their feedback on the solicitation itself. Solicitors are in the right place when this conversation is largely narrative, focused on stories of experiences with the school, or even better, their children's experiences. If a giving peer is part of the solicitation, it's often compelling for that person to lead off with something about the school that has been important to her family and to ask the donor what has meant the most to his family at the school. A question like "What are some of the key moments in your time at the school that stand out as moments of excellence?" has the potential to elicit what each donor sees as the key value propositions of the school, all critical information for the future stewardship of these families. Almost invariably, aspects of the current campaign will meet some of these interests, and the solicitor can make these connections as a segue to the specific ask.

Bolstered with this donor interest information, the advancement team and Head (even as the people who fill these roles change over time) plan stewardship efforts, collecting additional information over time that helps guide next efforts, and bring them to a next capital campaign when the cycle has finally been broken, and the solicitation of lead donors is a natural step in a long, intimate conversation.

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