May 11, 2016

The Feasibility Study: More Than Simply Dollars and Cents

One of the most oft-cited reasons for hiring a campaign consultant is the desire of a parish campaign team to test the feasibility of raising the dollars needed for the projects being proposed. It’s a great reason! The ECF model offers the answers to five key questions during the feasibility phase of a campaign:

  1. Does the community understand the need for the campaign?
  2. Do they agree with it?
  3. Will they work to support it?
  4. Will they contribute financially?
  5. If so, how much?
There is a little bit more to the feasibility process in my experience than these strictly dollars-and-cents issues, though. The study process provides the opportunity to really refine your campaign’s message and to structure a campaign process that will help further build a sense of community and cultivate new and emerging leaders in the congregation.

Do they understand and agree?   

During feasibility interviews and via confidential questionnaires, congregants can provide candid feedback to the outside consultant without worry that they might be misunderstood or judged by their fellow parishioners or clergy. Reviewing the issues and concerns that arise during this process enables a campaign team to address questions from the beginning in a positive way, letting prospective donors know they have been heard and that their opinions and input are included in the final projects presented. This also helps a congregation decide not to pursue a project for which there is low support or, perhaps, engage in additional communications efforts so that there is greater awareness and understanding of the need for that particular project.

Sometimes a study shows that there are not sufficient funds available to support the overall goal of a campaign. This outcome can result in prioritizing the goals and even scheduling them out over time. An Episcopal school with which I worked had $4 million in goals, but only $1.5 million likely once we conducted the study. They devised a 10-year program in three phases and developed a communications plan to support it. They exceeded their first phase goal by $500,000; they exceeded their phase two goal by nearly double the amount sought; and they concluded the third phase of the campaign two years ahead of schedule! Not being able to raise the full amount at the start does not mean defeat. It often leads to a plan that results in even larger goals being realized over time.

Will they work to support it?

One of the best side benefits of capital campaigning is that it is a process that involves everyone in the congregation if done right. So often, the same people who have led a parish over time are the ones looked to for direction and leadership in a campaign. This is to be expected and is not a bad thing. But if a campaign ends without previously unknown leaders rising to the surface, then it is a missed opportunity for identifying new, younger, or recently retired members who may be able to join the group upon whom the congregation can rely for future growth and development. Part of an effective feasibility study is discovering and engaging men and women who have much to offer, but have not yet had the opportunity or the avenue for developing their leadership skills within their church family. 

An established parish with a long-time rector and campaign team that had been working for two years on their master plan was confronting a problem of perception. Many congregants thought the campaign goals were a “done deal,” that they had simply been asked during Discernment to rubber stamp a program pre-determined by the old guard. This concern emerged during the Feasibility phase. A younger member of the parish, not before very involved, offered to chair some small group meetings to better explain the campaign goals. She recruited friends to create a webpage, e-newsletter, and other ways of spreading wider understanding. Through their efforts, the parish came to feel a part of the process, offered refinements to the goals that were incorporated into the plan, and the campaign was a success (and she is on her way to the Vestry!).

Will they contribute financially?   

The focus of the feasibility phase is, of course, on whether there is sufficient financial support to reach the goals of a campaign. Inevitably, church treasurers worry about annual stewardship and whether it will suffer once a campaign launches. The feasibility study is an essential tool for examining together what is necessary for a church to achieve its mission and purposes, both in terms of annual support and capital development. The net result often is greatly expanded awareness on the part of church members of what it really takes to have the kind of church they want to be a part of and an increase in annual stewardship even as a campaign is undertaken. Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) works with parishes to evaluate whether it is better for a given congregation to merge their annual and capital drives for a time, or whether it is better to keep them separate. However the mechanics are managed, though, the usual result of capital feasibility studying is to raise the bar for all forms of giving to the parish, leaving the community stronger than ever financially. This is not only a positive outcome on the balance sheet. The energizing, inspiring, focused spirit that emerges when a community sets its sights on a challenging, but achievable capital goal is immeasurable!

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