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Campaign or Initiative…What’s in a Name

teddy roosevelt


Campaign vs. Initiative…is this a distinction without a difference? This question seems to be coming up more and more with organizations we interact with.


The issue seems to be driven, in part, by the visceral reaction volunteers have to the notion of a campaign. Seasoned volunteers have lived through campaigns in the past and may not have fond memories of the rating and screening meetings and needing to pick up the phone to pursue the prospects on their list. To many, a campaign means lots of meetings, a big infrastructure and being outside of one’s comfort zone with regard to raising money.


The notion of an initiative seems to soften the blow. The word itself has a forward thinking sense about it along with feeling finite in the near-term. Campaigns tend to take years to complete and have that never-endingness about them. Initiatives feel more stealth, not requiring a large infrastructure, and could be staff driven without the need for a chair, co-chair structure.


But are we fooling ourselves to think there is a difference when it comes to getting the job done and the dollars secured? The classic definition of a campaign is “The planned mobilization of the friends of an institution for a voluntary solicitation of proportionate gifts from an informed constituency toward a specific goal or objective within a specific period of time.” I would argue this definition also fits the description of an initiative.


Let’s face it, both require raising major gifts from informed donors. The big question for me that distinguishes campaign from initiative is do you have enough informed donors who are ready to give, or nearly ready to give to make your goal? Or, is this group there but do not represent enough gifts to make your goal and you need to find new potential donors, educate them, cultivate them and then secure their gifts?


If you have a need to raise targeted and significant funds for your organization and have a good sense of where the money will come from in a relatively short period of time, I would frame the undertaking as an initiative and get on with it; mostly staff driven with the help of volunteers.


If you need time to identify and bring along the donors you will need to make goal, then the campaign model is called for. The aspirations of a campaign are needed to inspire those who are both new to the party and those who are already there.


Your takes:


1. As former speaker of the house Tip O’Neil would say, “make friends before you need them”.


2. Your strong stewardship efforts will help you to determine whether an initiative or a campaign is in order.


3. In either case, be sure you have people on your team who are askers before you get going.


Copley Raff’s mission: Every interaction is to help nonprofit organizations fulfill their missions by meeting ambitious goals, aligning their leadership, elevating fundraising, and activating the brilliance of their teams. It’s a bold promise but one that we know will serve you and your organization’s mission in a way that will deliver tangible and meaningful results – the kind of results that make a real difference!