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“Sadly, I have to report that I and we failed.”

That is not a good message to have to deliver. But it is part of life. The above quote is from a report given by Robert D. Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs to The University of Virginia Board of Visitors at its meeting September 14th.  Sweeny was reporting on the progress of the University’s $3 billion capital campaign. According to The Daily Progress the campaign launched in 2004 and was to conclude at the end of 2011. To date UVa has raised $2.76 billion; the campaign has been extended. “We will be to $3 billion by the spring,” Sweeny said.

While the number of nonprofits launching multi-billion dollar campaigns is small, there are lessons to be learned from publicly available information regarding the UVa campaign.

Here’s what we know: campaign strategy and the economic downturn contributed to the campaign’s challenges. UVa was not exempt from the economic challenges of the past five years. Another factor was strategy.

The Daily Progress reports, “Sweeney said there was a ‘miscalculation’ on the part of UVa officials, who thought they could pull in enough gifts of $10 million and $20 million to offset not having one more $100 million gift… Some consultants had suggested they’d need such a gift but UVa officials had thought otherwise, Sweeney said.”

Obviously most organizations dream of receiving even one $1 million gift. What’s important is not the size of the gifts, but the underlying fundraising principles that were in place or overlooked.

While UVa worked with campaign counsel, it also chose to move ahead despite guidance regarding the number and size of gifts needed to reach the campaign’s goal within the campaign timeframe.

In our experience that is not an unusual decision. It is, however, a risky one. Your campaign goal should be realistic. It should take into account your financial needs, the market’s response to your case, and the number of campaign gifts or grants you can secure.

To raise $1 million you need to know where the money could come from. Who can give $100,000? $50,000?  $25,000? How many gifts of $1,000 to $5,000 can you secure? Ensuring you reach your goal means identifying three times the number of gifts you need to receive; if the first person you ask turns you down you know who else you can ask. If you need 500 gifts to raise $1 million, you should, in general, identify 1,500 potential donors.

As you can see, reaching a campaign goal requires a lot of work. Impatience, overconfidence or miscalculation can be expensive. Think about how you are preparing for your campaign. Are you taking the time you need to be successful or will you find yourself saying, “Sadly, I have to report that I and we failed.”

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