See the Forest and the Trees: External Campaign Factors

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series on this topic. Read part one here

If someone “can't see the forest for the trees,” it means they get so caught up in small details that they fail to see the bigger picture. This metaphor is particularly important to keep in mind when preparing for a campaign. Fundraisers and researchers must consider both the internal (the “trees”) and external factors (the “forest”) in order to ensure a successful campaign.

The following is an overview of the external factors to consider. (We covered internal factors in part one of this article.)

Assess external factors pre-campaign

Now that you have organized your team and resources getting ready for a campaign, external factors need to be researched in order to understand how feasible a campaign can be for your organization and your region.

To see success, researchers need to be involved in campaign planning and have a “seat at the table” from the onset. Researchers can be proactive to their fund development teams by bringing forth elements that may affect the campaign positively and negatively ― over the course of the entire campaign.

(Remember: Campaigns are often five to 10 years long — viable prospects put in the pipeline at the beginning of the campaign may not still be viable by the time they are qualified and/or solicited ― times change quickly — and so does your campaign pipeline.)

Researchers have unique skills they can bring to the campaign planning table outside of researching and profiling individuals, corporations and foundations. Researchers are comfortable using resources such as government demographic reports, new scans and push technology (for alerts), all of which will record external trends and can help set realistic campaign goals.

Conduct feasibility studies

Feasibility studies can be considered important from both internal and external readiness for a campaign. It is extremely important to get the “climate” of your key stakeholders (those who have donated to you in the past, senior volunteers, senior members of the community, etc.). Researchers can be integral in identifying the best key stakeholders for the feasibility studies. Feasibility studies can “test” factors: campaign timing, campaign programs, case, campaign themes, campaign goals and the overall perception of the organization. Have past campaign donors been stewarded well in the past and are they happy to be asked again going into a new campaign? If past donors and key stakeholders are not happy with the organization, or the idea of going into another campaign, then these questions and issues need to be resolved before moving on.

External factors that are linked to the success of your campaign, however, are often not necessarily in your control, but your organization needs to be aware of their potential impact. These factors are related to:

  • Economy – best laid plans
  • Demographics − your region is unique
  • Trends – what’s new since your last campaign?
  • Politics – municipal, provincial/state, federal
  • Competition – In your region? In your sector? For your donors and volunteers?
  • Perception of your organization

Review the state of the economy

You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that your donors, and their sources of wealth, are heavily impacted by changes in the economy. In 2015, the price of oil fell to the point that fundraising organizations in Canada and the United States were heavily impacted with regard to the giving of their donor.

In Canada, Brian Emmett, the chief economist for Imagine Canada, notes that the falling oil prices impacted Canada’s Gross National Product by 0.4 percent in 2015 and an additional 0.3 percent in 2016. Almost everything charities do (in regards to donor and government giving) tracks with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). So, overall a 0.4 percent decrease in GDP translates into a $40 million loss for charities in 2015, and an additional $70 million loss in 2016.

Provinces and states where the majority of their wealthy donors come from the oil industry felt the impact almost immediately. A January 11, 2016, article in CultureMap Houston called “Lowdown on the slowdown: As oil plummets, Houston non-profits starting to feel the pain,” by Shelby Hodge, reports that at Rice University “donors were beginning to call in to reschedule or cancel pledges.” Houston Children’s Charity’s gross revenue from their November gala was 10 percent down from the previous year, which had never happened before.

Of course, we would be remiss not to note that since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August 2017, millions of dollars have come in for flood relief. But how that has impacted the overall fundraising goals for charities mid-campaign is yet to be determined, as now basic necessities need to be addressed.

There are some good resources available, primarily through financial institutions that offer economic forecast by regions. Some of note are Fortune, Citigroup, IMF, Forbes, Goldman Sachs, Toronto Dominion (TD), Scotiabank, BMO, RBC, CIBC and Statistics Canada, among others.

Understand your demographics

Understanding the demographics of your region is very important to establish if you are over-reaching your campaign goal and if you are addressing all the populations within your constituency. In Canada, good demographic information is available through Statistics Canada, Imagine Canada and the Canada Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating. In the United States, good demographics are available through the National Philanthropic Trust, Charity Navigator, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies and the National Center for Charitable Statistics, among others.

These resources help us look at population growth rates and donor statistics, as well as determine:

  • Is your region thriving since your last campaign?
  • Are average donations in your region increasing or decreasing since your last campaign?
  • What is the average gift by household income ― and what is the average household income in your region? Does your region have the capacity for your goal?
  • Why do Americans and Canadians give, and is your campaign reflecting these needs?
  • Generational differences in giving and volunteering — are you addressing these?
  • Canadian Social Trends relates to immigrant giving and volunteering. Does your region have a high immigrant population, and is your campaign providing avenues for the different ways to give and volunteer?
  • What ethnic and cultural groups are represented in your region and clientele?

It is also important to use the results from the demographics scan to see if your Campaign Cabinet reflects your constituents.

Keep up on trends

A 2013 report by hjc and Blackbaud called “The Next Generation of Canadian Giving”  noted that in 2010, after the earthquake hit Haiti, a higher percentage of Canadians named “emergency relief efforts” as organizations they would most likely support. In 2013, just three years later, when asked, Canadian donors named “health charities, local social services, children’s charities and places of worship” as the most likely organizations they would support. “Emergency relief efforts” had fallen away. Trends change quickly!

Organizations also need to provide a “diversity of opportunity to engage.” If your organization is fundraising in the “same-old” processes as it has in the past, it is missing some of the growing trends that have become quite popular in the last decade. Diversity of opportunity to engage might include such initiatives as:

  • Women in Philanthropy: 100 Women Who Care – Giving Circles; Women Builds (Habitat for Humanity)
  • Crowdfunding
  • Social Media Campaign
  • Employment Engagement Opportunities and Volunteering
  • Social Enterprise
  • Different Giving Channels: Checkout Donations; Online Donations; Mobile Text Donations

Know the status of the political climate

Without getting into any political debate, it is important to know the status of the political climate in your region locally, provincially/statewide and federally. Elections at any level can have an impact on giving based on which party is being voted out or in, and the party’s support or non-support of the charitable sector. If government funding is cut to any sector, then that sector has to increase its ability to fundraise to make up any difference they may have lost. If a government offers incentives to donors to give to charities, then this may encourage donors to increase their contributions. Government policies and initiatives can make short- or long-term impact on fundraising goals.

An interesting example of political impact, on a provincial level, occurred in Ontario in September 2015. At that time, the Ontario elementary school teachers were on a work-to-rule strike that essentially eliminated all extracurricular activities in the school until their contract was settled by the Ontario government. Because of this, 62 public elementary schools told the Ontario Terry Fox Foundation (which raises money for cancer research) that they were delaying or cancelling any Terry Fox events in their schools. Provincial director Martha McClew reported that the annual school campaign for the Terry Fox Foundation raises $7 million of their $12 million raised annually (The Toronto Star, September 19, 2015).

An article in International Philanthropy (January 26, 2015) noted, “it is believed that philanthropists are more and more likely to take on their own initiatives instead of supporting, or bailing out, the government in theirs.”

Consider competition (and conflicts)

When planning a campaign, there may be many competing and conflicting issues in your region, or sector, which could seriously impact the success of your campaign. Organizations must research and consider:

  • What other campaigns are going on in your region/sector?
  • What are the goals of other current campaigns? And, have past campaigns in your region/sector been successful?
  • Where are “your” donors and volunteers? What are the influential and affluent individuals supporting in your region at this time? Are they on other campaign cabinets? The pre-campaign feasibility study may determine this (if you talk with your key stakeholders).
  • What about United Way Campaigns? Black-out months (Sept-Dec)? Corporate commitments?
  • What about other fundraising events in your region ― there are a LOT! How many 5 km races can one region handle? School campaigns — can you “get in”? (They plan more than a year ahead.) Consider cultivation galas, award ceremonies and “salons."
  • What opportunities does your organization have to create joint projects and partnerships in fundraising (reduces the “why are you doing that when XX already does it?”).

As a researcher and consultant with many clients in the Greater Toronto Region, I always get a chuckle out of the members who are on the University of Toronto’s Campaign Committee. This is a $2 billion campaign that will last many years. Almost all of these wonderful volunteers and philanthropists on their Campaign Committee are on almost everyone else’s campaign prospect lists for the region. Is it wise to include them on yours too?

While many U.S. universities’ campaigns far exceed University of Toronto’s $2 billion goal, it is worthwhile to check the conflicting campaigns in your region and sector to see if the senior volunteers and campaign cabinet members are already committed in their time and pledges.

Proactively influence perception

You’ve worked hard on preparing your internal resources for your campaign. You’ve built a great campaign committee with vibrant supportive volunteers. You’ve completed a feasibility study and researched all the external factors that could possibly affect your campaign — and then, wham: The regional newspaper releases a scathing article about something negative that happened in your organization, and all of your hard work has gone to waste. This is truly a “one-step-forward-and-one-giant-step-backward” scenario.

Let’s face it: Public perception, whether it’s based on fact or fiction, has a huge impact on the success of your campaign. Business magazines release annual charity ratings that are often based on unconfirmed or parameters that have not been properly vetted. If your organization provides services as well as raises funds, this seriously impacts your “cost to raise a dollar” which can be inaccurately assessed and compared with those organizations that have no services, or in some cases, no staff. Nevertheless, an article or news release about your charity can cause prospective donors to have increased caution with regard to giving to your organization.

In Forbes’ annual listing of the Largest Charities in the United States, they include “efficiency ratings.” Does this rating accurately reflect the efficiency of your organization, and if it doesn’t and is a low rating, how is your charity going to respond positively? In Canada, Money Sense magazine “grades” the top 100 charities in Canada. These grades then appear in newspapers across the country. A low grade will have a negative impact on a pending campaign and must be addressed before moving forward.

It’s also good to know and keep up to date on where your future donors are getting their information about your charity. Other than regional newspapers and annual magazine ratings, other resources to track include special reports on philanthropy.

The Forbes 400 Annual Summit on Philanthropy reports on what are some of the other key influencers on philanthropists before giving. At the 2012 summit, philanthropists were asked who they consult before giving. Not surprisingly, “financial advisor” was at the top of list, with “accountant” second, and “attorney” third. It should be noted that fourth was “fellow philanthropists.” Is your charity properly preparing these influencers through seminars and access to information?

In summary: See the forest and the trees

The concept of “Are You Ready for Campaign?” involves a great deal of internal and external preparation. A lot of this may even occur before the silent phase of the campaign. In other words, not only are you ready for a campaign, but should you do a campaign now? We can be the realists on the fund development team.

Campaigns will continue as a necessary ― and exciting — part of fundraising, and researchers should be fundamental in this process. Researchers are “naturals” at the kind of research and big-picture scope needed to not only help set the goals of the campaign, but also help inform and direct the fund development team in the best directions throughout the campaign.

So, don’t be afraid to step outside of your research (and organizational) box and take on some cool research that will help your organization be successful in its next big campaign.


Izabela Piasecka-Latour, MLIS, has been a prospect researcher for over a decade. She is proud to be a contributor to Apra Canada’s first book, Prospect Research in Canada: An Essential Guide for Researchers and Fundraisers (Civil Sector Press, 2016). Izabela is currently research associate with Tracey Church & Associates, Research + Consulting Services, where she provides research services to clients in the fields of health, higher education and social services. Connect with Izabela at

Tracey Church, MLIS, has been a professional researcher for over 20 years, has worked with over 300 organizations, and is the past president of Apra Canada. She is the principal researcher and consultant with her own company, Tracey Church & Associates, Research + Consulting Services ( Tracey is a part-time faculty member at Western University (London, Ontario) teaching the Prospect Research in Fundraising course in the Master of Library and Information Sciences program (MLIS). Connect with Tracey at

Want to learn more about campaigns? Watch Tracey and Izabela’s complete Prospect Development session.

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