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Preserving the Harvest: Identifying and Understanding the Factors That Influence Pledge Fulfillment

by Howard Craig - Kucia Consulting

The pledges are tabulated, and the commitments are recorded. After a lot of hard work, you have finally reached your goal. Congratulations! You might be thinking, “The campaign is finally over. YES! Now I can sit back and relax as the funds come in!” Right?

WRONG! The campaign is not over. Pledges and commitments do not automatically convert into dollars. In fact, historical precedent indicates that most campaigns fall short of the full pledge amount, some by 20% or more. Just think about this for a moment. For every $100,000 that is pledged, you may only receive $80,000. On a million dollar goal, that could be a $200,000 shortfall. Are you ready to accept that big of a loss?

Most of us want to see as much of the original pledges fulfilled as possible. But to maximize your campaign results, you will need a strategy, best practices, and a realistic plan. Let’s begin.

Just as your campaign did not occur in a vacuum, the three or four years of the fulfillment period will not be without challenges and change either. To understand what is happening in your specific instance, you will need to accept two truths about fundraising and anticipate change in at least seven areas.

The First Truth: Your campaign will lose pledges.

As the length of fulfillment increases over time, the percentage of fulfillment decreases. Life changes for your donors impacting your results. Some have observed that in our society today, an organization won’t raise more in four years than it would in three. For this reason, most campaigns limit fulfillment to three years. While we would hope to see every campaign pledge fulfilled in three years or less, here are four reasons why some pledges will never be fulfilled.

  1. Constituents “lose heart.” Three years can be a long time for some folks to wait to see a dream fulfilled. During that time, some constituents will lose focus or enthusiasm for the goals of the campaign. Our society today expects instant results, easy fixes, and immediate gratification. Do not be surprised when stakeholders come to you the day after a successful campaign ends and ask where the tractors are to clear the ground for the new building! This delay between pledges made and commitments fulfilled is the leading cause of unfulfilled pledges. The antidote to this affliction is mutual accountability. In the first planning stages of a campaign, you should implement a pledge tracking system and put in place effective donor cultivation and retention strategies. The key word is “mutual.” Just as you expect your donors to fulfill their pledges, you should be prepared to show accountability in how those gifts are being accounted for, safeguarded, and used to attain the goals for which they were given. In our next article, we will discuss some specific strategies that many organizations implement to address this issue.

  2. Supporters lose jobs or income. When a pledge is made, the donor fully expects to fulfill that obligation. However, no one can predict the future. Sometimes unexpected life changes make it impossible for the donor to fulfill their original intention. Job or income loss can seriously affect fulfillment. I will never forget the pledge card that was received during the 2008 economic collapse. Tear-stained and worn, the donor had written across the card, “I had planned to give more, but we can’t. The money is no longer there.” The key here is to exercise mutual respect. Respect the donor for their intentions. Show care and concern for the donor, and they will respect your organization as well. Once again, there are best practices and tactics that can be implemented from the beginning of the campaign to establish safeguards for this eventuality. We will discuss this in a future issue.

  3. Donors move away. Current data indicates that the average American moves every five years. If your organization is local (such as a parish or a local nonprofit), the mobility of the American population may play a role in pledge fulfillment. If nothing is done to address this issue from the beginning of the campaign, a donor’s support may end when they move away. Strategies exist to address this likelihood, and one remarkably effective method of encouraging ongoing support after the donor moves will be discussed in our next installment.

  4. Supporters pass away. Depending upon the average age of your constituents, you should be prepared for some donors to die during the pledge fulfillment period. In these situations, great care and respect must be exercised by the organization. Each case will be treated differently, and in some cases, there is no solution readily available. However, there are some guidelines and best practices that can be put into place as the campaign begins that could provide a framework for discussion of this very delicate topic.

The Second Truth: Your campaign can gain pledges.

The passage of time can take a toll on your pledge fulfillment rate, but it can also provide an advantage. Organizations that take advantage of the pledge fulfillment period can grow new pledges. In my own experience, one client raised much more than was originally pledged because the organization actively pursued new opportunities for pledges during the fulfillment period. There is one caveat however. Research indicates that it can take 17 new pledges to replace the lost revenue from one canceled pledge, so do all you can to hold onto your existing pledges. But also take heart. Three scenarios can provide opportunities to gain pledges:

  1. Circumstances change over time. In a typical campaign, the period in which you ask for pledges is brief—from several weeks to a couple of months. You may find that some constituents are not able to make a pledge at the time you ask or that they may need to make a lower pledge than they would like due to current circumstances. If the organization leadership is fostering good donor relations with all donors, some of those that could not make a pledge during the pledge period might be able and willing to make a pledge once their situation improves. These opportunities must be included in the overall plan for pledge fulfillment.

  2. New donors are drawn to your organization. Successful campaigns bring change to an organization. New enthusiasm and vision accompany a successful campaign as excited donors tell their friends about the good things happening at your organization. As one blockbuster film famously proclaimed, “If you build it, they will come.” New members of your organization should be oriented to the organization, and a part of that orientation should be a presentation on the campaign and an invitation to join. Due to my work, my wife and I have moved often in the last several years. Once, when we joined a new parish, I was surprised to realize that they were in the fulfillment stage of the campaign. My wife and I agreed that we wanted to make a gift to the campaign. When I asked the parish secretary for a commitment card to make my pledge, she sheepishly admitted that she didn’t know where one was! New members come to your organization because they want to be a part of something exciting. Invite them to support you!

  3. Some constituents fulfill pledges early. For a variety of reasons, expect people in your organization to fulfill their pledges early. From the “one-time donation” to the family that meets their pledge in the first year, there will be a few people who have the capacity to do more. On occasion, these people will respond with a second gift if asked. Develop a strategy to identify these people, cultivate them for a second gift, and implement a process to ask them for a second gift.

An effective follow-up strategy is critical to the fulfillment of your pledges as well as growing new opportunities. In our next issue, we will outline strategies that address each of these seven situations. Proven methods will be recommended, and action steps will be outlined to offer your organization tools to effectively preserve the pledges that you received in your campaign.


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