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Funding priorities and other loose marbles

Chief Strategy Officer

In campaign planning, organizations often get stuck on priorities: Which initiatives, projects, or efforts is the campaign going to fund? What belongs in the campaign and what belongs in the annual fund? Is it a capital campaign or a comprehensive campaign? And endowment. What about the endowment?! It can be everything from overwhelming to contentious as program leaders feel pressure to justify their funding needs.

Why is prioritization such a stumbling block for many organizations?

Of course, the trite answer happens to be true: Many organizations simply don’t prioritize prioritization. But more than that, in my experience navigating this issue with nonprofits of all sizes, it’s because they lack the context and structure that help to truly understand and define their priorities. The issue is rarely that organizations don’t know what their priorities are; it’s that they don’t know how to talk about their priorities.

In other words, they’re usually lacking containers.

Contain and define

Recently, I bought my kids a(nother) set of marbles. The problem with marbles, it turns out, is that they are small and round and very hard, and there are many of them in a set. The other problem is that the flimsy mesh bag they come in is useless after it’s ripped open. Days later, after stepping on a loose marble one too many times, I asked my kids why they couldn’t just put the marbles away after using them. “We don’t have any place to put them,” they responded.

Of course: The marbles needed a container.

Venn Diagram of Marbles and Priorities

Like marbles, your priorities need containers, and your containers need definition. After all, it’s only when we contain and define priorities that we can do anything with them. Things like moving them, shelving them, and sharing them.

Once we have containers, we can see how big – or small – our funding needs actually are, which begins to inform the size and shape of our campaign. (Campaigns are, in effect, containers!)

Your organization already has containers

You already have containers in your organization – lots of them. The services and programs you offer, for example, are containers. You might have multiple locations and buildings (containers) or equipment and technology critical to your operations (containers). And you definitely have people – your staff, your donors and board members, and the constituents you serve (all containers).

When you begin prioritizing your funding needs, you are, in fact, placing them in containers. Each level of prioritization – difficult, easy, necessary, expensive, immediate, popular – is a container.

By now you’ve probably noticed the rub: There are so. Many. Containers. With so many options, how do you go about creating consensus and setting your campaign priorities?

Let your strategic plan do the containing

Your campaign priorities should support the organization you wish to become, not the organization you already are. Which is why it’s helpful to look to your strategic plan when considering how to define your campaign priorities. What is your vision for the future and what are the related goals? How can these goals help to inform your campaign priorities?

Containing your campaign priorities within the pillars of your strategic plan creates focus and eliminates distractions. It gives stakeholders a shared vocabulary to define their individual priorities, which helps keep everyone connected to the bigger picture.

For instance, you might have a funding priority to fix the leaky roof. Does this specific item really need its own container? Or could it be included in the container labeled “facilities”? And might “facilities” go into an even bigger container called “sense of place and belonging,” which is tied directly to your organization’s strategic plan? A case for support centered on creating a sense of place and belonging is much more compelling to most donors than fixing a leaky roof.

You’ll soon discover that many priorities could fit into multiple containers. And that’s precisely what so many organizations struggle with. They think that if they include a priority in one container, it precludes it from being included in a different container. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s helpful to look at how many containers a priority belongs in. The more containers a funding need fits into, the more likely it should be a campaign priority.

If your organization doesn’t have a current, well-articulated strategic plan, there is your first priority! It’s not unusual for organizations to align their strategic and campaign planning cycles. They are complementary (not competing) efforts, and it’s a wise and efficient use of resources since many of the conversations needed to inform campaign priorities are the same ones that inform strategic planning. In fact, using a campaign to roll out a new strategic direction can be an impactful way to garner attention, engage constituents, and create excitement and interest in your organization.

Don’t rush the process

Earlier, I mentioned that many organizations just don’t prioritize prioritization. The reason for this is simple: Organizing your priorities is time-consuming.

In the Antil Family Case of Loose Marbles, it turned into an hours-long project of (re)organizing the playroom. Pretty quickly, we decided to put the marbles into a clear, empty Tupperware – great. Now, where would we put the Tupperware? In the basket of small toys? With the games that use marbles? My oldest son pointed out that marbles are small and round, so didn’t they belong in the basket of small balls? “They’re not balls,” my youngest son countered.

After some negotiation, they finally agreed on where it made the most sense to keep the marbles (in the basket with small toys, if you’re curious). As it turns out, it’s not that there was only one right place; they just needed to agree on one right place.

There’s no getting around it – creating buy-in is time-consuming. Stakeholders need to engage in deliberate, structured conversations about the containers they will use to prioritize their efforts. Discussions like these uncover common denominators and shared interests, as well as illuminate blind spots.

Prioritization is as much about choosing what not to do as it is about choosing what to do. And one thing I’ve learned – as a parent and as a professional: it’s far more effective when people decide for themselves what they’re willing to give up.

When we make the time to sort through our containers, we’re likely to find long-lost, forgotten, or outgrown priorities. It’s when we discover, with a mix of awe and nostalgia, just how much has changed since the last time we did this and how much has stayed the same. It’s when we see evidence of how much we’ve grown. And it’s how we make room for whatever comes next. Like that new set of Legos.

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