In Defense of Pre-Campaign Assessments
The author of a controversial, forthcoming book about philanthropy challenges the usefulness of Pre-Campaign Assessments.
James LaRose, founder of the National Development Institute, a nonprofit organization in Lexington, S.C. hasn’t even finished his book “Re-Imagining Philanthropy.” But the author and his work have already received plenty of attention – perhaps too much.
According to a March 17 piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the film company CineVantage is apparently producing a documentary based on LaRose’s ideas. That was enough it seems, for the venerable Chronicle to offer LaRose a megaphone in the form of an interview.
In the article, Mr. LaRose went on to attack the practice of feasibility studies, which I have long referred to as Pre-Campaign Assessments (PCA). According to the article, one of the chapters of the unfinished book is entitled, “Feasibility Studies: The Crack Cocaine of Nonprofit Consulting.”
“Eighty percent of nonprofits don’t need to spend $25,000 to $50,000 to find out what they already know, that they aren’t ready,” he told The Chronicle. “If you do perform a feasibility study, you should not hire the same consultant to run the campaign.”
LaRose went on to tell the publication that “In many cases charities pay consultants $50,000 for a feasibility study and then get charged fees that typically amount to 5 percent of whatever the charity raises in its campaign. So if it is a $10 million campaign, the consultant could earn $500,000 over a two- or three-year period. It can be hard for a consultant to be as transparent as possible in doing a feasibility study when they stand to gain $500,000. ”
Where to begin? While provocative and probably well-intentioned, LaRose is, I believe, promulgating ideas that can harm nonprofits.
At our firm, we consider the PCA process as a key stage of a major campaign. It is foolhardy to commence any major campaign without doing research, planning, and laying groundwork. I use the term PCA, as opposed to feasibility study, because the process of interviewing stakeholders, compiling data, and researching prospects is not about answering the yes/no question of “can we do it or can’t we?” Rather, the process is about finding the best path to success and settling on realistic and achievable campaign goals and strategies.
A PCA is where initial conversations take place, seeds get planted for big gifts and leaders are recruited. I have seen PCA interview subjects say they would never support a campaign, only to change their minds a few months later after having had time to consider. The PCA process is when potential issues and obstacles are identified and headed off before they can derail a multimillion dollar campaign. Rather than functioning as a “waste of money,” PCAs ultimately save nonprofits money by leading to smarter, more effective and more successful fundraising campaigns.
Fine, I can almost hear Mr. LaRose say, “We can agree to disagree on the value of PCAs. But at the very least, nonprofits should hire different firms to run the PCA and the actual campaign.”
Sorry, but this argument makes no sense. The PCA is when strong relationships are built between the consultant and the organization. Nonprofits are inherently complicated organizations. It takes time to learn about and understand the organization and its culture. There is no reason for a nonprofit to have to go through this twice.
The idea that nonprofits would forgo careful planning and study and attempt to raise millions in a blind fashion is, quite frankly, a disturbing one. Consultants live and die by their reputations and no ethical consulting firm would alter PCA data in order to maximize its chances for getting hired. Consultants have plenty of incentive to give sound counsel. If we don’t, word will get around.
Mr. LaRose seems to suggest that consultants artificially inflate campaign goals in order to increase their fees. This is, of course, an unethical practice. An ethical consulting firm will never base their fees on the amount of money raised. Fees should be a set rate established in advance and should have nothing whatsoever to do with the amount of money raised. Every profession has its unethical practitioners. But Mr. LaRose has unfairly maligned a profession by focusing on a few bad apples. And by doing so, he may be steering nonprofits away from seeking needed counsel that could ultimately benefit many people and communities.
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