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Whoosh, Doldrums, Whoosh: The power of an ambitious goal

(This post is the fourth in a series of five about building fundraising momentum in your organization. The first covered the discovery that major gifts fundraising principles can be applied at this organization. The second discussed the importance of building a team. The third was about the power of the first big gift.)

Paul Jolly Paul Jolly

Swimming toward fundraising success Early in my career, I served as director of development for an organization throughout its first capital campaign, with a $4 million goal. The executive director told me that she calibrated her morning swim with our progress through the campaign. So if she swam 40 lengths of the pool, when we had raised $3 million dollars, she divided the swim into the 30 lengths representing money we had already raised, and the 10 lengths representing what we had before us. Talk about internalizing your work! A campaign is a drama, and the right goal creates the drama’s rhythm.

Whooshes and doldrums A successful campaign begins with a big whoosh, which is easy and everyone is riding high. In this phase, the true believers and the top donors, who have been involved with planning the effort, are expressing their commitment. At the end of the campaign, there is a final whoosh when everyone can see the finish line and the people on the inner circle are determined to make it happen. The final whoosh might be invigorated by challenge gifts for smaller donors or newer donors. It is the moment for invitations to donors who have been dragging their feet to join the parade. And some of the true believers who made early commitments may be so eager for victory that they will make an additional pledge.

In between whooshes, there is a period of doldrums. The donors closer to the organization have made their pledges, and the donors further away are not responding to overtures. People secretly wonder: did we set our goal too high?

Why the doldrums are important We may all wish that we could skip the doldrums. This phase is not as fun as the whooshes. But it is important for the organization that wants to grow. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Staff and board members who have shouldered the weight of the campaign get more creative when there isn’t good news coming in every day.
  • New prospects get added to the list.
  • Smaller donors get invited to be heroes. If you ask a five thousand dollar prospect to contribute to the first phase of a million dollar campaign, she might wonder, “What difference will my gift make?” When the campaign is at the $950,000 mark, she can clearly see the importance of her gift.
  • Younger donors are encouraged to take a step forward.
  • Early donors get asked “Do you know anyone else we should talk to?”

Challenge gifts are always a good idea A challenge gifts can work magic at any stage. During the initial whoosh, it can magnify the impact of the early commitments, and accelerate the momentum. During the doldrums, it can inspire donors further from the organization to get involved. In the final whoosh, it can intensify the “we’re almost there” energy. When you are asking a donor to offer a challenge gift, make sure you explain why this gift is going to have an impact at this particular moment.

A place for everyone My brilliant friend and mentor Andrea Kihlstedt has said, “The structure of a capital campaign allows anyone to find their place.” This is true not only in terms of the size of the gift, but also the momentum of the campaign. And the whoosh/doldrums/whoosh sequence applies, not just to capital campaigns, but to any fundraising endeavor.

The preceding is part 4 of a 5 part series, “Unleashing Organizational Possibilities” by regular guest post contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

Topics: Fundraising