A campaign rule that when broken, can cause disaster.

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This seems like a very simple rule to follow. I’ve explained it to every volunteer of every capital campaign I’ve ever worked on or conducted. I often joke that it’s one of my secret strategies for fundraising success. But really, it’s not so secret.

Won’t Give? Can’t Ask.

In other words: you can’t ask anyone else for a donation until you’ve made your own donation.

Simple. Right? And powerful, from a psychological perspective. It gets campaign volunteers engaged and quickly enthused. And while it sounds simple, in almost every campaign, I’ve had board members and volunteers balk at signing a pledge form. Not all for the same reason, but balk nonetheless.

During the interview process for one of my first campaigns, I actually asked whether they had 100 percent board participation in the campaign as it had officially launched before they hired a campaign manager. The team interviewing me answered with an emphatic “yes!”. Well, let’s just say that wasn’t entirely true. Most board members had signed pledge forms for the campaign and a few had already started making pledge payments. But there was one board member who, after much arm-twisting, had verbally committed to an unnamed amount, but refused to sign a pledge form. I was given the task, after I started the job, of getting her to sign a pledge form and pick an amount. Finally, we agreed that she would write a small check so that the organization could continue saying that it had 100 percent board participation in the campaign.

Did the lack of a written pledge form affect the success of the campaign? Yes. During the feasibility study, this board member had indicated to the consultant that her family would be interested in making a five-figure gift. As a result of her unwillingness to commit to that in writing, the board did not meets its internal goal, which postponed the start of the public phase of the campaign.

In a post earlier this summer, I said:

“…it’s nearly impossible to change the expectations of current board members regarding their roles and responsibilities in fundraising.”

That goes double if they’ve never made a contribution to the organization and you’re asking them to help recruit and/or enlist the financial support of others. To be successful, I believe small and medium sized nonprofits have to have boards that are engaged in the process of raising both friends AND funds. The staff just doesn’t have the capacity to do it by themselves.

Have you encountered recalcitrant board members or campaign volunteers who refuse to make a formal pledge? How have you handled it? What was the consequence or solution?

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