Campaign Success Series Part 1: Why Do We Need a Feasibility Study?

Guest Post By Erin Lynch Moran, Partner at The Solas Group

I was recently talking to some prospect researchers when the topic of campaign feasibility studies came up, and I was surprised by the skepticism some of them had. Several of them felt that feasibility studies are redundant to their work. Researchers are experts at evaluating the philanthropic capacity of a donor base, they argued, and by hiring an outside firm to conduct a feasibility study, their campaign management team was showing a lack of faith in their abilities. 

This reaction demonstrates that we do not do a good enough job talking about the purpose of feasibility studies. Yes, they are a wonderful way of testing a campaign goal. But this is just one of many reasons why such studies play an important role in the campaign planning process.  

If you’ve never participated in a campaign feasibility study, the process goes something like this:

  1. An institution begins to articulate its campaign priorities and tentative goals.
  2. The institution begins a feasibility study either itself or with the help of outside counsel.
  3. The prospects who are most likely to support the campaign at the upper levels of the campaign pyramid are invited to participate in interviews for the study.
  4. Prospects are asked to review information (e.g. a white paper) that outlines the major objectives of the campaign and what the institution is hoping to accomplish as a result.
  5. Prospects are interviewed about their reaction to the information they received. They are asked whether the objectives resonate with them, whether they have confidence in the institution’s leadership and its ability to meet the goal, and whether they themselves would be likely to contribute to the campaign. If possible, the interview will result in a rough estimate of what that particular prospect is likely to contribute.
  6. The interview results are analyzed, along with data on the overall giving capacity of the organization’s constituency as a whole. Both philanthropic capacity information and past giving information will be carefully considered.
  7. On the basis of the above, the institution or its outside counsel will conclude whether the campaign goal that was tested is realistic. They may provide a dollar range representing what the institution could likely raise over the course of a defined number of years.

Without a doubt, the stated purpose of such studies is to identify a realistic campaign goal. However, there are many other reasons that conducting a feasibility study is a good idea. Here are just some of them:

  • Feasibility studies provide an outstanding opportunity to cultivate your organization’s top prospects and to make them feel like they are part of the campaign from the beginning.
  • They provide a rare opportunity to get candid feedback from prospects about your organization’s leadership and strategic direction.
  • They help your organization understand how much interest your prospects have in supporting specific campaign initiatives.
  • They inform organizations about the appropriate timing of a campaign effort (when to begin, when to go public, and when to close the campaign).
  • In a worst-case scenario, they help organizations revise potentially unrealistic expectations and/or avoid publicizing a goal they cannot attain.
  • In a best-case scenario, they help excite top prospects about the organization’s direction and get them thinking about their own campaign commitments.

As you can see, the result of a good feasibility study is something that cannot be replicated simply by analyzing donors’ capacity to give. Capacity assessments are a good starting point and can inform decisions about who should participate in feasibility study interviews. But what such assessments cannot provide is a sense of the degree to which your prospects are excited about the specific initiatives your organization is raising money for.

Does understanding that excitement level really matter if you have deeply loyal prospects who will support your organization regardless? Yes. In fact, it matters quite a bit in determining how much your campaign can raise.

To understand why, imagine this example. Say your doorbell rings and you answer it to find children selling candy to raise money to support their orchestra. Imagine that you’re willing to give them money and ask yourself realistically what you might offer them. 

Now imagine your doorbell rings again and it’s a neighbor telling you that a family down the street lost all of their belongings in a fire and the neighborhood is raising money to help them get back on their feet. Imagine that you’re willing to give them money and ask yourself realistically what you might consider offering in this scenario.

Chances are good that the dollar amount you might be willing to provide to support a children’s orchestra is different from what you would give to help your neighbors in a time of urgent need. Your capacity to give has not changed, but the difference between these two causes inspires different degrees of motivation and a different sense of what would be an appropriate level of sacrifice. 

This example explains why feasibility studies are not merely an exercise involving giving capacity. Without getting a sense from your top prospects on how motivated they are to support your campaign priorities, you might end up with a campaign that they find uninspiring.

Does this mean there is no role for prospect development in the process? Absolutely not. In fact, prospect development plays a key role by helping to identify the list of study participants. In order for a feasibility study to be successful, it must represent the very top prospects in your constituency base, in terms of both capacity and inclination. (If this part of the process has you stuck, never fear. The Solas Group offers modeling and custom analytics tools to support you.)

Mathematically, campaigns must rely on a small number of very large gifts in order to reach a campaign goal. It is not uncommon, for example, for organizations to receive a single gift representing a full 10-20% of the overall campaign goal. If your organization is in a billion-dollar campaign, that means you probably need at least one donor who can give at the nine-figure level. Even institutions with an extraordinary prospect base do not have an infinite supply of such prospects. Thus, identifying the prospects who are capable of gifts at that level and gathering their private feedback on your campaign objectives is mission-critical if you are going to publicly announce your campaign goal with confidence. 

So, to the researchers out there who are skeptical about the value of feasibility studies, take heart. There definitely is more to the study than your prospects’ capacity alone, but the good work you do to identify prospects’ capacity and inclination goes a long way in helping such studies succeed. 

Read the next post in the Campaign Success Series: Let’s Call it the Listening Phase.


About the Author: For more than 20 years, Erin Lynch Moran worked in higher education advancement. Starting as a prospect researcher, Erin went on to lead advancement services, development operations, communications, donor relations, events, alumni engagement, and annual fund. While at DePaul University, she was the campaign director for DePaul’s largest and most successful capital campaign. She is now a co-founder of The Solas Group, a firm specializing in technology and strategies that increase fundraising results.

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