STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: THE LADDER OF CAMPAIGN FEASIBILITY

 “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down, count the cost, and assess whether sufficient resources are available to accomplish the task?”

Luke 14:28

The Khumbu Icefall, located at the head of the Khumbu Glacier, is considered the most treacherous site on Mt. Everest. Located on the Nepali slopes of the world’s highest mountain, crevices open and seracs fall with little or no warning.  Here, weather change and unpredicted movements of glacial ice have caused more casualties than at any other location.

For several decades, merciless ice-shifts have claimed the lives of many who dared to exploit the Khumbu path to reach Everest’s coveted peak. In fact, the unavoidable Khumbu gauntlet was the site of the most recent (April 2014) avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese climbers! Over a half mile wide, and bordered on both sides by sheer rock walls covered with hanging glaciers called seracs, the icefall is so dangerous that over 200 frozen bodies still remain where they perished. George Mallory, the British explorer who died in 1924, is one of the many climbers who remain entombed at the site.

So how should mountaineers approach the treacherous Khumbu path? What methods differentiate the specialist from the novice climber who dares to challenge the feasibility of the infamous glacier? Alpinists that have successfully conquered the Icefall have all managed to overcome the span’s dangerous weather, crevices, and seracs by carefully selecting their timing, tools, and techniques.  Experts ascend before dawn – when freezing temperatures keep ice blocks securely in place – and utilize pre-arranged ladders to negotiate the pathway’s ever-shifting perils.

The aluminum runs that litter the frozen Khumbu landscape are rarely placed in straight paths across its numerous fissures. In fact, they are most often positioned at angles, lashed together in high traffic areas, and frequently used to slide downward before ascending higher. Climbers walk, crawl, and climb across dangerous glacial openings, usually in mountaineering boots and crampons, stepping on the rungs of each ladder for support while holding thin ropes for stability. Most mountaineers will actually practice crossing ladders while at Base Camp just to master the sinking, bouncing, and wobbling feeling of a technique that in the end, will prove to be the most essential skill for successfully reaching the world’s highest peak.

While essential, the most vital factor for successfully scaling the Khumbu Icefall is not the 20-30 ladders used to traverse its treacherous crevasses. The most sensible expeditions also hire climbing porters called “Ice Doctors” to predict weather patterns, manage the route, and provide life-sustaining counsel. These specialized Sherpas evaluate the feasibility of each day’s ascent by persistently assessing the location’s climate, cracking seracs, and glacial shifts, and rearranging the ladders accordingly with ice screws, anchors, and guidelines.

A Campaign Feasibility Study may be likened to an accurately positioned ladder that allows for the safe and successful ascent of Mt. Everest. Unfortunately, the financial summits of many capital campaigns are often impeded as a result of hasty and ill-informed decisions concerning institutional readiness. Comparable to the misjudgments often made by inexperienced mountaineers of the acute dangers associated with ever-shifting highland conditions, leaders of religious and philanthropic institutions similarly diminish the hazards of their respective contextual environments. It would, therefore, be valuable to review the tactics required to successfully negotiate Everest’s Khumbu Icefall and subsequently transfer the discernable insights to the improvement of more prudent methodologies for financial capital development.

A Capital Campaign is best understood as an intense fund/friend-raising labor employed for the purpose of raising significant resources to acquire, construct, and/or renovate land and physical structure(s). Many campaigns concurrently combine annual fund, major gift, special project, and planned giving programs for scholarships, research, professional development, academic chairs, and community outreach. The creation of endowment funds are frequently also attached to campaign efforts, as resources must also be provided for the subsequent operational impact of the proposed programs and facilities.

A capital campaign is far too important to an entity’s future to proceed thoughtlessly and risk that such an undertaking be scuttled by premature and/or ill-planned launch. Discretion would suggest the implementation of an accurate scan of institutional factors that indicate the likelihood of “feasibility” prior to formally initiating any fundraising effort. By conducting such a formative analysis, an organization may more prudently choose the appropriate tools, develop the necessary resources and, if required, make the necessary operational adjustments to assure that its campaign is not derailed by political shifts and/or unforeseen campaign seracs that could have easily been anticipated and/or avoided.

Whatever the designated summit height might be, experienced fundraisers underscore the value of conducting a proper feasibility study prior to both the silent and public announcement of the actual capital campaign climb. Comparable to an Ice Doctor’s careful review of current weather and glacial conditions, fundraising consultants are the “campaign mountaineers” – the specialized Serpas that are hired to carefully evaluate the readiness, capacity, and ability of an entity to assume the rigors of their aspirational climb.

The Ladder of Feasibility, developed by OINOS Consulting, advocates the necessity of evaluating six (6) interrelated components that can be used to help determine the “readiness level” of an institution contemplating the implementation of a capital campaign: (a) institutional leadership, (b) attitude of constituencies, (c) past/potential donor capacity and inclination, (d) details and particulars of the campaign’s case, (e) fiscal condition of entity, and (f) current contextual realties. The following template provides a brief description of each rung.

Ladder of Feasibility

Rung

Focus of Review

Metrics of Assessment

L

Leadership Quality, capability, and capacity of an institution’s current leadership to undertake a campaign

A

Attitude Outlook, perceptions, and mindset of an institution’s intra/extra constituencies to the campaign’s vision (Case)

D

Donors Capacity, disposition, and inclination of past and potential donor bases to contribute to the campaign

D

Details Quality and effectiveness of the particulars/specifics of a campaign’s vision (Case) to persuade and foster participation of constituencies and donors

E

Economics Ability and capacity of an institution’s fiscal condition and operational systems to effectively assume the intensities, adversities, and rigors of a capital campaign

R

Reality Appropriateness of the campaign’s timing in relation to economic, political, and geographic contexts

Leadership: The first and most important element of campaign feasibility is the capacity of an entity’s leadership to provide vision, inspiration, and authentic motivation. In 1963, Sir Edmund Hillary became the first human to reach the summit of Everest. He did so by depending upon select Sherpas to guide his steps, help carry his gear, set and break down numerous base campsites and, most importantly, – reassure the feasibility of a safe and successful ascent! For both business and mountaineering, well–trained guides, trouble-shooters, and authentic mentors are invaluable human capital resources.

The manner in which expert climbers negotiate the Khumbu Icefall provides a multi-lens framework for understanding, diagnosing, and preventing serious fundraising failures. Its implications relate to the manner in which leaders shape and direct the systems through which their organizations make and implement high-stakes decisions. Consequently, like Sir Hillary, it is vital that an entity determine the quality, capability, and predisposition of their leaders to effectively pilot the implementation of a capital campaign to its summit goal.

Knowledgeable campaign leaders pay close attention to the manner in which they balance competing organizational pressures and how their words and actions shape fundraising expectations. They balance the need for strong buy-in against the danger of escalating commitments to what might turn out to be flaws in the initial campaign course heading. Competent leaders foster commitment by providing others ample opportunities to participate in shared vision making without which the risk of constituent avalanches increase.

Along with advancing methodologies that result in the harvesting of adequate temporal resources for the advancement of noble aspirations, competent leaders have the additional responsibility to help prospective donors realize that their generosity actually provides the greater benefit to them. They use the influence of their fundraising effort to cultivate the unique abilities and resources of constituents and potential donors, helping them discern how to utilize their time, talent and resources for the benefit of others and/or causes greater than themselves.

Finally, apart from assessing prior and potential donor inclinations, sage leaders strive to also identify and leverage wide-range institutional sentiment to their vision and aspirational case, prior to determining the timing, tools, and techniques that should be used during implementation.

Attitude: The second rung of the OINOS Ladder of Feasibility evaluates an entity’s current attitudinal environment that, like the summit of Everest, is often shrouded in dense clouds. Clear communications among constituents, donors, and leaders before, during, and after a capital campaign climb must, therefore, be authentic, provide clarity, and afford timely opportunities for all stakeholders to safely express their viewpoint.

Consequently, apart from evaluating the character of its leadership, the outlook, mindset, and current perceptions of an institution’s intra/extra constituencies must likewise be confidentially acquired. While survey instruments may be developed and employed, private interview sessions that afford a cross section of an institution’s constituencies the opportunity to confidentially share input regarding its leadership, the campaign’s aspirations (Case) and their willingness to participate, is the preeminent strategy for gathering qualitative data to assist in making objective decisions concerning the proposed effort’s likely success.

Donors: Organizations increase the risk of donor fatigue, exhaustion, and resistance if their primary strategy for capital campaign success rests on the belief that existing contributors will match or exceed their prior commitments. This is what many fundraising professionals refer to as the “one big-gift syndrome.”  Apart from its unethical nature, going back to the same well of generous donors – “campaign champions” – to repeatedly reach campaign summits is a prime indicator of a deficit in leadership. As such, the third feasibility rung that should be carefully analyzed is the relational status of an institution to its donor alumnus.

Noble theological foundations should differentiate faith-based fundraising from more commoditized and cavalier approaches to solicitations, for the latter are too often circumscribed by emotional messaging that seek to elicit the “exchange” of financial gifts for “naming opportunities” or for the satisfaction of previous professional reciprocity. Faith-based fundraising should be characterized by more donor-focused sensitivities that seek prayerful cultivation and not just the acquisition of large financial booties.

Irrespective of the size of their financial contribution, donors should therefore always be treated according to the principles of Christian Stewardship that advocate the respectful management of relationships rather than a cavalier attitude of entitlement. Organizations that are appropriately poised to initiate a capital campaign have, and are adequately prepared to cultivate new associations by responding to multiple donor interests in advance of multiple philanthropic goals, never advocating tactics that distort or exploit the dignity of the individual.   In the end, campaigns that are designed with well placed ladders that help donors advance their personal philanthropic goals while simultaneously supporting the aspirations of an organization are the most efficacious!

Details: The aspirational vision of a capital campaign is voiced in what is commonly referred to as the Case Statement, an inspirational narrative developed for the purpose of influencing, persuading, and inducing support from potential donors and constituents. As a result, multi-year pledges are commonly solicited after an appropriate cultivation of donor prospects. Actual funds are usually received within a three-to-five-year pledge period after the major gift and public phases of the campaign have been implemented.

The Case Statement of a capital campaign is the primary tool for communicating the authentic and extraordinary aspiration – the Big Idea – that requires constituents to step up to the challenge. It is the fourth rung of the Feasibility Ladder upon which many campaigns stumble at the icefall of hyperbole. Above all, Case narratives should be honest. They should be focused, carefully crafted, and not haphazardly formed from an amalgam of projects artificially quilted together in the naïve expectation that something on a laundry list of institutional needs and wants will certainly resonate.

On the other hand, when a series of mini projects are declared after the “summit” of a major campaign has been reached, donors understandably feel duped and misled. A Campaign’s Case should, therefore, provide the details and particulars of an institution’s vision in such a way as to generate excitement and elicit financial contributions by authentically folding an institution’s highest priorities into one comprehensive shared effort.

Economics: While the selection and implementation of donor management software may be helpful in supervising the logistical systems of a campaign, failure to honestly assess an institution’s current fiscal condition, and how the acquisition of new programs, land and/or buildings will impact its future economic stability, is life-threatening!  Such a situation may be likened to an alpinist who, having reached the summit of their mountaineering aspiration realizes, far too late, that he/she is physically incapable of making a safe descent.  The Khumbu Icefall is littered with the frozen bodies of individuals whose tattered flags continue to furtively curl in the summit wind gusts of Everest.

A well-designed feasibility study should therefore carefully evaluate the fifth rung of “campaign readiness,” namely an organization’s current economic sustainability. Such an assessment should identify and quantify the positive/negative economic and operational impact(s) the proposed capital goal will have on the organization. It should provide historical financial background, a description of actual services, accounting statements, details of the operations and management, debt obligations, and legal requirements.

Reality:  The sixth and final rung of the Feasibility Ladder focuses attention on the contextual realities in which a proposed capital campaign will be implemented. Mountaineers evaluate the level of their cardiovascular fitness, leg strength, and general fortitude prior to tackling the adversity of any slope-side challenge. Respectively, for a successful capital campaign climb to occur, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the appropriateness of a campaign’s goal and timing against any and all economic, political, and geographic contexts.

Apart from the aforementioned environmental factors, a serious consideration of an organization’s current reality include an honest assessment of potential advocates, rivals, and opponents to its proposed campaign vision.  As a result, leaders are provided the information for avoiding the mistake of setting unrealistic summit goals. On the contrary, a thorough analysis of current realities provide the opportunity to strategically link a set of constituent-supported priorities within a comprehensive plan that includes political sensitivities, and an appropriate sense of sequence.

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest has gone from being an almost impossible feat with a high fatality rate to a weekend activity. According to National Geographic, only 18% of summit attempts in 1990 were successful. By 2012, however, summit realization increased to an astonishing 56%! Thanks to advances in equipment, technology, and technique, and with the feasibility counsel of expert “Ice-Doctors,” more and more climbers attain the pinnacle of their mountaineering aspirations!

Unlike Everest, the sobering fact is that over 75% of all capital campaigns conducted in North America fail to reach their stated goal. While not an actual expedition to conquer the Khumbu Icefall, fundraising efforts may, nonetheless, get trapped on their respective campaign mountain, if they embarked on their trek in a cavalier fashion! Shared vision and a well-developed plan are two characteristics that link expert mountain climbers with organizations that have launched successful capital campaigns. Clear objectives, solid strategies and thorough action plans are the additional ladders that nearly always guarantee the placement of a summit flag. Nonetheless, only through a thoughtful analysis of the results of a Feasibility Study may such stairways be appropriately anchored!

Scripture exhorts the prudent to “count the cost” prior to undertaking the challenge of an aspirational goal. “For which of you,” Jesus asks, “intending to build a tower, does not first sit down, count the cost, and assess whether sufficient resources are available to accomplish the task” (Luke 14:28)? Accordingly, when a soliciting entity properly designs, evaluates, and conducts a capital campaign the process can actually inaugurate a new era of philanthropic stewardship – one that is based on the respectful management of relationships and not on fundraising gimmicks, glossy brochures, or slick video productions.  Like the Khumbu Icefall, the key to safely reaching the summit of a capital campaign is to construct a stable stairway through the appropriate use and placement of its ladders.

 

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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