If you’re saying, “We need a new building,” ask yourself this – “Can we afford it?”

The Art of Fundraising:
If you’re saying, “We need a new building,” ask yourself this – “Can we afford it?”
By Dan Billingsley, Vice President External Affairs, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits

One of my favorite segments on television was always the Suze Orman “Can I afford it?” bit during her show. Unwitting callers would divulge all of their financial dirty laundry and then say they wanted to buy something outrageous that tended to range from a new set of golf clubs to a fishing boat to a classic car. The best part of the segment was hearing Suze scream “DENIED, GIRLFRIEND! YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT!” at the caller and then explain that they had zero business thinking about the outrageous purchase. A personal favorite quip was Suze telling a woman who wanted a Chanel handbag that she’d “rather see her put REAL money in a paper bag.” Harsh.

Nonprofits are no different than businesses when it comes to needing capital improvements, but unlike our for-profit relatives, we have the audacious task of convincing our “shareholders” (our board, donors, constituents and the public) that we need to raise capital funds to build, purchase or renovate that building. It’s daunting, and many nonprofits walk in blind with pie-in-the-sky ideals of how they’re going to raise millions of dollars in a short period of time to make their dreams a reality.

If you look at the most successful nonprofits in Oklahoma that have managed to make it rain, they all have a few things in common: strong leadership both at the staff and board levels; big, audacious ideas; a history of impact and community engagement; a great plan; and donors that are so passionate about the mission that they’re willing to make sacrificial gifts to make these audacious ideas and big dreams happen.

Nonprofits also know that they must ask “Can we afford it?” More importantly, they ask “Can we afford not to?” Just like personal finances, nonprofits know that their financial houses must be in order before embarking on a campaign.

Five Years of Progress

Nonprofits should show at least five years of solid annual fund progress before embarking on a campaign. That means reaching or exceeding goals. They need great relationships with donors, foundations, corporations, city leaders and the public. They must show financial outcomes that not only boast a healthy fiduciary picture, but that they have a donor base capable of reaching audacious goals.

Amazing Board Governance

We’ve talked a lot about having strong boards, but does your organization have strong board governance? Do you have a succession strategy in place? Do you have the right people lined up for the future? You might have a great board today, but what about tomorrow, the next day, the next year and the next ten years. You’ll need a great board to keep momentum going long after the last few dollars have been collected and the punch list of the building has been completed.

Charismatic Leadership

Do you have steady, willing leaders? If you answered, “Yes!” it isn’t enough. You need charismatic leaders – a face or faces to your campaign who can walk into offices and not just sell the dream but get people to write checks. Mike Turpen has charisma, and he has chaired numerous campaigns in Oklahoma. He exudes “if ya ain’t givin’, ya ain’t livin’. And that charisma is contagious.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

A few years ago, I was meeting with two women at a local nonprofit who were being honored with a Visions award. One of them joked, “I thought you all were bringing me here to chair another campaign.” It was a great laugh, but an important reminder to always have a beginning and end date to the campaign. Organizations that are always in campaign mode don’t have time to refresh and recharge the batteries. And during that recharge time, it’s a perfect opportunity to steward gifts made to the campaign, cultivate donors for new gifts and celebrate the success.

So back to “Can we afford it?” Most importantly, ask yourself if you’re truly ready to embark on a campaign successfully. It goes well beyond feasibility studies and donor capacity assessments. Is your organization healthy? Are donors interested? Do you have strong relationships? And are your donors – and more importantly campaign leaders – passionate?

That will tell you if you can afford it!

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