John LennonI usually like to write or talk about things that I have some measure of expertise in, experience with, or at least an informed opinion of. But as 2013 comes to a close and it is time to plan for the coming year for our fundraising consulting business and to make personal resolutions, I hit some roadblocks. There are just some things I have no clue about and therefore simply can’t plan for. Here is why:

1.January 1 has No Relation to December 31
Each year seems to bring some unexpected event or events that form an outcome never anticipated despite the “best laid plans.” After the ball dropped in 2009, I had no idea that I would meet the one who would become the most important person to me for the rest of my life and also turn out to be a darn good marketing guru. Conversely, I had no idea that such a promising 2010 would end with someone I considered a friend and whom I trusted (as it turns out too much) would betray me in an unimaginable way. Just as surprisingly, once we put away the noisemakers in 2011 and 2012, and put that betrayal behind us, we would understand that it was one of the best things that ever happened for us. This January 1, 2013 when we woke up in Dallas, Texas we never anticipated that we would find ourselves living in Florida to be closer to my aging in-laws by December 31st.

Robert Frost said “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I guess that makes me the morning. The one thing I do know is that there is no telling where the crooked trail of 2014 will lead, but I welcome it. I do hope it will be a little less eventful on the personal side with even more excitement with the nonprofit organizations we serve.

2.You Never Know Who You Will Meet
There was a time in my professional career several years back when I considered tuning in my fundraising consultant frequent flyer card and hitching my wagon to a non-profit organization with a single cause I could care deeply about. Had I done that I would never have met the folks at Breakthrough Urban Ministries or Olive Crest. I wouldn’t know the unselfish educators of Cleveland Central Catholic High School; or just this year, the passion of the people at the Center for Great Apes, and vision of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, or loving care of those at Lourdes Senior Center. In my work as a fundraising consultant across the country, I meet the best of the best every year, and I never know who it will be next.

I get to rub shoulders with the most dedicated, passionate, and capable people who have, in many cases, eschewed other more lucrative opportunities to serve in the not-for-profit world, and volunteers who generously part with their time and cash for causes for which they care. 2013 also brought new friends and colleagues with the addition of some very talented and experienced additions to our team whom I didn’t even know existed when the year began, but now I consider friends. I wonder who I will meet this year.

3.What Difference Does it Make?
My name, or The Fundraising Resource Group, are rarely mentioned at the dedication of a new facility after a successful capital campaign. Most often we do not meet the people whose lives are changed because a non-profit we helped raised a little (or a lot) more than they did the year before in their annual fundraising appeal or major gift fundraising plan. Sometimes we don’t even meet those whose lives are transformed because of their own philanthropy and giving. Then there are the thousands that attend our free fundraising webinars that we may never get to know on a personal level but who are striving to hone their craft to do even more. We really don’t have a clue how many lives are being changed because of the work of the non-profit organizations we encounter, but what we do know is that because of these organizations and those that support them, we get to be a little part of the difference they make.

A Word from John Lennon
John Lennon said “Life is what happens while you are busy making plans.” I am a big believer in planning, but I am also grateful for the things I have no clue about, and embrace the challenges and opportunities those uncertainties bring. See you next year. That’s my plan. Happy New Year!

As you look back on 2013 what was your most insightful experience?

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

Screen shot from The Puzzle of Motivation "there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does"I have yet to watch a TED talk that I didn’t find insightful, if not inspirational. After listening to Dan Pink talk on The Puzzle of Motivation, which is the basis of his book, Drive, it occurred to me that what he has to say should be good news for non-profit organizations. According to Pink, research has proven – over and over again – that for all but the most narrowly focused tasks in business, money is not the big motivator. This should be a small bit of good news to the many non-profit organizations that have limited resources to compensate their employees.

Pink identifies three factors that are critical to motivation and not surprising; having a sense of purpose is one of them. In fact, Pink says that connecting to a cause greater than yourself drives the deepest motivation. Elizabeth Moss Kanter, author and Professor at Harvard Business School, writes on this same topic in her blog post The Happiest People Pursue the Most Difficult Problems, asserting that meaning helps people to go the extra mile and stay engaged, “People can be inspired to stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges if they care about the outcome.” Having a passion for an organization’s mission is usually what drives people to work for a non-profit organization.

But what about the other two factors Pink sites as motivators: autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives – and mastery – the desire to get better at something that matters? This is where I think most non-profit organizations are challenged.

Dan Pink giving TED talkBoundaries
Having spent most of my career working with for-profit companies, part of this can be attributed to a lack of well-defined boundaries. In the companies I have worked for everyone had a written job description, there was a set chain-of-command and the board of directors was removed enough from the day-to-day operations of the company that employees very rarely felt their opinions and influence. Since I have begun working with non-profits I have seen accounting staff invited to attend and weigh-in in marketing meetings, presidents allow board members to make all kinds of decisions for them – from staffing and job responsibilities to logo designs – and a slew of other head-scratching behaviors that inhibit smart decision-making and productivity. I attribute this to the “touchy-feely” factor upon which non-profits are based; that compassion and empathy for others that can lead to erroneously believing everyone’s opinion counts. In business, everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion but not every opinion matters – nor should it.

Autonomy can also be noticeably absent in non-profits that are founder-driven. The founder who has put his or her heart and soul into growing the non-profit and does so successfully until they reach a point where they just can’t do it all, and yet they can’t let go and let others do it for them. Others aren’t empowered to make decisions and everything bottlenecks. And there is no more certain recipe for failure than holding an employee accountable for outcomes without giving them the ability to direct those outcomes. It happens in the for-profit sector as well. At that point, the organization either stagnates (and will likely cease to exist when the founder is gone), dies, or outside forces move to replace that individual. I had the unfortunate experience of working for such a company once. I have never seen so many smart, talented and yet unproductive and unhappy people. The board eventually ousted the founder; it was a matter of survival. But in the meantime, the company suffered an incredible drain of talent; highly motivated people move on to opportunities that allow them to pursue mastery.

I can say unequivocally, if you want the best, the brightest and the most highly motivated workers – and you want them to stay with you – you have to give them the autonomy to make decisions and to learn and grow from their own mistakes. Yes, mistakes. Everyone makes them and I would argue those are the lessons that we learn best. John Wooden, the famous UCLA coach who won an unprecedented ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period – seven in a row – said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I am positive a doer makes mistakes.”

Try truly empowering your people and watch them, and your organization’s impact in the world, grow.

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

Lee NeelWritten by Lee Neel, Vice President of Marketing, The Fundraising Resource Group.  Lee holds her master’s degree in advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has over 30 years of experience in marketing, working for both for-profit and non-profit organizations.

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