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Why You Should Rethink Feasibility Studies Before Starting a Capital Campaign

Posted Jan 10, 2023 04:26 PM
Capital campaigns are big undertakings that have high stakes and potentially transformational benefits for your nonprofit and constituents. But while there are plenty of best practices to follow that will maximize your chances of success, there’s no one way to run a capital campaign.

It pays to make your capital campaign your own. You can (and should) adapt your approach to best suit your unique needs, mission, community, and donors, thus laying out a more compelling and meaningful plan that will drive results.

Not only should you adapt campaign practices to suit the realities of your organization, you need to realize that some traditional campaign practices have changed in recent years. Feasibility studies are a great example of a standard part of capital campaign planning that has been thought about in just one way. In this article, we will discuss why you should rethink this traditional model in favor of a different one.

What are campaign feasibility studies?

A feasibility study consists of a series of interviews and assessments prior to the official launch of a major fundraising campaign. During these interviews, your nonprofit’s stakeholders provide their thoughts and input on your preliminary campaign plans. These stakeholders can include:

  • Current and prospective major donors
  • Senior-level staff and key volunteers
  • Past and current board members
  • Constituent representatives
  • Local business and community leaders
  • Other external partners and funders

The preliminary campaign plan should include the purpose or objective of the campaign (what it will accomplish), its working goal (how much it will cost to accomplish), and an early version of your broader case for support.

Feedback from stakeholders, distilled into analyses and recommendations, will show you if your plans are realistic and feasible or if they should be adjusted to better align with what you’re likely to accomplish. In some cases, you may even encounter enthusiasm that signals you should broaden your vision to raise more than planned.

What’s the traditional approach?

A traditional feasibility study is conducted by a third-party capital campaign consultant. They handle the study’s interviews, which are confidential because it’s assumed donors and other stakeholders will be more candid when speaking to an objective dispassionate outsider.

The consultant then analyzes findings from the interviews and compiles them into a report and a set of recommendations for your campaign. In many cases, the consultant will also be involved in implementing those recommendations and helping to direct the campaign going forward.

Why might this approach hold you back?

Overall, the limitations of the traditional approach to feasibility studies can reduce the long-term value that your organization derives from the process. This is mainly due to the fact that consultant-led interviews are conducted behind closed doors. Specifically, this approach can mean that:

  • Your organization won’t learn directly from the experience. Especially if this is your first capital campaign or your team doesn’t yet have much development experience, you miss out on the valuable opportunity to begin speaking about your campaign, major gifts, and big-picture goals directly to donors.
  • You’ll miss opportunities to begin generating campaign buy-in. Feasibility study interviews are a great chance to reinforce your relationships with key supporters by showing that you value their input. This early involvement can also go a long way to instill a sense of personal investment in the campaign’s success.
  • You won’t be able to attach specific feedback to individuals. Since consultant-led interviews are confidential, you’ll be unable to address specific issues that are raised. If a major donor expresses concern about something, wouldn’t you want to know so you can personally follow up to discuss it further?
  • Your donors might feel "put on the spot." It’s not uncommon for anyone to inadvertently inflate concerns when in a situation like a feasibility study interview. This factor can skew the study’s results and create issues that otherwise wouldn’t be top priorities.

To avoid these missteps, one solution is to conduct a more hands-on style of guided or coached feasibility study.

What does a "guided feasibility" study look like?

In a guided feasibility study, you receive guidance and coaching from a capital campaign consultant but conduct the stakeholder interviews yourself. In these one-on-one conversations, you’ll present your preliminary plan, goal, and case for support. Once the interviews are completed, you work with the consultant to collate the results and derive key findings and recommendations which you can take back to your board and campaign steering committee.

The hands-on nature of this process brings a number of key benefits over the traditional approach:

  • It’s an active learning experience for your team.
  • It builds relationships with donors and generates campaign buy-in.
  • If you already have strong relationships with interviewees, it can serve to get donors more engaged with the campaign from the start.
  • It provides more direct insights into stakeholder responses, which you can use to guide conversations and refine your case for support going forward.

A guided feasibility study can be a smart use of your time and serve as a valuable investment in both the success of the campaign and your team’s leadership, presentation, and stewardship skills. It’s an ideal approach for nonprofits that could particularly benefit from the learning experience and/or don’t have the budget for a fully consultant-led approach.

Some organizations may still find that a hands-off feasibility study remains their top choice for any number of reasons, and that’s fine—the key takeaway is to remember that you have options.

Take the time to consider the positives and drawbacks that each approach would bring in your unique context. Consult with peer organizations that have conducted capital campaigns and inquire about their experiences. Research service providers and ask them questions to learn more about what their preferred process entails. You’ll land on the right approach for your nonprofit.

About the Authors:

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders running successful campaigns.

The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, is a veteran fundraising consultant. With more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she’s published a number of books, including Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops. Amy is also an in-demand keynote speaker and an engaging board retreat trainer and facilitator.

Andrea Kihlstedt is the author of Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, now in its 4th edition, as well as How to Raise $1 Million (or More) in 10 Bite Sized Steps, in addition to several other fundraising books.

She has been leading successful capital campaigns for more than 30 years.