Saturday, August 21, 2010

A New Kind of Feasibility Study

We need a new kind of feasibility study, one that samples a wider range of opinions than the usual major prospects, board members and institutional insiders, one that is conducted every few years, not just in advance of a campaign.

The new feasibility will allow institutions to see how they are tracking with their key constituents, and where their purposes are converging or diverging. It will be conducted largely on-line or over the phone and will sample the opinions of various stakeholders across the demographic spectrum. It will not only test whether constituents understand the institution’s mission and whether they believe it to be sufficiently focused and pursued with all due discipline, but the viability of specific aspirations and strategies -- before a major fund-raising initiative is introduced.

Let me give an example. When I was arrived at Georgetown, I committed myself to gaining a deep understanding of that culture, including the deeply-held beliefs and concerns of its alumni. We began sampling alumni opinion and learned that over 90 percent of its alumni, across all age groups, believed they received an excellent or very good education. Great. Over 80 percent said their alma mater had a “profound impact” on their lives. Fabulous. But only 17 percent were giving. Huh? Why the disparity between gratitude and giving? We then began testing the alumni’s receptivity to fund raising appeals and learned that 50 percent of the current donors didn’t really believe the institution needed the money. They pointed to the success of a recent campaign, a building boom on campus, and the hefty cost of tuition as proof that the University was more than adequately funded. And, they said, it wasn’t really clear what the University needed. The annual fund had become what one colleague called a “dog’s breakfast” of options, asking for so many “small” things that it appeared it didn’t really have any major needs.

We then tested the receptivity of the alumni to various funding categories -- faculty support, financial aid, programmatic initiatives, and capital projects. There was a general and genuine interest in all of them but when we asked which they would choose if they had to pick one, the vast majority said financial aid. That told us a lot about how to weight the priorities of the upcoming campaign. But it also told us we had our work cut out for ourselves. Although alumni believed that “need blind” admission, the policy of admitting students on merit alone, then committing to meeting their financial need, was something the University should be doing, but only 17 percent believed that policy was being actively pursued. It was an astonishing finding. The University had been committed to the policy since 1978 and had increased its financial commitment to it year after year, until it represented a very significant portion of its annual operating budget. The trouble was that the alumni, in the absence of specific communication about the extent of that commitment, and with what appeared to be contrary evidence -- healthy tuition income and, correspondingly, a larger number of wealthy students -- had formed an entirely different perception. A sizable gap had grown between the actual practices of the University an the perception of those who might support it. For the alumni of a Jesuit university, it was a moral issue. Until we could convince them that the University was not only committed to need blind admission but needed their financial support to respond to the growing demand, we realized, our fund-raising efforts would fall short.

That’s why we need a different kind of feasibility study. Too many institutions are flying blind. They’re asking money for this and that without knowing whether their prospects understand or believe in their mission, think they really need the money, or harbor a concern about the way the institution is going about its business. Without an understanding of these factual or perceptual gaps, institutions are wasting an enormous amount of time and money. They do not know the real reasons why calls go unanswered, or why solicitations prove unsuccessful.

Yet, with a broader-based sampling of constituent opinion, specific content and policy gaps for specific groups of prospects can be clearly seen which then allows for the creation of highly targeted strategies that work to systematically close those gaps, either through changes in institutional policy or precision-tuned communications. Institutions cannot raise more money by asserting they need more but by first making sure their goals harmonize with their potential supporters. When we achieve mutuality of purpose and common cause, we lay the foundations for sustained fund-raising success.

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