THINKING OUT LOUD ABOUT ADVANCEMENT

Is this the End of "The End?"

Campaigns with No End Dates are Not Campaigns

by Aaron Conley

April 2019

Is your college or university currently engaged in a campaign? Most readers will likely respond “yes” given the ubiquitous status campaigns have taken in higher education fundraising.

 

If you are in a campaign and it is currently in the public phase, is the campaign end date presented in a clear and obvious way on the website and publications? Evidence suggests far more will answer “no” to this question.

It’s difficult to point to exactly when the trend shifted away from publicly acknowledging campaign end dates. For many years now, we have seen the length of campaigns growing in duration as goals are being pushed exponentially higher. Campaigns that used to last 5, 6, or 7 years are now stretching into 8, 9 or a decade (or longer).

 

Bigger goals with longer campaign timelines certainly makes it harder to project how many years it will take to surpass the goal. An institution’s leadership will likely have a targeted end date they use internally with their academic units, athletics, library and other major programs, as well as with the institution’s board and campaign leadership. But why is this being increasingly hidden from view from the very people who the institution is relying on for the success of their campaign? In Leading the Campaign, an outstanding book by Michael Worth now in its second edition, he notes this troubling trend by stating, “A goal and deadline that are known only to those within the institution may be motivating to them, but they do not necessarily influence the thinking of those from whom support is sought.”

His book also identifies six fundamental campaign principles. The first is, “A Campaign has an Announced Goal and Deadline” (The italics is his, and demonstrates a needed point of emphasis on the importance of publicly acknowledging how much is attempting to be raised, and by what date). The late Kent Dove also emphasized a fixed time period in his seminal textbook, Conducting a Successful Capital Campaign, where he defined a campaign as an effort “…to secure extraordinary gifts and pledges for a specific purpose or purposes (such as building construction, renovation, equipment acquisition, or endowment funds) during a specified period.”

I subscribed to these thought-leaders, and others, in a book chapter on campaigns I contributed to Achieving Excellence in Fundraising (4th Ed.), noting the end of a campaign’s silent phase marks the point where “…the organization publicly commits to a specific dollar goal to be raised by a fixed deadline.” I also put this into practice during my career when I led a five-year campaign to raise $200 million, always emphasizing the end date through the campaign website and publications.

A Sample of Campaign Websites

Evidence of the disappearing end date can be found in a listing of active and recently closed campaigns maintained by Inside Higher Ed. Although this is not a full accounting of all the campaigns currently in progress, it is a viable sample with a total of 80 campaigns representing public and private research universities, liberal arts colleges and a few community colleges and art schools. Each institution is listed with their goal, amount raised to date, top priorities, and a starting year and end date.

At first glance, it would appear that nearly everyone is announcing an end date, as only seven entries have “No End Date” listed in the column where a year appears for all the others. The seven with no end listed are:

Florida International University

Lehigh University

St. Lawrence University

University of Buffalo – SUNY

University of Colorado System

University of Kentucky

University of Oregon

 

But after reviewing the campaign websites of all the institutions with an end date of 2019 or later, it becomes clear that few are publicly acknowledging their campaign time period. After excluding those campaigns on the list with end dates of 2017 and 2018, there are a total of 45 with end dates between 2019 and 2025. Less than one-third of these actually have an end date clearly visible on their campaign website.

CAMPAIGN WEBSITES WITH END DATE

CAMPAIGN WEBSITES WITH NO END DATE

Ending the Endless Campaign

 

If institutions truly wish to embrace the urgency of campaigns beyond simply achieving a dollar goal, let’s do away with boring, one-dimensional “progress to goal” charts that only show how much has been raised. This type of measure, with no reference to a campaign timeframe, only reinforces the perception that colleges are always in a campaign.

 

A highly effective alternative is a “campaign progress chart” that illustrates the full time frame of the campaign along with the goal and dollars raised. Compliments to Juniata College, which was listed in the first group above for publicly acknowledging their end date. Their website includes one of these charts (which they label “Campaign Timeline”). Illustrating a campaign in this way reinforces the urgency of this effort as it shows not just the end date, but also clearly communicates whether the effort is ahead of schedule, or behind. Southern Methodist University publicly used this same illustrative tool in their most recent campaign, SMU Unbridled. See a sample of a past campaign status report they shared quarterly that included this tool.

 

Campaigns have certainly become a standard mechanism for not only increasing private support for colleges and universities, but also for elevating their long-term fundraising performance. Following the core campaign principle of a publicly-announced end date helps provide both a sense of urgency to potential supporters, and a sense of relief that the campaign really is going to end. To quote Kent Dove again, institutions that subscribe to core principles like this will be more successful over the long-term, “But a check of the record, over time and through all types of philanthropic and charitable organizations, shows beyond any doubt that those who abide by these principles win more often, win more convincingly, and usually win not only the day but also the future.”

Aaron Conley is Founding Partner at Academic Advancement Partners

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