Friday, September 9, 2016

"For Want Of A Nail" - Campaign Infrastructure

This post is suggested by two observations gleaned over my summer break. (By the way, I hope you had a good and especially restful one.)   Both have to do with campaigns. The big campaign, of course, is the presidential one, dominating the news by  its often bizarre twists and turns, with major navigation from the Republican nominee, the idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) Donald J. Trump.  The other one(s) are suggested by developing capital campaigns by two nonprofits with which I have some familiarity.

A conventional wisdom often found  in commentary about the Trump campaign is that one of its weaknesses is the lack of a strong infrastructure. That term, most often associated in the public mind with bridges and roads, is more broadly defined as the foundation or underlying framework supporting any organization or enterprise.  Observers have noted, for instance, how thin the Trump campaign’s staffing is in key states as well as his erratic media buys, to say nothing of the turnovers in top campaign leadership. State staffing (the so-called “ground game”) is important for getting out the vote and identifying likely supporters. The Trump team seems to believe, likely emanating from the candidate himself,  that his large rallies will suffice. One writer observed the Trump campaign resembles more a concert tour than an organized campaign for the nation’s highest office – at least in the traditional format.

The other observation comes from a conversation I had this summer with a friend who has been a donor to a local nonprofit for years before moving away.  I took the opportunity to offer an update on the nonprofit’s news, highlighting enthusiastically a prospective capital campaign. I was told quite firmly not to count on any support from that family as a recent substantial contribution had never been acknowledged by the organization. We discussed the likely cause, the lack of administrative resources.  But the damage had been done.

Too often nonprofits, especially smaller ones, will forge ahead with an ambitious fundraising campaign without assessing its capacity to manage it. Who will prepare and send acknowledgements, keep track of multi-year pledges? What is the mechanism for informing the campaign committee and solicitors of funding status?  I know firsthand of an embarrassing situation where a solicitor, at a social occasion meets  a friend whom he had recently asked for support, and says to the prospect:  "Thanks for seeing me the other day, I hope you will consider my request. “  The surprised response was: “Didn’t you hear of my $$$$$$ pledge?”  Not only was he in the dark, he also missed the chance to offer thanks without prompting.

The word campaign originally applied to a military operation of some length with a specific objective in mind. Successful military campaigns depend on good planning, execution of that plan and a vast support network, logistical and otherwise.   The old proverb “For want of a nail (“… the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for the want of a rider the battle was lost”…etc.) is worth remembering.  

A campaign is like building a house. Before you get to thinking of installing a Viking range or his/ her bathrooms in the master suite, you better be sure the foundation is solid and the roof doesn’t leak. Skimping on those costs will end up affecting the integrity of the house and the contents of the pocketbook.  Planning and investing in a campaign infrastructure will ultimately bring dividends and provide insurance against surprises.  Not doing so can bring the house down. So, don't forget those nails!

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