Back in college, I occasionally found my way to a friendly poker night with a few buddies. The pots were usually small, with the occasional $50 - $100 pot later in the evening whenever one of our over-confident friends started mouthing off to one of his equally over-confident pals. As the pots got bigger, the energy reached a different level, and I would often get caught up in the bravado of raising bets and drawing more money from my wallet to be sure I could stay in the game. My zealous approach to poker nights soon earned me the dubious nickname “Bet” Armstrong by my fraternity brothers.
I won some. I lost more. But I would always convince myself that my losing streaks had to end sometime and that the next game would be different. At the end of an especially bad night of losing, a friend pulled me aside and offered me a piece of advice. He said, “You are a terrible bluffer. Maybe you should stop placing bets when you don’t have good cards.” Turns out that every time I got a bad hand, I would nervously shuffle my cards in my hands – suggesting to my friend and other savvy players in the group that my hand was a bust – no three-or-four-of-a-kind, no full house or straight. I finally realized I was playing with a bunch of hustlers who saw me as an easy target and would happily engage my eagerness to raise the stakes.
Lesson learned: If you are a terrible bluffer, don’t place bets with lousy cards.
Thankfully, my poker-playing days are mostly behind me. But over the past several months, I have been in conversations with many executive directors, board members, and development directors that are causing flashbacks to my gambling days.
As I listen to their plans for capital campaigns, endowment campaigns, or major gift initiatives to fund special projects, I am heartened by the leaders focused on strong campaign planning with clear-eyed objectivity, and who understand the importance of investing time and resources into a thoughtful season of preparation before deciding whether to move forward with a campaign. When I hear this, I harken back to those winning hands with a straight flush or four-of-a-kind.
But I find myself concerned by conversations with other leaders who are approaching the idea of launching a major campaign effort with the same recklessness that I showed in my poker-playing days. I’m concerned that they are trying to bluff their way towards a campaign without the cards in hand to justify their confidence. Here is a sampling of the questionable cards some nonprofits are holding as they try to bluff their way through a campaign:
1. A campaign that is based on pressures to get money in the door quickly to address budget shortfalls or the random wants and needs of the loudest voices in their board room, instead of being based on a clear vision, well-defined organizational priorities, and in support of a bold, ambitious opportunity to strengthen the organization’s impact on the community it serves.
2. A campaign that cannot clearly articulate its case for giving in a way that makes potential donors care.
3. A campaign that is expected to succeed solely on the backs of an over-worked, under-resourced and poorly supported development team rather than by a cohesive team of volunteer leaders (champions) with influence, calling power, and a willingness to champion the campaign and guide it to successful completion; supported by focused professional staff with the prospect research and donor engagement capabilities to cultivate interest and steward relationships; and resourced by campaign counsel with the wisdom and experience to help the organization navigate the highs and lows that are part of any campaign.
4. A campaign goal that is arbitrarily set without testing its rationale and priorities with the donors and untapped prospects that organization leaders haughtily assume will care enough to make significant gifts.
5. A campaign that is launched from the excitement of receiving a large, often unexpected gift, with the false assumption that others will naturally follow. This rarely, if ever, leads an organization to success in a campaign. Successful campaigns must start with a strong certainty that the organization can secure enough potential gifts at every needed giving level to achieve the desired campaign goals. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this means you are already running a successful annual campaign that is engaging more donors, more deeply each year.
The dangers to an organization launching a poorly planned major campaign effort are significant. It risks long-term financial instability when campaigns fall short of overly ambitious or unrealistic goals. Donors and potential donors can become skeptical and disenchanted and may shift their philanthropy to other organizations that they perceive as more capable of using their gifts and investments wisely. Those depending on the organization’s services may suffer as the organization struggles to find its financial footing and mission mojo after a failed campaign.
Take it from a gambler with a lousy poker face and be sure you have a strong hand before placing your bets! If you are not ready for a campaign, don’t think you can bluff your way to success. You will lose and lose big!