Skagit Valley Hospital

Campaigns: The mystery of “going public”

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secret-205646_640In working with nonprofits in campaign mode, the one thing that causes the most angst among volunteer leaders—other than reaching goal—is the worry over “when to go public.”

“Going public” is a function of both the calendar and the campaign thermometer. And it is different for everyone. While the general rule is to announce once 80-95 percent of the goal has been achieved, I recently saw a university engaged in a $4 billion campaign prominently launch its public phase when it hit the $2 billion mark. My guess is that they chose to announce at 50 percent because the gift size they are hoping to achieve in their public phase is a heck of a lot bigger than most nonprofits.

Based on the many campaigns I’ve worked on over the last 20+ years, here are some observations that can help you make the going-public decision (and calm anxious volunteers!):

  • Don’t actively try to keep it a secret. Your campaign is in the public arena the moment your board approves it. It’s unwise to think otherwise or to try to control the flow of information. Milestones along the way, such as the announcement of major gifts or accomplishments, will gradually nudge it into public consciousness.
  • Most people could care less. The quiet/public distinction is mostly an internal one among your board, staff and campaign leaders. There are so many campaigns in process at any one time that your casual observer, even one who regularly supports your organization, isn’t keep it all straight. What they do care about is how much they are being asked to give.
  • Timing may have more to do with your staff than your donors. Unless you have limitless staff resources, the folks managing the leadership phase are also the folks who will be managing the public phase. They can’t do both at once. So the best time for them to devote their energy to securing the $100 to $1,000 level gifts is when the $1 million gift potential is pretty much exhausted.
  • Set expectations. To soothe the angst of your leaders wondering about when the campaign will go public, spend some time early in the campaign developing a plan for what the public phase will look like (i.e., a major event, direct mail, or a phone campaign) and inform said leaders that this will be implemented when the campaign reaches 90 or 95 percent of its goal. Often, their angst is less about when the public phase will be launched than what it will look like (and what will be expected of them) when it is launched.
  • You are always in major gift mode. Don’t let the term “public phase” lull anyone into a sense that the major gift phase is over. Just as you would never turn down a $100 gift just because you are in the leadership phase, you would never turn down a $1 million gift because you happen to be in the public phase!
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About the Author

James Plourde

James Plourde CFRE

Senior Consultant

James is always willing to ask the needed questions, helping his clients clarify their path and giving them the confidence to proceed.

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