Guest Post By Erin Lynch Moran, Partner at The Solas Group
For anyone planning or managing a comprehensive campaign, the campaign kickoff is might just be the most critical moment. The campaign kickoff marks the official turning point between a campaign’s “quiet phase” and its “public phase,” so it’s the moment your organization reveals its plans and commits to finishing the campaign as announced.
The quiet phase that precedes the kickoff is a time to gather significant campaign contributions from your organization’s most devoted donors. During that time, donors realize you’re in a campaign, but the community at large has very little awareness of it, and certainly no specifics about the goal and timeline. When you reach the kickoff, your campaign goal moves under a spotlight for the world to see.
Marking the kickoff is often a gala event—or perhaps several in various regions where your constituents can be found. This event marks an excellent opportunity to motivate major donors to make their campaign commitment in time to be recognized and thanked during the celebration. And so, in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the event, at a time when you are most consumed with staging an event that everyone will find original, memorable, and gracious, you are also working at breakneck speed to close some of the largest contributions in your entire campaign.
As you might have gathered, launching a campaign is stressful. Recently, I conducted field research in which I spoke to a wide cross-section of campaign directors at organizations across the United States. Every time I brought up the subject of the campaign kickoff I was met with a sigh. Having been a campaign director myself, I can tell you that the week leading up to the kickoff was among the most stressful in my life—far more stressful than my own wedding. So, if you are in the throes of planning a campaign kickoff, here is my advice for how to survive it.
Increasingly as the campaign kickoff approaches, every decision begins to take on a feeling of incredible significance. Who should be invited? How should donors be recognized? What will the program be? And the ever-dreaded event planning question: who will sit at the tables near the front?
And, invariably, there are worries. What if someone’s name is listed incorrectly? What if a principal gift is made right after everything is printed? What if it rains during the outdoor portion of the event? What if there’s a medical emergency? What if the honorary campaign chair calls that morning to say he can’t make it across the city in time to make the keynote address?
My first piece of advice is to pause and breathe, remembering that just because the campaign and the event are important doesn’t mean that every detail is important. I will never forget my own campaign kickoff, approximately 36 hours before the event started. My then supervisor, the VP for Advancement whom I still respect and adore, temporarily lost her mind about something we would never have even thought about: the floor inside the tent.
You have probably been to gala events that are held inside tents, and my guess is you may not even remember what the floor looked like. But I can tell you with greater than 90% certainty that the floor inside that event was made of black Astroturf on particleboard. Black Astroturf blends into the background, allowing the glittering lights and other décor elements to take center stage.
Thirty-six hours before our kickoff, the VP suddenly became wracked with doubt. “Astroturf? Isn’t that what they use for football? We can’t use Astroturf. This is supposed to be an elegant event! Can you start calling flooring companies and seeing if we can get a hardwood floor installed in time?”
If I had been brandishing a tranquilizer gun, my only question would have been whether to tranquilize her or myself.
When you’re in the throes of a campaign kickoff, it’s common to lose perspective. And when you do that, you run the risk of missing the most critical pieces. While the event must be done and done well, the primary focus of a campaign director must be meeting or exceeding your goal for fundraising by that milestone. The last thing you want to do is announce a campaign without enough funding in hand to be confident in your success. To do that, you need a minimum of 60% of the fundraising goal by the time you go public. Leave the event details to the event planning experts (hopefully you have some!) and concentrate on ensuring that you’ve raised enough money and developed enough of a pipeline to be confident that you will meet your goal.
In order to achieve that, it’s mission-critical that you have developed clear, accurate, and strategic campaign analytics to support you in your work. If you can’t quickly assess how much money you have raised for each area of the campaign, how many gifts you will need to meet or exceed your goal, and how many prospects it will take to close that many gifts, you are not ready to go public. (And I would be remiss not to mention that if you find yourself in a bind, reach out to me. Solas has helped organizations develop full suites of custom campaign dashboards in a matter of months.)
Many things that will seem important during the kickoff will become drops in the ocean of memory that floods you when you’re looking back on your campaign. I can’t remember what we served for dinner that night, though I’m certain it was a decision that we sweated at the time. But I remember exactly where we were when we launched our campaign: we were at 66%. I knew we had the prospects to get us over the finish line, and I even knew the ones we would return to toward the campaign’s end to ensure that we finished strong. (We did finish strong. Two years after announcing we revised our campaign goal, increasing it by about 20%. In the end, we raised 33% more than our revised goal.)
So, if you’re in the midst of planning a campaign kickoff, my best advice is to keep your head on your shoulders. Plenty of gala events have had their share of mishaps that are barely remembered any more by those who attended. But people will always remember whether or not you met your goal, so make sure you have set your organization up for a resounding success.
About the Author: Erin Lynch Moran is a co-founder and partner at The Solas Group, which provides industry-leading analytics that help organizations plan, manage, and evaluate fundraising campaigns. Erin is a founding member of aasp and has worked in fundraising for 25+ years, including serving as an associate VP of advancement services and as the campaign director for a successful, eight-year comprehensive campaign. You can learn more about Erin and The Solas Group at www.thesolasgroup.com.