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Preparation & Planning: Where the rubber meets the road

Vice President (FORMER)

Sometimes the simplest of statements are the hardest to implement.

As the 1992 presidential campaign unfolded, political strategist James Carville wanted to remind the Clinton campaign staff to stay on message regarding the campaign’s top priorities. The economy was one of them, and Carville hung a sign in the campaign office to remind staff as much.

“The economy, stupid.”

His phrase was directed at the campaign’s workers and intended as one of three messages for them to focus on. The others? “Change versus more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.” (Sound familiar?)

Lately, I keep thinking of that now-famous quote. Not because there should be room in political discourse for name-calling, but because it says something about looking at the prosaic stuff among us and taking stock.

What do day-to-day realities mean? The answer: a lot.

Fast forward almost 30 years. As a fundraising consultant, I often find myself on the receiving end of a similar question from prospective or new clients: “As our campaign counsel, exactly what activities will you undertake to help us achieve our goals?”

In return, I’ve shared that there are two distinct elements required to get a campaign successfully off the ground, to create momentum, and then to maintain it:

— First, there are the foundational elements, such as the campaign plan, the case for support, and the campaign budget.

— Second, there are the elements that impact prospect-facing activities: pipeline management, cultivation plans, and solicitation teams, to name only a few.

And while there is very clear utility in completing the foundational work, the background work that supports prospect-facing activity is where the rubber meets the road.

Yet these prospect-facing activities are not discreet tasks with defined endpoints in a campaign. The planning, managing, assigning, and prepping start on day one – maybe even before – and do not end until long after the last payment is made on the last pledge committed during the campaign counting period. Prospect-facing activities undergo near-constant metamorphosis as prospect relationships evolve. These activities are often muddy and rarely final.

When it comes to campaign counsel, the ultimate achievement is partnering with clients to meet (and often exceed) their campaign goals. But it is that sometimes mundane, often repetitive planning, managing, assigning, and preparation that facilitates engagement and allows an organization to reach its philanthropic goal.

It is the day in and day out. And it can be, frankly, a bit of a slog. A beloved Graham-Pelton colleague has said that among the most important role a consultant can play is that of the character that shows up wearing the scarlet letter C – standing for “campaign.” When counsel appears, the organization’s fundraiser-in-chief has little choice but to focus on the campaign.

That is no small feat in a day and age in which you are constantly pulled in multiple directions at all times.

So we wear that proverbial scarlet letter as a reminder for our partners to focus on the mundane: the lists, the planning – all the tools needed to ensure productive prospect-facing activities are completed and ensure successful asks are made. Your interactions with your prospects matter. A lot. And it is in the background work that clients are poised for success.

“The economy, stupid.”

While I take issue with HOW James Carville delivered his message to the Clinton campaign staff back in 1992, I now understand that he meant: “It’s the obvious stuff that is going to win this thing, so commit yourself to it.” He just couldn’t easily carve that into a sign.

The same is true in fundraising. Much as we may wish we could, none of us can wave a magic wand to negate the need for cultivation plan development, solicitation rehearsals, and a laundry list of other mundane efforts we must undertake to ensure a positive experience for our donors.  But it is all worthwhile when you come out the other side knowing you’ve helped a donor realize his or her philanthropic vision in support of an objective about which you both feel strongly.

“The preparation, brainiacs.”