Making a List and Checking It Twice? 
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 4:25PM
Andrea Jarrell

While this works for Santa Claus, strategic planning is a better way to set your campaign priorities

The process of determining campaign priorities should be rooted in the institution's overall strategic planning. Priorities should reflect input from internal and external constituencies, including the president and board, the larger campus community, and donors. Good priorities are ambitious and bold, are grounded in the institution's mission and history, outshine the dollar goal, culminate in visible results, and transform the institution. Includes case studies from University of Toronto and Pingry School.

By Andrea Jarrell

For some campus constituents, planning campaign priorities is like writing a letter to Santa Claus. You ask for everything you want — realistic or not — knowing that in the end, your letter is only one factor in the decision of what you get.

But the campaign planning process should be more than a collection of institutional wish lists. To capitalize on the full potential of a major campaign, your priorities should come from strong institutional leadership and inclusive strategic planning you've undertaken to envision your future. The campus needs to think beyond individual interests and the dollar goal and ask itself very different questions, says consultant Carol O'Brien: What do we want to be? and What is our strategic vision?

The strategic campaign

Campaigns are "way too expensive" — in terms of money, time, and reputation — to squander on short-sighted priorities, says consultant Ted Grossnickle, president of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates. "At best, a campaign based on the wrong priorities is half-powered or boring," he says. "At worst, you've made it much tougher to secure the future trust and interest of your donors and volunteers."

In fact, Grossnickle says his feasibility studies show a direct correlation between donors' interest in a campaign and "their sense that the institution has done its homework." Or, as consultant Sue Washburn puts it, "donors want institutions to demonstrate that they've gone through the tough work of winnowing their needs list down to the essence of a strategic vision."

Ideally, strategic planning would take place without the impetus of a campaign, but "many institutions don't have the desire or resolve to do it without a campaign in the offing," says O'Brien, president of Carol O'Brien Associates. That's ok, though, if that's what it takes to get started — campaign planning can serve as the means to the larger end of overall strategic planning.

"Many institutions rely on a campaign as a fairly standard phase in their growth — a catalyst for accomplishing this vital work," O'Brien explains. "In mobilizing for a campaign, they often create the structure and culture they need to move into a new stage of institutional development."

But that doesn't mean that campaign planning and strategic planning are one and the same. What's the difference? Strategic planning should look at the big picture: the direction and future of the entire institution. Initiatives that further your organization's growth may not always require significant additional resources, but may involve a change in the way you operate, explains Kathleen Kavanagh, executive vice president and managing director at Grenzebach Glier & Associates.

After you've evaluated your whole organization, you probably will find initiatives that require increased or new funding. But before you think about a campaign, take into consideration all campus sources of revenue, "including gifts, grants, debt financing, tuition, and research revenues," O'Brien says. By remaining open to alternative funding mechanisms for priorities that don't attract donors, institutions have a greater chance of maximizing their resources and realizing more of their overall institutional vision.

For example, when Emma Willard School undertook a strategic review of its existing resources, its board of trustees decided to use endowment funds to improve the school's historic campus. "The board came to see that we essentially have two endowments: one physical and one fiscal," says Robin Robertson, then head of Emma Willard School, now head of school at Milton Academy. Preserving the physical campus is just as important as preserving the endowment principal, the board decided.

By spending existing funds on its facilities, the school was in the enviable position of having no deferred maintenance needs as it entered a campaign. "We could focus on new and more marketable initiatives," Robertson says.

The priority-setting process

There are probably as many ways to set campaign priorities as there are campaigns. But the consultants agree that to succeed, the priorities should be neither handed down from the top nor dictated up from below — they should be the result of discussion among your campus's internal and external communities. This requires balancing input from at least three key groups: the president and board, the larger campus community, and the donors.

    * The president and board. When fund-raising initiatives come from the campus CEO without any discussion beyond the boardroom, they don't have the kind of organic or visionary impact that a more inclusive process has.

      For a set of priorities that isn't top-down, everyone in the campus community should understand how to contribute to the process. You won't achieve that by sending out a memo, Grossnickle says. He recommends community discussions, with the president and senior administrators saying, "Here's how you can participate and how we need to have you involved."

      Give the process enough time that people really can get involved, Grossnickle adds. Let people discuss a wide number of scenarios, including "a few crazy ideas," in the first half of the planning.

    * The campus community. The other common mistake, alluded to at the start of this article, is the "wish list" approach to campaign planning. Wish lists will not lead to a broad and engaging vision. Campus leaders must have the political courage to teach deans, faculty, students, alumni, and others to think of their wants in the context of the institution's overall needs, O'Brien says.

       You can see the difference in the two processes the University of Toronto undertook for its past and current campaigns. Provost Adel Sedra says that for U of T's last campaign, "senior faculty would meet and say, 'Gee, wouldn't it be good to have a chair or lab in this or that.' "

      But this time it was very different, he says. "We asked faculty members to make their lists within the context of the institutional values they had helped to establish." Because the initial list of priorities was lengthy, he adds, "we went back and forth with the deans, eventually coming to a fully agreed-upon list that had everyone's endorsement, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and key donors."

    * The donors. This constituency plays a crucial role in the campaign planning process. Donors' involvement from the very beginning will help ensure that they'll support your priorities further down the line.

      Build in multiple opportunities for your president or school head, trustees, and major gift development staff to go out and quietly test your ideas. Start with just one or two key donors. Sarge Whittier, senior vice president for Barnes & Roche Inc., suggests options such as inviting them to join a board planning committee or engaging them as private advisers to the president or chair.

      Then take your evolving vision to a slightly broader group of donors in a series of small-group conversations with the president, trustees, and major gift staff, often over a meal at a trustee's house. When you make your final priorities public, this advance work will have created a sense of ownership among the donors.

      As with your on-campus constituents, there's a fine line between being open to unusual ideas and letting the donors take the lead. If you don't put the campaign priorities in the context of an existing strategic vision, your donors can easily set your priorities for you, says Washburn, partner at Washburn & McGoldrick Inc.

Characteristics of good priorities

When you're done with your campaign planning process, how do you know if you've chosen the right priorities? Check to see if they share the following characteristics:

    * They're ambitious and bold. "When I read the executive summary of a campaign case, in the first couple of paragraphs I want to find the president or board chair communicating excitement," Grossnickle says. "He or she should be saying, 'You know what? If we follow this plan, if we execute it flawlessly, if we succeed, this is going to make the world a better place.' "

      In other words, "A campaign is not only about making good better," Kavanagh says. A list of incremental changes to every aspect of your campus is unlikely to inspire donors to make their best gifts. It only addresses short-term needs and self-interest — "plugging holes in the dam," O'Brien calls it.

    * They're grounded in your mission and history. When this happens, the campaign priorities "will be organic to your institution, unique to you," Washburn says — "not like some plans, where if you changed the name, it could be any institution."

    * They outshine your dollar goal. When you've hit on the right priorities, people talk about the initiatives themselves rather than the money you need for them.

      "In a campaign where the priorities are not compelling, even those constituents who helped set them are hard pressed to know what's in the campaign," Whittier says. "It's a very different mentality when people want to discuss institutional vision or the direction of academic programs, not the $50 million you're going to raise."

    * They culminate in visible results. When the campaign is over and you've raised millions of dollars, you don't want people to look around and wonder, "What's changed?" That's why you need visible results, Whittier says, and not just buildings. "If you've planned to raise money for professorships, for example, your faculty needs to see increased or enhanced positions."

    * • They transform the institution. Because a campaign forces a campus to develop a sustained focus on vision and values, O'Brien says it's one of the most effective tools for enabling an institution to move to a new stage in its growth as an organization.

      If it's not a comprehensive campaign, that transformation may not be visible across the entire campus, Whittier says, but every campaign should have at least "pockets" of significant improvement.

      If you've hit on the right priorities, your constituents will glimpse in them the campaign's promise of transformation. As Robertson remembers Emma Willard's 1993 to 1997 campaign, "It was an institutional dream we all felt we were a part of."

Campaign Planning Case Study

University of Toronto
Academic Planning Leads the Way

The University of Toronto is practically a textbook case of how strategic planning can naturally form the basis of campaign priority-setting.

In 1993-94, the university undertook a review of its academic programs, partially in response to increased fiscal constraints caused by government funding cuts.

"We wanted to look at the next several years of our existence and determine how we could improve amidst finite or diminishing resources," explains Provost and Professor Adel Sedra. The university asked each academic division to show how it would maintain and even enhance its offerings while facing a large budget reduction.

Department by department, Sedra and his colleagues asked themselves how they could continue to increase the university's competitiveness absent the promise of new funding. "It was a consultative, comprehensive process that engaged everyone in shaping the university's academic priorities," he says.

One of the steps the university took based on that plan was to move existing money from each academic unit to establish an academic priorities fund the university could use to implement elements of its plan, such as hiring more faculty in specific areas.

In 1995, while this plan was gaining approval, U of T began planning for a campaign. "It's fortunate that these two processes dovetailed," Sedra says. The earlier academic review gave the university's deans a context in which to set their campaign priorities. In addition, the university's willingness to divert scarce dollars into an academic priorities fund showed that it was committed to making its vision a reality, which impressed donors, Sedra says.

By the time U of T was ready to move into the public phase of its campaign, it had already reached its initial goal of $300 million. With a revised, December 2002 goal of $575 million — the largest ever attempted by a Canadian university — and $500 million of that in hand as of this fall, the university is well on its way to success.

"Donors have responded very well to our clear and coherent set of priorities," Sedra says, making the struggle it took to set them well worth it. — AJ

Campaign Planning Case Study 

Pingry School
An Exception to the Rule

Pingry School Director of Development Barbara Sabia jokes that when it came to setting campaign priorities, the school did it "a little backwards." First came the decision to campaign, then the decision on what items that money would fund. While this would seem to contradict all the advice given in the accompanying article, it just proves that every rule has an exception. 

Sabia says the school entered its current campaign without a long-range plan. But with the identification of untapped resources and the impending departure of some beloved longtime school leaders, the board decided it needed to act sooner rather than later.

"We didn't know how much we could raise, but we knew there was enormous potential" in the alumni and prospect base, Sabia says. "We also knew that we had not cultivated any replacements for the handful of key donors on whom we had relied for years and years." The board pushed for a very ambitious goal: first $21 million, then, as the school identified its campaign objectives, it increased to $40 million — one of the largest ever attempted by a day school.

Sabia personally interviewed each trustee and many other members of the campus community to develop the campaign priorities, which included endowment, faculty recruitment and retention, scholarships, a new arts facility, a fitness center, new classrooms, and additional annual funds.

Although deciding to have a campaign and then figuring out the priorities is usually a sign of trouble, Pingry did this for exactly the right reasons, says Kathleen Kavanagh, executive vice president and managing director for Grenzebach Glier and Associates. "A campaign is an important marketing device for philanthropy," she explains. "You need to get the message out to people that they can give to your campus." That was certainly Pingry's intention, Sabia says. "One of our priorities was simply to dispel the myth that a school with as long a history as Pingry's didn't need support." 

By that measure, the five-year campaign has certainly been a success. In the campaign's fourth year, Pingry has raised three-quarters of its goal. But more important, Sabia says the campaign's success has transformed the institution, bringing it to a new level in the minds of its constituents. — AJ

 This article is from the November/December 1999 issue.

Article originally appeared on Andrea Jarrell :: The Power of Strategy and Story (
See website for complete article licensing information.