In the Shadow of Success

Just before launching on my extensive road trip mid-January, I received via e-mail a public announcement concerning a major gift pledged to the Kelch Aviation Museum in Brodhead, WI. This was more than good news for the museum It was an encouraging message for me as well. Not that I am involved in the management of the museum, but I did provide my fund raising counsel on their capital campaign and this public statement was an affirmation of the campaign’s success.

The museum is managed by a friend from my days at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, WI. Pat Weeden, the executive director at Kelch, was a MC member, who helped me with creating content for our website as well as – and more importantly for me – the know-how for posting weekly web log messages. My routine of writing under the nom de plume of Management in Exile originated with my commitment to write about the operations at Mid-Continent as a means of providing our members and donors with the ability to monitor a transparent and accountable operation.

Fast forward to my first tour of the Kelch Aviation Museum with Pat as a newly minted and only employee. It was little more than a collection of vintage but unseen artifacts hidden behind the doors of various small hangers. It was Pat’s dream to construct a larger building where he could gather the entire collection in one viewable and properly interpreted space. He further envisioned a separate building with adequate meeting space for educational programs and archival storage.

Big dreams come with big price tags, which can be daunting to the uninitiated in fund raising for a small non-profit organization. My friend Pat asked for my advice, which I gladly gave in return for all the years of free advice he gave me on web site construction and for the sake of friendship. We sat together over lunch and devised a three phase capital campaign, which contained my staples for success.

First: devise a plan. Maybe I should say plans, plural, when discussing a capital campaign. One plan is for the physical layout, which then lends itself to creating visuals for the fund raising effort itself, which is plan two. This is where the dreaming stops. The plan must be reasonable and attainable, which does not mean that it must be small. Capital campaigns typically entail vast amounts of money and to raise big bucks requires a strategy so that there is no wasted effort on unlikely prospects. I say this as one who has often been advised to simply call up Warren Buffet to supply all the money we need. Unless you are Warren’s bridge partner, ala Bill Gates, this technique does not work.

Second: work the plan. When the time comes to start construction, the general contractor will follow the blueprints and specifications for the physical plant. The same must be done with the fund raising plan. It is easy to give up part way through the campaign since there is a usual burst of early gifts followed by the doldrums of diminished cash flow. But never give up. Work the plan. This requires a large dose of foolish optimism, but you will find in life that the optimists hold the key to success. With them there is less likelihood of quitting midstream.

Third: expect the unexpected. Unplanned gifts find their way to a proven entity. In the non-profit world one must gain a donor’s confidence by proving one’s competence in order to prompt a pragmatic donor’s gift. There is no way to plan for this. The timing, source and amount are simply not knowable to include in the fund raising plan at the outset. But I have seen it happen, where some donors wait to see if you have any reasonable chance at success and then they step in to help you achieve your goal. This happened to Pat. The directors of a solicited foundation waited to see if the Kelch Aviation Museum could complete the initial campaign for phases one and two. They have now unexpectedly stepped in to fund phase three on condition that the design be enhanced and named for the foundation’s own founders. Surprise! Their financial gift will create a more attractive physical plant and meet Pat’s original purpose of his museum.

Fourth: celebrate your success. This is typically done with a grand opening. The design for what takes place is variable, but you do want to honor your major donors publicly, unless they have specified anonymity as a condition of their gifts. Personally I like to stage these events with food, drink and live entertainment. It is a celebration, after all, and in this country that usually means providing the means for becoming satiated with all manner of delectable delights.

Having been a partial participant in someone else’s campaign, it occurs to me that I must add a point five to my overall strategy as an advisor. Standing in the shadow of another’s success is the appropriate place for a consultant to be. It cheapens the effort for an advisor to claim glory and by so doing upstaging one’s client, even a pro bono one. Humility is a virtue best suited for the advocates of success. Let others bask in the glory of a completed campaign. You know what you’ve done to help them get there and should find all the solace you need for your efforts waiting for you somewhere in the shadows.

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