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The Role of the Executive Director During a Campaign

How much time should an executive director devote to a capital campaign?

By Ellie Tiller

Over the years, the most successful capital campaigns I have been involved with have all shared one crucial common denominator: exceptional leadership from the executive director. While this role is important for obvious reasons, an executive director’s campaign responsibilities are truly multifaceted and require a 360-degree leadership approach when it comes to raising money successfully.

Cultivating Major Donor Relationships During a Capital Campaign

Building relationships with prospective donors is essential for a successful capital campaign, and if done well, will result in the quintessential achievement of creating sustainable, long-term generosity.

Donor cultivation at this level requires a significant investment of time, and today we are seeing more and more major donors wanting direct access to leadership. The void of face-to-face interaction during the pandemic has also amplifying that demand.

During a campaign we estimate that executive directors should spend 60%-70% of their time cultivating and stewarding major donors. While this schedule can be arduous, the time spent with donors and prospects is invaluable and pays dividends for the campaign and beyond. For some EDs this work comes more naturally than others.

Help for the Reluctant Fundraising Executive Director

Strong organizational leadership does not always equate to strong fundraising skills, particularly if an organization is historically reliant on foundation and/or government funding.

A few years ago, I worked with an executive director who was a prime example of a reluctant fundraiser. Asking for money was not just out of her comfort zone, it was downright terrifying. The fear of rejection was paralyzing. Yet, with the proper coaching, practice and dedication, she was pleasantly surprised, not only by her fundraising success but her aptitude and newfound affinity for the act of asking others for money.

The key to her transformation was taking a donor-centric approach to the ask, allowing herself to step out of her own shoes and into those of the donor. It wasn’t about her at all, and this thinking alleviated the pressure of “the ask.” Moreover, a campaign can be one of the most effective training grounds for executive directors to refine and hone their fundraising skillset, as it creates a unique sense of urgency to connect with donors and drives them to articulate a compelling and inspiring vision.

Board and Committee Campaign Engagement

An executive director collaborates closely with the board and capital campaign committee members throughout all stages of a campaign.

While the board approves the priorities for the campaign, it is the executive director’s responsibility to execute the vision and strategy. In turn, the ED will strategically utilize board and committee members to advance the campaign.

In addition to providing regular updates on progress to goal, donor prospects, and current challenges, an ED is expected to assist board and committee members with prospect meetings and introductions. Board and committee members heavily rely on the ED’s leadership skills to bring these prospects along and inspire a meaningful investment in the organization.

Executive Director Campaign Communications

The executive director shoulders the responsibility of being the “face” of a campaign, and whether they are sitting one-on-one with a prospective donor or giving remarks at an event, it is critical to communicate priorities and impact effectively.

Furthermore, they must be able to articulate this information in a way that draws people in and inspires them to become a part of the project. This takes practice, and every executive director should have a 10- to 15-minute campaign speech that he/she knows backwards and forwards and can modify for any audience.

I attended a campaign launch event a few years ago that drew a large and impressive crowd of potential donors; however, when the executive director gave his remarks, his speech fell flat and it was clear he had not prepared. My key takeaway was, “you only have once to make a first impression.” 

“I worked with an executive director who was a reluctant fundraiser. The fear of rejection was paralyzing. Yet, with the proper coaching, practice, and dedication, she was pleasantly surprised by her newfound affinity for the act of asking others for money.”

Delegate and Elevate: Managing the Team During a Capital Campaign

A campaign highlights the importance of an ED’s ability to delegate tasks and manage their time, highlighting his/her ability to balance campaign responsibilities while leading a staff efficiently and effectively.

It is imperative that the ED stay focused to maintain the right cadence for achieving the goals and timeline of a campaign. With nearly 70% of their time spent fundraising, an ED must pivot on day-to-day responsibilities and trust senior staff members with added tasks and responsibilities. It is also important for the ED to connect the staff with the campaign goals which are part of the pathway to the larger goals and vision of the organization’s impact and mission. A motivated and enthusiastic staff is incredibly important during a campaign.

Stewardship and Accountability

Once a campaign gift is committed the journey does not end there; donor stewardship is essential to the long-term success of the organization.

The executive director ensures stewardship is a top priority throughout a capital campaign, including managing a timely acknowledgment process, providing regular progress reports to donors, and demonstrating transparency in financial management.

One of the most effective stewardship practices I have seen during a campaign has been utilizing Zoom calls to connect staff experts with campaign donors to articulate how their investment has been spent and the impact it is having. Many donors appreciate the flexibility and convenience of the virtual platform and this stewardship technique has been incredibly successful. While donors want to be thanked and acknowledged consistently, they are also grateful for the accountability, which in turn engenders continued trust and confidence in the organization. It’s a win-win for all!

Overall, the leadership strength needed from an executive director cannot be understated. It requires innovative, strategic thinking, the ability to connect to a diversity of people, and the willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone.

It is also important to note that not all executive directors are born fundraisers. 

“With nearly 70% of their time spent fundraising, an ED must pivot on day-to-day responsibilities and trust senior staff members with added tasks and responsibilities.”

A good campaign consultant can and should help coach and train the executive director to become more comfortable in a fundraising role. The Winkler Group, for example, spends significant time mentoring the ED through role playing and helping leadership see solicitation as a way to connect a donor to a compelling vision.

Leading a campaign, while continuing to run an organization, is no easy task, but efficiency and commitment are key to the success and ultimately reaping the long-term rewards of the effort.

About the Author

Ellie Tiller is a nonprofit leader with 25 years of nonprofit and fundraising experience. She specializes in capital campaign management and building donor relationships that lead to meaningful investments. 

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