Checklist: Questions the Governing Board Must Ask Before Launching a Fundraising Campaign

empty board room

Series: Creating the Conditions for Support

Everyone is trying to raise more money. Rather than simply suggest the next tactic that can boost giving in the short-term, this series offers a more intensive look at the strategic thinking that drives philanthropic support: Why do donors give? How do institutions strengthen their core and emphasize initiatives worthy of support? How do we align strategic plans, strengths, and advancement strategy to create the conditions for ongoing and sustained support? In this series, distinguished current and past chief advancement officers apply their most innovative and creative thinking to this question.

Previously in this series:
Why Donors Give: It’s Not What You Think
More than Dollars: How Many Opportunities are You Missing with Your Alumni?
Engaging Women in Philanthropy: Practical Ways to Shift Our Approach

In the course of running three university campaigns, and in guiding dozens more as a consultant, I have seen virtually every college or university fall short of its full fundraising potential. This occurs both because of competing assumptions by various institutional leaders about the keys to success and therefore, the strategies and tactics that are most likely to produce it, and because institutional leaders often fail to ask the pivotal questions before launching a campaign.

As campaigns meet or exceed their dollar goals, who asks if the money was raised in the most expeditious and cost-effective manner, placed the institution on stronger strategic foundations, served to broaden or deepen constituent relations, or rendered a significant return to the community or society? Many presidents or fundraisers move on to more lucrative positions after a campaign, and consultants celebrate client victories to secure more clients, but who takes stock of what actually happened to the institution? What successes can continue to be leveraged for greater institutional momentum? What deficiencies were revealed, and how can they be mitigated? Which of them are most consequential and need to be addressed quickly?

Who bears the responsibility for asking the right questions before, during, and after a comprehensive campaign?

The answer is clear: those with the greatest fiduciary responsibility, the board members. A fiduciary, after all, is one charged with the safekeeping and management of a trust or asset, so a full strategic assessment of the state of that asset must be conducted before and after a campaign.


A Book and In-Depth Guide
Academic Impressions and I have just released the book Comprehensive Fundraising Campaigns: A Guide for Presidents and Boards, which offers a fundamental and thorough rethinking of how to leverage campaigns to strengthen the institution in the long term, not just the short term. The book shares my best thinking on the topic, and is a must-read for the members of any governing board. (You can also get a bundle of all four of my fundraising guides here.)
“This book is a treasure trove of great advice, forward-thinking reflections, and the tough but much needed questions that presidents, boards, vice presidents and deans need to ask one another before embarking on a fundraising campaign. This book is a must-read for anyone contemplating a 21st century campaign grounded in sound strategy, strong vision, and market-focused insight.”
 Matthew T. Lambert, Vice President for University Advancement, William & Mary

A Checklist
Meanwhile, I hope you will find the checklist below useful. Please share it with the leadership at your college or university.

Checklist: Critical Questions for the Board to Ask

In assessing the workability or impact of a campaign, the board needs to address these important questions:

  • Is the additional expense of the campaign warranted? That is, could the institution raise the same or more money without all the campaign hoopla? How much of the total will be raised for specific stated purposes? In what tangible ways will the institution and those it serves be made better? Will the money raised strengthen or extend the financial core of the institution?
  • Will the institution see an upsurge in planned gifts, outright gifts, or endowment gifts as result of entering a campaign? If so, what aspects of the campaign will promote that upsurge?
  • What will the year-over-year cash flow look like in five years, 10 years, and beyond 10 years? How much has come in the form of deferred gifts, and over what time-span are they expected to mature?
  • How will the institution’s reputation among key constituents be affected? What baseline studies have been done to help leaders understand changing levels of affinity and affiliation among possible donors?
  • Can the institution avoid the larger national trend of “dollars up and donors down”? How will leaders monitor attrition of current and loyal donors, and what are the strategies for counteracting it?
  • Are accountability and stewardship built into planning to ensure that donors feel the institution delivered on the promises? How readily and tangibly did the institution convert new levels of investment into new levels of performance and achievement?
  • Will the campaign help develop a stronger culture of philanthropy or a greater sense of entitlement among internal stakeholders? Will the advancement operation and the advancement culture be strengthened? Has the institution strengthened or weakened the ability to raise more money in the future?

These are the questions that institutional leaders must explore in depth to ensure that their institutions design and execute campaigns that achieve fundamental and sustainable strength, rather than just a short-term victory.