Pink and purple striped cartoon Cheshire Cat

“If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”

Have you been dreaming of what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a $100,000 gift for your annual fund? Are you tantalized by newspaper reports of mega-gifts to other organizations? These donors do not drop from the sky, nor are they only in the database of “big name” organizations. The likelihood is very high that right now among your constituents and supporters is a major gift donor in the making. What separates those organizations that “get” from those that wish? It is a vision and a case that requires/inspires major gifts, solid research, a plan, and love, respect and common courtesy for your donors. It is surprising to discover these basic elements missing from many development programs.

The Vision Thing

What is this elusive thing called vision? A vision is the power of the imagination to dream or project something beyond the ordinary. For a nonprofit organization, it is the driving force that informs and propels all programs and services. For donors or constituents, it is the key motivating factor for their investment. Your vision is presented in the case for support. If your non-profit organization does not have a current case that presents a clear rationale for why you need a donor’s investment or major gift, the likelihood is high that you will not receive one.

Let me challenge you to consider that a current, compelling case for support should be developed every year for your annual giving campaign. They are not just for capital campaigns! No matter how large or small your annual operating budget, you want to develop a case that inspires major gifts at whatever financial level your organization identifies as a major gift. This annual exercise is best completed with input from your program, finance and executive staff, as well as with relevant key volunteer/board committees. Philanthropic support is built around the case and it should inform and be consistent with all organizational appeals as well as written and verbal communications.


How much do you really know about your donors? Having an accurate understanding of your donors necessitates compiling information from many sources. At the most basic level research will help you understand your donors’ patterns and levels of giving. Do they only support you with a year-end gift? Do they only respond to written appeals or to emails? Which appeals? Are they motivated by special events? How long have they been giving? What can you discern about what motivates/prompts a gift? What do you know about their capacity and their support to other organizations? You will want to compile a solid data profile to help you ascertain their level of financial capability.

However, here is the most important research you need: what have your donors told you personally about what inspires and motivates them to support you? When was the last time you sat down with your donors and really probed them on their passions, their aspirations and their goals?

As Jerry Panas points out “The truth is, there is not much you can tell people that will truly motivate them and change their behavior.” But there is a lot you can ask. Have you mastered the skill of listening for intent and listening to understand? It is this asking of questions and listening to understand that is the research you need to move your donors to greater giving.

(This vital research has another important benefit: it opens conversations with your donors and begins to position you for the number 1, single most important aspect of obtaining a major gift. What is it? See below.*)

The Plan

“If you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there.” – Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

As so aptly observed by the Cheshire Cat, a sound plan provides the road to your destination. If that destination is a journey towards increased support from your donors, you want the path to be as efficient and smooth and free of obstacles and surprises as possible. Does your plan include a realistic table of gifts and is the gift table based upon a sufficient number of donors at the required gift levels? Does the plan include action steps, your calendar, benchmarks? Is it flexible? Does it allow you to leverage external opportunities that can provide your fund raising with a boost, such as breaking news or national observances that may be relevant to your mission or programs and provide some opportunities for a special compelling appeal or greater awareness of your work?

There is only one mystery as to why some non-profit organizations are obtaining major gifts and others are not. Decades of experience have produced recognized best practices and procedures that are well documented and widely acknowledged to result in greater giving. The only mystery is why some organizations follow best practices and have the commitment and discipline to execute well while others struggle.

Love, Respect and Common Courtesy for Your Donors

Surprisingly, non-profit organizations still exhibit what can only be described as bad manners, rudeness and lack of common courtesy toward their donors. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! Would you consider not thanking Aunt Jane or Uncle Bob for their wedding gift or annual birthday gift? Or not taking the time to tell grandmother what you have been up to or what you plan to do with her gift or how appreciative you are? Stewardship issues abound at even the most sophisticated not-for-profit organizations.

What is your organization’s Stewardship Scorecard? How long is the turnaround time for your acknowledgement letters? Two days, two weeks or two months? What is the level of personalization and accuracy you achieve? How do you keep your donors up-to-date with your achievements and results? Do your donors believe you really know them? Do you make them feel as if nothing would be possible without their support? How do you nurture and deepen your connection to them and their bond to you? Take the challenge to develop an organizational Stewardship Scorecard that identifies basic elements of stewardship, establishes your organization’s standards and continually measure yourself to see how you are doing. Have your donor’s rate you; what are their standards and desires for contact, information and recognition?

Take your donor’s on this journey with you and watch as their investment deepens.
*Answer to above: It’s asking! Don’t forget to ask!

Deborah Peeples CFREWritten by guest blogger, Deborah Peeples, CFRE. Deborah is a certified fundraising executive with more than 25 years of experience.  She has directed and led major gifts and capital campaign fundraising programs for national, regional and local non-profit organizations and is a proven leader in the field.  Her skills include strategic thinking and conceptualization; and motivation of staff and volunteers.  She is knowledgeable in all aspects of development and campaign planning.


  1. “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” (Aristotle)
  2. Most non-profit organizations lose at least 50% of their newly acquired donors the following year.
  3. It costs less to retain and motivate an existing donor than to attract a new one.
  4. The most cost-efficient way to increase return on investment is major gift fundraising.
  5. The greatest opportunity for non-profit board improvement is in fundraising.
  6. The most successful fundraising organizations develop strategies not just to acquire donors, but to grow those donors seamlessly through the organization, using a multi-channel approach to achieve their maximum potential.
  7. A solid brand identity helps tell an organization’s story; it sets expectations, gains attention, fosters relationships and ultimately helps ensure long-term survival.
  8. The objective of all forms of communication is to convert consumers of information into participants.
  9. “Action expresses priorities.” (Mahtma Gandhi)
  10. Simple is as simple does.

For more information about The Fundraising Resource Group’s relational fundraising and marketing services, visit our website at

feasibility study is a bridge for capital campaign

Millau Viaduct: Tran Valley, France
World’s highest vehicular bridge

The Millau Viaduct is the tallest bridge in the world, with one mast’s summit 1,125 ft. above the base of the structure. It features the 12th highest bridge deck in the world, with 890 ft. between the road deck and the ground below.  When the decision was made to build a high crossing of the Tarn River Valley between France and Spain, the structures division of Sétra, a technical department within the French Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, carried out preliminary studies and examined the feasibility of a structure. Five teams of architects and structural engineers were formed; each was to conduct in-depth studies of one of the five general bridge designs. The solution of a cable-stayed bridge was declared the best. Detailed studies were carried out by the winning team, and construction was completed in 2004.

In 2006, the Millau Viaduct received the IABSE Outstanding Structure Award.

There are two kinds of people who encounter these types of crossings. The first is like my wife, who is deathly afraid of heights and convinced that there is no way the structure will actually support her. The second is like me, who gets half way across and then wonders if the bridge will hold. My first thought when at the point of no return is “I hope this bridge is well constructed.” Rarely do I stop to think about the origins of design.

The P2 pier is the tallest structure in France, taller than the Eiffel tower.

The P2 pier is the tallest structure in France,
taller than the Eiffel tower.

How do you design a successful capital campaign?
The history of bridges goes back as far as man’s desire to overcome obstacles of getting from one side to the other. Today, bridges are not only practical, but wonders of architecture and design.

John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan said, “The wise man bridges the gap by laying out the path by which he can get from where he is to where he wants to be.” Non-profit organizations are continually evaluating how to traverse the obstacles preventing them from doing more of the good work they do today. Many times that planning process leads to the need for an extraordinary fundraising initiative, focused on an urgent need, with a defined timeline, and a dollar goal: in short, a capital campaign. If the capital campaign is the bridge, the feasibility and planning study is the design and engineering process.

Is it really necessary to conduct a study?
The answer is, most of the time, “yes.” There are three reasons a fundraising feasibility study is so important:

  1. There is no better way to gauge philanthropic priority for your project.
  2. There is no other reliable indicator of capacity.
  3. The campaign must be an unqualified success.

Experience is not a sure indicator of what a nonprofit can raise in a capital campaign.I am not an engineer, but I do understand how important it is to measure the load-bearing capacity for any bridge, particularly if I am going to be on it with others. Just as with the Millau Viaduct project, there are tests and benchmarks, along with science, art, and experience that go into determining the structure and capacity for a bridge, or a capital campaign.

The most reliable way to determine the design and fundraising capacity for a capital campaign is a well-orchestrated feasibility study, conducted by an experienced study director. No past or present giving experience is a sure indication of what an organization can raise in a capital campaign. The study is the means by which information is shared, tested, analyzed and put into an actionable plan.

How do you define “unqualified success?”
The good news is, you get to define the terms for success, and the study is the first step in doing so. I worked with an organization, doing amazing work with inner-city families. They had a need, and a plan for a new facility that would have a profound impact on their ministry as well as the community. They needed $15 million dollars to do so. We conducted a fundraising feasibility study and recommended, among other things, a preliminary $10 million goal. Let me say that a recommended starting goal coming out of study is most often the floor. The objective is to set a goal that can and will be exceeded through the effective work of the campaign.

The organization was convinced that it could not scale back the project, and felt confident that it could raise the other $5 million from sources not included in the study. They were determined to set a goal of $15 million. Many positive outcomes happened through the course of the campaign: they attracted a fully-engaged volunteer team like no other they had experienced; they received the largest gift in the organization’s history; they experienced an increase in annual fundraising; and they raised more money than they ever had for a single project. But, they did not raise $15 million. The perception of many was that the organization did not experience an unqualified success because it did not reach its publicized goal.

Goals are benchmarks for success that must be surpassed, and the findings from the study should set the foundation for that success.

best campaigns incorporate obstacles into workable solutionsWhat makes a fundraising feasibility study successful?
The study is not the place to skimp on experience. For me it is important that it is not the rivet-drivers who designed the bridges I cross. This observation is not intended to slight the importance or expertise of the construction crew. However, it gives me comfort to know that experienced bridge designers and engineers are on the job. In the same way, it is important to have that kind of experience conducting the feasibility study that will lead to the design of your campaign. It is the individual(s) conducting the study that will:

  • interact with your highest levels of leadership,
  • represent you and your project to your most important relationships,
  • actively listen to and probe the responses in the study, and
  • ultimately analyze the data and present insightful recommendations for you to make wise decisions.

If using an outside third party to conduct the feasibility study, take the time to get to know not only the firm, but those that will be meeting with your prized relationships and representing you in the process. Check references, not simply for the firm, but for those individuals. Get the most experience you can to probe the responses of study participants and provide you with substantive analysis and recommendations.

There are a number of ways to conduct a study, however the most successful approaches include:

  • developing a compelling and urgent Case for Support that concisely summarizes the needs and impact of the potential campaign;
  • conducting confidential, face-to-face interviews with individuals of influence and/or affluence whose input is critical;
  • providing thorough and insightful analysis and observations from the responses, not simply a polling process or questionnaire;
  • recommending specific and actionable steps on how best to proceed including project priorities, preliminary goals, campaign organization, timeline and activities, awareness and marketing, assessment of organizational readiness, and a clear financial path to success.
bridge representing fundraising study

Nanpu Bridge: Shanghai, China
Circular design to save space

Does a study always lead to a campaign?
I am asked often if I have ever recommended an organization NOT proceed with a campaign as a result of the study. I have, but that is the exception and for extreme circumstances. Most often, if an organization has taken the appropriate steps in strategic planning that identifies realistic resources needed, the planning and feasibility study is a process of refining and defining. Because a campaign is designed to test the upper limits of reality in most cases, many times the study recommendations will require the organization to make decisions about scaling, phasing, financing or communicating before moving forward. In other words, it is more likely to get a “yellow light” than a “red light.”

A look at the world’s most fascinating bridges is instructive. The most impressive designs seem to be those that incorporate the challenging elements and obstacles into the workable solution rather than allowing them to remain an impediment. There is a bridge where boats not only flow under, but on top of the bridge alongside cars and trucks. Another bridge is a spiraling corkscrew, designed to accommodate congested traffic in a tight urban area. Yet another features beautiful fountains where the river flows through the bridge and comes out as colorful cascades on the other side.

A good architect and engineer conducts a thorough evaluation of the possibilities, and the process of providing realistic solutions is always at the front end of that edifice – not just for show, but for effect.

In preparing for a successful capital campaign, the planning and feasibility study is that process of not only identifying the opportunities, but also evaluating the obstacles that stand in the way of moving your organization from one side of greatness to the other side of amazing.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Dimensions magazine, a publication of the National Catholic Development Conference. For more information about The Fundraising Resource Group, visit

Illustration of long table and chairs with ? used to represent fundraising board.Courtney, a new executive director of a relatively small nonprofit, was anxious to learn as much as possible in order to manage her work. She knew intuitively, as well as through her experience as a mid-level manager in a nonprofit setting that board management would be a key element to her success. So Courtney enrolled in a workshop entitled “Volunteer and Board Development” at the community college nearby, and networked ferociously with her fellow directors.

After the 180-minute workshop and networking, Courtney was completely confused about one seemingly-vital element. “What is the ideal size of my board?” she wondered. Her workshop instructor firmly declared that “best practices” dictated a board of 18-25. A number of her colleagues espoused a smaller board, “no more than twelve,” since “they were the only ones who did any work anyway.” Still others declared, “the sky is the limit as far as number of board members.”

Courtney was aware of many concerns associated with board management. She knew about creating board job descriptions, heard terms like “give, get, or get off,” and knew having an orientation for new board members would be a good idea. But the simple question of optimal size of the board eluded her. So, she decided to weigh the plusses and minuses of her options.

A Small Board?
A small board, she determined, would be nimble, easier to recruit, and would take far less of her time. A small board would allow members to meet with less notice; there would be fewer busy schedules to try to coordinate, and the nastiness of bureaucracy would be easier to evade. Very appealing! However, Courtney knew a small board could lend itself to power plays and micromanagement. She knew she didn’t want that in her new position.

A Large Board?
On the other hand, the large board presented some significant benefits. Courtney knew of many organizations where their ONLY requirement of board members was their ability to give or get a certain amount of money annually. If helping bring in the cash was the only expectation of board members, then surely these same folks would be less likely to stir up trouble or question Courtney’s leadership. She really only needed volunteers to help her raise money, anyway. Indeed, the large board presented a tempting option for Courtney. However, part of the attraction of this arrangement also creates a hazard. Where is the board oversight? If the only responsibility of board members is to bring money to the table, what about the fiduciary responsibilities associated with board membership? Courtney’s attraction to a large board was no doubt the result of the influence of her colleagues who lamented the excessive involvement of board members. Perhaps her colleagues were oblivious to the benefits of accessing the networks presented by a variety of board members; or perhaps they exploited those networks in addition to their income sources? Managing a larger board would certainly take more time and energy, but the rewards may well be worth the effort.     

A Mid-Size Board?
Finally, Courtney considered the so-called optimal board size of 18-25 people. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, certainly the mid-size board would be “just right,” right? Big enough to provide diversity of backgrounds, but not so large as to become unwieldy. Intimate enough to create a sense of teamwork and common purpose, but not too small as to allow for wild agendas. Courtney saw much wisdom in the so-called “optimal” board.  

But like most stories, the truth is not always the same as the complete story…

Courtney actually chose the large board. Her priority, she decide, was financial security. By having more local leaders she would increase not only total funds to her organization, but higher visibility as well. The challenges of managing a large board were mitigated by establishing an executive committee, serving as a board within a board. Many of her colleagues suggested the modification, and she was confident it would work in her organization. Keeping in mind all of these decisions required compliance with the agency’s bylaws. Courtney got just what she needed.  

In her case, bigger was certainly better…at least for the moment. Have you had a similar experience when starting a nonprofit? What worked best for you? 


Head shot of fundraising consultant John ScolaWritten by guest blogger, John A. Scola, CFRE. John has been involved professionally in nonprofit work since 1983. He has been designated a Master Teacher through the Faculty Training Academy of the Association of Fund Raising Professionals. He was also the recipient of the AFP’s Greater Arizona Chapter Outstanding Executive Award in 2002. John is an Associate Consultant for The Fundraising Resource Group.


I make my living giving advice. Actually, much more than that. I make my living assessing challenging situations, developing strategic, actionable plans and implementing successful solutions for non-profit organizations. However, I am going to give some free advice to those concerned about the future of Catholic education.

A recent New York Times editorial, “Catholic Education, in Need of Salvation,” makes some very insightful and important points while highlighting some seemingly insurmountable challenges to Catholic education. Everyone involved with Catholic education knows the history of the change from the religious order-led model to a more expensive lay-led system.Pull out quote: The potential undoing of the Catholic education system lies somewhat in its worthy mission." There is also the pressure of shifting demographics in the U.S. Catholic population that is straining the system. However, the potential undoing of the Catholic education system lies somewhat in its worthy mission. Not in the need to change the mission but in how to fulfill it. Canon Law states that “Pastors of souls have the duty of making all possible arrangements so that all the faithful may avail themselves of a Catholic education.” This sets Catholic education apart from other private institutions that, if they choose, can provide access primarily for only those who can afford it (or who excel in sports). This open invitation from Catholic schools provides quite a conundrum on how to pay for it.

The article concluded with a quote from John J. Hughes, the first archbishop of New York: “The school is more necessary than the church.” This is understood, particularly in providing at least part of the solution to break the cycle of poverty and disproportionate opportunity that exists in many urban areas and poverty-stricken communities where public education is failing. Catholic education is vital to providing educational opportunity for the underserved. The question is, how to fund it?

I have had the privilege to work with some of the best minds and most compassionate hearts in Catholic leadership. These are spiritual giants, intellectual geniuses and men of great wisdom. They are also good businessmen. But, these leaders, along with their fellow bishops and pastors, continue to struggle with a great balancing act when it comes to how to sustain a broken financing model for parochial, middle and secondary schools.

Here is where the free advice comes in.

There must be a consolidated approach to save Catholic education and make it more attractive as a sustainable model for investment. This is not an easy task. First, on the diocesan level, there are many competing interests. “Not my school.” “Not my parish.” “Not my donors.” That “parochial” view must be overcome. What good does it do to win the turf war if the turf becomes barren?Pull out quote that says "If we are not called to help the least among us, regardless of geography or parish and diocesan boundaries, what are we called to do?"  Consolidated school consortiums must become the norm, providing opportunity, efficiency, affordability (and transportation) to more. Second, we must continue to advocate for changes in public policy such as voucher systems to allow families to choose how to spend their education dollars for the greatest outcome for their children in all communities. Third, Catholic education must develop and communicate a business model that provides donors confidence in the return-on-investment and sustainability for the future and not simply of sense they are “just feeding the meter.” Forth, the Catholic Church in the U.S. should explore and develop a vehicle for a national consolidated Catholic educational funding model: a national Catholic Education Endowment. That is not easy, but it is Christian. If we are not called to help the least among us, regardless of geography or parish and diocesan boundaries, what are we called to do? We have no problem in supporting worthy national and international Catholic causes such as Catholic Relief Services and others, why not a national Catholic primary, middle and secondary education endowment?

My friend Ray Coughlin, Director of Stewardship and Development at the Archdiocese of Chicago, was on to something when he pitched the concept of a planned giving campaign for Catholic Schools to his diocesan leadership. There will continue to be massive wealth transfer in this country. Why not to Catholic education on a greater scale equal to that of higher education and perhaps on a national level? Of course, before you can ask someone to take assets out of their portfolio, money from their bank account, or inheritance from their children to stick in your account only to use the earnings, you must have a business plan and model that is worthy of asking someone to leave a part of their life’s work to.

The chicken or egg question is finally answered. The first step is fix the model; then the hard work of gathering the eggs will be made more achievable on a grand scale. It will take courage, hard decisions and creative thinking. It will take sacrifice and sharing from all stakeholders. It will take a non-parochial and universal viewpoint. It will take engaging the best business, education and spiritual minds to create and implement the solution. But, absent this courage, continuing to ask donors for our daily bread over and over will not be enough. The statistics will overwhelm, and the mission will be diminished.

Close-up photo of Catholic School girl with her hand over her heart, apparently reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States.

A student at St. Mary of Czestochowa School in Cicero, Ill., photo courtesy of The Catholic World Report. Catholic School Girl

For more information about The Fundraising Resource Group’s relational fundraising and marketing services, visit our website at