A Non-profit Model of Fundraising Success

A Great Cause

I’m sure some of you have had great experiences with capital campaigns . I write today to tell you about one of my favorites. Recently, our company had the privilege of participating in a 5-year, $121 million campaign for 21st Century Parks. The Parklands Project was one of the largest of its kind in America. It included the acquisition of 4,000 acres adjacent to a local tributary in Louisville.

The goal was to create a complete park system along an 11-mile stretch of Floyd’s Fork. Of course, Louisville is one of the few complete Olmsted Park systems in the country, so this project was very much in that tradition.

Participating as capital campaign consultants in a project that size was exciting enough, but the campaign was also for a virtual start up organization. Established in 2004, 21st Century Parks was just getting started. In addition, the campaign kicked off in 2008, one of the worst fundraising periods in modern history. So what was so unique about this effort? Simply stated, everything! However, a few things stand out:

Success Begins with Leadership

First, success started with the founder and CEO, Dan Jones. He took his life in an entirely different direction to achieve this vision. A PhD in history, Dan had been a well-regarded member of the University of Louisville faculty. However, he went back to Yale, his alma mater, and he pursued anther degree in forest science. Shortly after graduation, he founded 21st Century Parks.

While Dan had little experience in fundraising, by the time the campaign concluded he was a fundraising veteran. He was a committed student of fundraising and quite teachable, but he also had great instincts and was willing to go anywhere at any time to share the vision. He literally made hundreds of presentations to just about anyone who would listen.

Success Requires Personal Involvement

Second, the volunteer leadership was superb. The campaign was chaired by David Jones Sr.,the retired founder of the Humana Corporation. Not only did he make a significant financial commitment himself, he also wasn’t the least bit reluctant to make major gift solicitation visits. In addition, he personally recruited 5 co-chairs and was also involved in recruiting the additional 40 volunteers who served on the steering committee.

Success Requires a Great Team

Third, the makeup of volunteers also contributed to campaign success. Certainly we had quite a few CEOs and business owners on the committee, but we also had people who represented diverse neighborhoods in the city. Some volunteers hosted receptions for friends and peers, while others made solicitation calls both to individuals and businesses. In fact, they hosted some 50 separate receptions, and the CEO spoke at every one of them. It was truly a community effort and when it was over nearly 1,000 donors had responded.

Finally, during the early planning phase of the campaign we did a search and found a top-notch development officer, and she kept things moving and on task. In fact, she had to take maternity leave in the middle of the campaign, but by then it was so well organized, that her temporary replacement easily picked up where the development director left off and supported the campaign without missing a beat. The success of the 21st Century Parks campaign shows what can happen when a team of passionate, engaged people commit to a cause and vow to keep working until the goal has been exceeded.