To Do or Not to Do: Feasibility Studies Before a Capital Campaign

By Elaine Weber Nelson, Senior Resource Development Consultant Has the idea of a capital campaign sprung up at a board or staff meeting? Have you come to realize that your staff has outgrown your office space, or your services could be better delivered at a centralized location? Perhaps you aren’t able to fulfill your mission due to a building (or lack of building) -related reason? There are many reasons to launch into a capital campaign, but there is only one way to begin: A Feasibility Study.

So, briefly, what is a capital campaign? It’s a noun, meaning “an assessment of the practicality of a proposed plan or method.” In somewhat rudimentary for-profit language, it’s market research. It’s a “test-the-waters” effort to see what sort of support there might be for your idea and how your community sees your organization overall. Just as General Mills most likely doesn’t launch yet another version of Cheerios without checking with their consumers, you shouldn’t launch an effort that will have a major impact on your organization without checking with your community.

How does it work?

  1. Most organizations hire someone to get a third-party objective point of view. A feasibility study gets at far more than “How much will you give to this effort?” A good study tells you how your organization is viewed or known by the community and if there are areas of concern about your overall organization or the idea you are presenting, as well as what type of financial support might exist. If, after your next board meeting, someone approached you and said, “Really, what do you honestly think about X program?” just how forthright would you be? Similarly, the people you want to hear from may not be comfortable being completely honest – with their opinions or potential contributions—with someone from your organization.

  1. You identify who should participate. Make sure you have solid representation from staff, board, current and prospective donors, and community leaders.

  1. You frame the idea. You set out what you are thinking about doing in order to ask those in the study to respond to it.

  1. You make sure the study questions get to what you really want to know. You don’t want to get to the study results presentation and realize you missed asking a crucial question.

  1. You work with the consultant to invite participants to the study and get them scheduled. This is probably the most difficult part of the process. Really.

  1. You let the consultant work. Ideally the actual interviews don’t take more than a few weeks and then you gather your board for the presentation of the results.

  1. You decide where to go from here. It’s not a “go/no-go” decision. Your study might come back and tell you to LAUNCH! or NOT TO LAUNCH! or something in between. You may find a need or a barrier that needs to be addressed first such as donor cultivation, awareness-building, or program improvement.

  1. You let the study participants know what you found out and what you plan to do with the information.

Donors think campaigns happen in the blink of an eye – the same way people think the $500,000 that came in during Giving Tuesday happened because of the one email that was sent out that morning . . . but you know what’s really behind that one day event. There could be a year of preparation before you start talking to your top donors – or more – if the study says there is substantial work to be done before beginning a campaign. It can take another year to run the campaign. The process of running a successful capital campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. And the feasibility study is the starting line.