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Successful Capital Campaign Teams: Balancing Technical and Interpersonal Skills

(July 10, 2006)  New research funded by AFP finds that many capital campaign teams, while meeting their goals, often contend with a lack of cohesion, overemphasizing interpersonal skills at the expense of optimal fundraising success.

An Exploration of Capital Campaign Team Organization, Functioning and Fundraising Success, developed and researched by Preston Hicks, Ph.D., looked at the relationship between capital campaign team, dynamics and success at fundraising.

According to Hicks, capital campaigns often tend to meet or exceed dollar goals because management practices early on, in particular planning processes, bias campaigns for success. Leadership is key, and competent management is at the core of successful campaign. “Where leadership and management failed was in the area of sustaining quality interpersonal engagement within the team,” he said. “As a result, or because of this dynamic, teams succumb to high turnover, which was perceived to influence adversely campaign outcomes.”

Balancing Technical and Interpersonal Skills

While technical, fundraising skills are important for members of the capital campaign team, the study found that interpersonal skills within the team were just as important, and in some phase of the campaign, perceived as more critical.  The study noted several instances of CEOs selecting campaign team members based on friendships and previous contacts, with a lesser focus on fundraising skill.

“Every leadership team I studied faced wholesale dysfunction at some point during their campaign, possibly because of leaders’ quest for balance of fundraising skill and cohesion,” said Hicks.  “Even with successful campaigns, there was a lot of turnover within the teams and other interpersonal challenges.  The good thing is that such dysfunction does not appear to keep organizations from achieving campaign goals inasmuch as it restrains optimal performance.”

“Poor performance at fund raising has fallen many leaders” said Hicks.  “Success at a capital campaign is so important to the careers of those ultimately responsible that it’s understandable why a leader looking to assemble a team, places individuals she most trusts or anticipates a trust relationship on the leadership team,” said Hicks.

This can lead to a strong and unified team in the short run, according to the study. However, such emphasis can make for an insular team that may or may not consider all avenues and may not have the requisite fundraising know-how.  When others on the team and organizational staff members perceive that leaders don’t have the fundraising skills necessary, additional interpersonal challenges emerge.  Less than strong fundraising skills can be ignored if the campaign is going well, but specific skill levels become critical when campaign results are off trajectory. 

Looking Internally

Hicks identified six key findings:

  1. Functional dysfunction: Participants perceived positive relationships between team dynamics and success at fund raising. However, amidst periods characterized by organizational and interpersonal dysfunction, each team exceeded its overall dollar goal. Dysfunction appeared not so much to keep teams from achieving campaign success inasmuch as it restrained optimal performance.
  2. External to team orientation: Successful fund raising in the face of persistent team dysfunction was attributed to actions of individual fund raisers operating as “independent representatives” with strong external to the team relationships with donors. This was perceived as essential to major gift fund raising.
  3. Pursuit of an “A team:” Teams valued personal attributes as much as technical skill when appointing team members. This increased turnover and instability owing to ongoing culling of personnel in search of an “A team.”
  4. Longevity leverage: Participants attributed success to prevailing team dynamics inasmuch as dynamics influenced employment length, which in turn influenced success at major gift soliciting.
  5. President’s mirror: Presidents modeled interactions and assembled teams as extensions of themselves. Team dynamics mirrored presidents' perceptions of the strength of the relationship between team dynamics and success.
  6. Management rules: While leadership set standards, the execution of management functions guided interactions, out of which team dynamics emerged and teams reacted.

The study identifies three important points, or primacies, that capital campaign teams must exhibit to be as effective as possible:

  1. The primacy of technical skills – Members of the capital campaign team must have the appropriate fundraising skills, knowledge and experience.
  2. The primacy of teamwork – The team must have an open conversation on teamwork, and leaders must set out a strong and positive framework for how the team will function. Members must know their roles and responsibilities and how they will work with one another.
  3. The primacy of interpersonal dynamics – Team members must be able to operate well together if they are going to achieve optimal performance.

Hicks places the primacy of interpersonal dynamics as perhaps the most important. “By in large, fundraisers focus on looking externally to donors and don’t always emphasize relationships within the team.”

With most capital campaign teams consisting of executives, salaried employees, contracted consultants, volunteers, donors and others, there will also be powerful dynamics at play. 

Hicks said, “The teams studied, while not surprised at the findings, exited the study with the pressing question of how successful they might have been in the absence of dysfunctions.”

About the Study

The abstract for the study, An Exploration of Capital Campaign Team Organization, Functioning, and Fundraising Success, is available in the Attachments section below.

Hicks is a recent graduate of the University or Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and received a grant from the AFP Research Council, funded by the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy.  Guidelines for applying for a research grant can be found on the AFP website.


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