A Model of Success
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
By Leonard J. Moisan, PhD, President, The Covenant Group
I’m sure that many of you have had great campaign experiences, but I write today to tell you one of my favorites. Recently, our company had the privilege of participating in a 5-year, $121 million campaign for 21st Century Parks. The Parklands Project was one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It included the acquisition of some 4,000 acres adjacent to a local tributary in Louisville. The goal was to create a complete park system along an 11-mile stretch of the 62-mile Floyd’s Fork. Of course, Louisville is one of the few complete Olmsted Park systems in the country, so this project was very much in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted.
As a professional, participating in a campaign that size is exciting enough, but the campaign was also for a virtual start up organization. Established in 2004, 21st Century Parks was just getting their legs under them. In addition, it kicked off in 2008, one of the worst periods for fundraising in modern history. Finally, the campaign itself started out with a much more modest goal of $25 million. It was actually to be the second phase of a previously successful $25 million effort. Plans were to continue with additional phases in subsequent years and raise about $150 million total. So what was so unique about this effort? Simply stated, everything! However, there were a few things that stand out.
First, the success started with the founder and CEO of the organization, Dan Jones. He took his life in an entirely different direction to achieve this vision. A PhD in history from Indiana University, Dan previously had been a well-regarded member of the University of Louisville faculty. However, he went back to Yale where he had received his Bachelor’s degree, and he pursued anther degree in forest science. Shortly after he graduated, Dan founded 21st Century Parks. No doubt, he was committed to the vision.
While Dan had very little experience in fundraising when we started, by the time the campaign concluded he was a fundraising veteran. He was a committed student of fund development and quite teachable, but he also had great instincts and was willing to go anywhere at any time to tell the story and share the vision. He did just that making literally hundreds of presentations to the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, Colleges and Universities and just about anyone else who would listen.
Second, the volunteer Leadership was clearly superb. The campaign was chaired by David Jones Sr., the retired founder of the Humana Corporation. Not only did he make a significant financial commitment to the campaign himself, he was not the least bit reluctant to make lead and major gift solicitation visits. It quickly became evident that he would set an active and fruitful pace for the rest of the volunteers. In addition, he personally recruited 5 co-chairs and along with Dan he was actively involved in recruiting most of the additional 40 volunteers who helped with the effort. And when it was needed he traveled to New York and other places to tell the story about what we were trying to accomplish. In my mind he was the quintessential campaign chair.
Third, no doubt the volunteers also helped make the campaign successful. Certainly we had quite a few CEOs and business owners on the committee, but we also had plenty of people representing a variety of neighborhoods in the city. Some of the volunteers hosted receptions for peers and associates, while others made solicitation calls to individuals and they also secured gifts from their companies. In fact, the volunteers hosted some 50 separate receptions and the CEO spoke at every one of them. It was truly a community effort and when it was over nearly 1,000 donors had responded.
Finally, during the early planning phase of the campaign we did a search and found a top-notch development officer and she kept things moving and on task. In fact, she had to take maternity leave in the middle of the campaign, but by then it was so well organized by then, that her temporary replacement easily picked up where the development director left off and supported the campaign without missing a beat.
So why did individuals, foundations and corporations respond so favorably in one of the toughest economic periods in modern history? During our conversations with them we found 5 basic reasons that people shared with us:
- The vision was new and exciting. Yes, this was a tough economic time, but many people said that we also had to look philanthropically to our future.
- The volunteers who were involved were both diverse and well respected and people gave to the project because they fully understood the vision (Usually by hearing about it at a public event or a private reception) and these people of credibility asked them to contribute.
- They told the story well. After hearing the CEO’s presentations, it became clear that the vision was for this to be a community project that everyone in the community would be able to enjoy and folks rallied around that idea.
- Success tended to breed success. The leadership and commitment of the CEO and volunteers catapulted the campaign way past its original $25 million goal to an almost unreal $121 million success. Many people gave because they wanted to be part of that success.
- Finally, there was a sense of history here. Olmsted’s vision was to get out ahead of development and create green space that would enhance the quality of life as the community developed. This project was clearly in that tradition as it was in an area of the east end of Louisville that was just starting to develop. People understood that part about Olmsted’s history because the CEO included it in his presentations and it motivated many of the donors.
While none of this should be a surprise to any professional, the fact is that when a campaign comes together with all of these parts working, it is gratifying to see. For me as a professional, I have never seen one of our campaign plans executed in such a detailed and professional way with such a commitment to excellence. It clearly guaranteed their success and made us proud to be associated with them.