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How football is like fundraising: capital campaign team building

By Kevin Wallace
October 18, 2019

Photo by Chris Moore on Unsplash

All teams—capital campaign teams included—are best served when participants are focused on mutual goals that are larger than those any one person can achieve on their own. Team building in capital campaigns is a vital process that can deeply impact a fundraising campaign’s success. With high school, college, NFL, and fantasy football seasons coinciding with the start of many a capital campaign, I’m reminded of Bobby.

Can the marquee player guarantee team success?

Every football team has its marquee player, the one who has the talent and confidence to step forward and make good things happen. Every team also has a game plan, which usually revolves around giving the marquee player an opportunity to shine. When I was in high school, our marquee player was Bobby. He could run, catch, and tackle better than anyone on our team, and usually better than anyone on the opposing team. But even though we had Bobby, and even though he had a phenomenal senior year, our team wasn’t very good.

After high school, Bobby became the marquee player at a little-known Division 1 college. He had a great career and his team won several conference titles. I long wondered why he had so much more success in college. Their talent pool was certainly deeper than the high school level. But was there more of a difference in coaching, strength training, game planning? I asked Bobby that question at one of our class reunions.

“Because we were a team,” Bobby said. “My college coaches didn’t want me doing everything. Every position was important. Every player was important. It’s more fun playing on a team.”

Putting capital campaign team building into play

Bobby’s simple answer didn’t mean as much to me then as it does now. When I played high school football in the ’80s, my job was to make it easier for Bobby to run. I loved that job, but now I understand that it was the wrong job. Instead of working for a high purpose, the team, I was focusing my efforts on a narrow purpose, Bobby.

Our capital campaign consulting company has helped hundreds of nonprofits raise capital. Some have had numerous development staff who knew how to work the fundraising process: identify, qualify, educate, cultivate, solicit, close … repeat. I’m a big believer in processes. The more we follow proven and quantifiable steps, the more success we have. Other clients of ours have had limited staff. Only one or two paid development positions that were solely or partially responsible for raising money.

These teams face different challenges, but in either instance, numerous or limited staff, it’s often helpful to recruit additional individuals to assist with large fundraising campaigns. We do this because the best capital campaign solicitations are ones made by peers. It’s easy to tell a stranger, “No,” but it’s much more difficult to turn down a friend or family member.

We build our teams with present or past board members, engaged volunteers, community leaders, philanthropists, or staff who might have little-to-no fundraising experience—people who can expand our reach because they can open the door to different peer groups. And like football teams, our campaign teams always have marquee players—people who are well connected in the community, are hard workers and excel at making great solicitations. Most of the people on our campaign teams, however, are not marquee players. Some never even come off the bench! 

Engaging your best capital campaign team

When we’re working with teams, it’s helpful to remember Bobby. I don’t think he liked feeling responsible for our football team’s success. His talent led us to a mediocre season our senior year, five wins and five losses. How many more wins would have been possible if we had played like a team, if we had valued every position and every player? I don’t know if we would have been great, but I do know we would have been better and had more fun.

The lesson in all of this is that a team, any team, is best served when its participants focus on mutual goals that are larger than any one person can achieve on their own. In capital campaigns, there are two goals:

  1. Strengthen the organization’s mission
  2. Meet the organization’s financial goal

This means we need to build a team that is mission driven, has the capacity to make personal gifts, and has the drive to ask other people to give. Moreover, we need to expect and accept that we may have only one or two marquee players, but that’s all we’ll need if we play like a team!

How to recruit and manage a great capital campaign team

Our tips for recruiting and managing a great capital campaign team:

  • Don’t recruit members until they have made a personally significant gift.
  • Be honest with your team about what you expect from them—attend meetings, make calls, help with asks, etc.
  • Remember that these are volunteers, not staff, so you can’t demand levels of performance. Managing a great campaign team demands patience and enthusiasm!
  • Never stop growing the size and competencies of your campaign team.
  • Celebrate every gift.
  • Find a position for each team member—not everyone likes to solicit, so let them help with identifying, qualifying, cultivating, and educating prospects.

And lastly, shine the spotlight on Bobby from time to time, but don’t forget to recognize and compliment the contributions of each position and every player on your team.

Tags: Fundraising