Support from staff, volunteers critical to capital campaign success


At a recent 10k race, I looked around at the starting line and noticed how many people were there. Not just the runners stretching before the race. There were course marshals, volunteers, spectators and all the people associated with the event behind the scenes. I see a race like this as a great metaphor for running a capital campaign.

Before toeing the starting line, many training miles must be run in preparation. By the time most supporters of your organization learn about a proposed campaign, many months, if not years, of planning have gone into this vision. Leaders of the organization have been building toward this moment. Alongside those leaders are less visible, but equally important support staff, volunteers and supporters.

“I knew the importance of the campaign to our shepherd (Bishop Glen John Provost, Diocese of Lake Charles), and knew it would help our parish, too,” said Glenda Chapman, assistant to the pastor of Our Lady of Seven Dolors parish in Welsh, Louisiana. “I don’t like to be out in the limelight and am best behind the scenes. I saw the needs of our parish and knew the campaign would be a lot of work – but also would bring good things.”

Support staff, like Chapman, possess an intimate institutional knowledge about an organization that can extend many years and through multiple leaders. They know the families, their needs and concerns, how to harness volunteers and open communication lines for a campaign to be successful. In short, the parish is more than a place of employment to many staff members: “I love my church,” Chapman said.

Researchers at Stanford University identified dynamics that support productive engagement for an executive/leadership team, including shared ownership, trust, constructive conflict, collaboration and accountability. How these behaviors are implemented will vary from organization to organization and show the value of each team member.

“Teams are strong when everyone knows their individual strengths,” said Casey Cook, director of external communications and events at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. “A good leader will look at the landscape and see where and how to involve staff and volunteers.”

Cook said that at St. Michael’s Abbey, which recently completed a $120 million campaign with the help of the Steier Group, lay staff and priests promote an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“You can’t say ‘that’s not my job,’” Cook said. “Just because you’re not the identified key person doesn’t mean your efforts aren’t essential.”

In addition to strong leadership, clear communication will keep a campaign on course. Cook has the unique distinction of being involved in three Steier Group-managed campaigns over the past few years: as staff at St. Michael’s Abbey, as a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point and as an alumna of Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita. She’s seen the importance of clear communication from both sides of the equation.

“The leadership did a fantastic job of educating the parish through printed materials, photos, videos, volunteers answering questions, and more. There was a very clear project scope that was projected to the community,” Cook said of the campaign at St. Edward. “Everything ebbs and flows. Keep the energy and know there will be bumps in the road. If you’re doing what’s right and trying hard, results will come.”

A good race director is sure to have a dedicated numbers person nearby: nonprofit organizations are no different. Without a development director, Mary Jane Livens, business manager at St. Benedict Parish in Phoenix, Arizona, said “I was overwhelmed because I didn’t take advantage of using others’ help. It’s really critical to enlist support and not to take on too much.”

After her first campaign, Livens shared hard-earned advice: “Be involved from the very beginning. Draw from the meetings and ongoing discussions to inform your work. Ask questions. And know that the Steier Group campaign manager is a committed partner to helping you succeed. We met regularly in an informal way to review our numbers and ensure we were on track.”

The similarities between capital campaigns and running races intertwine when it comes to volunteers: they are critical to the effort’s success. Volunteers must be invited, supported and thanked for their time and energy throughout a capital campaign.

“I was really excited to have so many creative people come up with ideas for events, themes and other campaign-related activities,” said Livens, whose campaign had more than 50 volunteers participate in mailings, phone-a-thons, and campaign events.

Capital campaigns and runners each set distinct goals to conquer. Strong leadership, dedicated staff and volunteers, and clear communication make a campaign a success. Chapman, whose Louisiana parish exceeded goal, remarked, “the campaign was a real learning experience for me, that this little ol’ country girl could help put something together of this magnitude. The Steier Group staff carefully explained campaign details and was dedicated to our success.”

Since 1997, the Steier Group has helped more than 1,500 nonprofits cross the finish line while raising more than $2 billion. I encourage you to contact me if you have any questions regarding running effective campaigns and the professional services of the Steier Group.

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