Conducting confidential feasibility studies? We'll cover if it's a good or bad choice.

As many organizations begin eyeing the post-COVID fundraising landscape, many may find themselves in need of increased capacity to better serve their communities and drive their missions forward. 

For these nonprofits, the pandemic brought about simultaneous surges in both support and need for their services—an exciting but certainly unprecedented and potentially stressful challenge. In many cases, the answer is to launch a capital campaign or other major campaign built around growing capacity. 

Since these campaigns can be such time- and resource-intensive projects, it pays to give the entire process plenty of upfront thought. You’ll undoubtedly encounter the many books and online guides written about capital campaigns along the way, but there’s one area we’d like to focus on specifically: the feasibility study.

Capital campaign feasibility studies are a critical early step in the planning process, and there are both traditional and new approaches to consider. 

Many organizations are locked into a traditional view of feasibility studies involving confidential interviews, but we at the Capital Campaign Toolkit argue that this isn’t always the best choice. A confidential feasibility study can actually significantly limit the value that you ultimately derive from the process.

Why? We’ll make our case and explain an alternative approach below, but first, let’s start with the fundamentals.

What is a feasibility study?

A feasibility study is conducted during the early planning stage of a capital campaign. It consists of a series of interviews with your nonprofit’s leaders, key partners, major donors, and other organization stakeholders.

During these interviews, you (or a consultant) will ask questions to gauge your stakeholders’ thoughts and opinions on your campaign’s objectives, initial fundraising goal, potential concerns, and the campaign’s overall feasibility. Their responses will inform the study’s ultimate findings and recommendations, which you’ll then use to shape your plans. 

These studies are meant to safeguard your time, energy, and resources, showing you early if the key players you’ll rely on during the campaign are interested and up to the task. 

There are three general approaches you can take to conduct campaign feasibility studies:

  1. Consultant-led studies. In this traditional approach, an outside consultant completely conducts the study for you. They’ll provide you with final recommendations, but the responses and insights generated during interviews will be confidential.
  2. DIY-style studies. In this approach, your nonprofit conducts the study on your own. Your Executive Director and Board Chair will lead the charge in conducting interviews and distilling them into concrete recommendations.
  3. Guided feasibility studies. In this mixed approach, your nonprofit conducts the interviews yourself with the training and support of an expert guide. They’ll then help you determine concrete recommendations based on your findings.

For most nonprofits to gain the best long-term value, we recommend the third approach: guided feasibility studies. We’ll dig into the specific reasons why below, but the main idea is that this approach gives you flexibility. There’s no one way to conduct a feasibility study, and your interviewees’ responses certainly don’t need to be confidential. 

Should your feasibility study interviews be confidential discussions conducted by an outside consultant?

We say no. There are a number of major potential drawbacks to a closed-door, hands-off approach to feasibility studies. Here are our thoughts:

  • You don’t actively learn from the experience when a consultant completely handles the feasibility study from start to finish.
  • You don’t begin personally building the relationships and starting the conversations that your campaign will need to succeed. 
  • Additional insights and context can fall through the cracks or get lost in translation between your consultant and your team.
  • Confidentiality means you won’t be able to attach specific pieces of feedback to specific stakeholders, limiting how directly you can later follow up with them.
  • Interviewees may feel put on the spot when asked for potential concerns about your organization and campaign plans. While their thoughts are extremely helpful, they may feel pressured to come up with or overstate concerns that they wouldn’t have articulated otherwise.

We believe that the feasibility study is an invaluable opportunity for your nonprofit. You should actively participate in it and learn from its findings, not passively receive recommendations.

Benefits of a Hands-On Approach

In practice, actively participating in a feasibility study means conducting the interviews yourself with the help or coaching of a capital campaign expert. We believe this is the most flexible and useful approach for any fundraising context. 

Specifically, a guided, hands-on approach brings these benefits:

  • Enables active participation and learning experiences for your team
  • Adds a personal touch for prospects and stakeholders at the very start of the campaign
  • Begins directly building stronger relationships between key players and team members that you can cultivate during the campaign
  • Provides direct insights into responses, findings, and recommendations (which your guide can work with you to develop and distill into your case for support)

Beyond the campaign itself, the direct engagement of a guided approach can ultimately strengthen your long-term donor retention efforts. Plus, it makes all of your later communications and post-campaign follow-up that much more personal. When donors receive thank-you messages or attend recognition events, they’ll know just how much their input meant for the success of your campaign.

Potential Downsides of a Hands-On Approach

Of course, many nonprofits are likely to feel some hesitation about abandoning the consultant-led model of feasibility studies. While the drawbacks of this traditional approach should definitely come into consideration as you plan your campaign, you likely have some additional concerns. 

These are the most common reasons we hear from nonprofits about why they’re hesitant to conduct their own feasibility study interviews:

  • We (specifically our Director and Board Chair) don’t have the time.
  • We’re afraid of doing them incorrectly.
  • The thought of having these sensitive conversations with stakeholders makes us nervous.

Those are valid concerns, but we’re not sure they hold up. Here’s why:

  • The feasibility study is a remarkable opportunity to speak one-on-one with your most important donors, strengthen your connections, and kickstart your fundraising. There are few things more important for your nonprofit to be doing. If you’re short on time, delegate some lower-priority tasks or hire someone to take recurring activities off your plate, like ongoing prospect research or marketing efforts. 
  • Feasibility study interviews definitely need to be approached carefully, but you don’t have to do it 100% alone. You can work with an advisor who can prepare you to conduct the interviews and make sure you have ample time to practice.
  • Again, there are few things more important than connecting with your most important supporters. Doing the feasibility study interviews yourself will help you get over your anxieties about speaking with major donors—and that’s good!

Looking at the most common concerns nonprofits have about guided feasibility studies from this perspective, the long-term benefits of taking a more hands-on approach are clear. Your relationships with major donors and stakeholders are critically important for your mission. If you don’t play a role and instead outsource the entire process to a consultant, you’re missing out on extremely valuable opportunities to advance your campaign and your mission over the long run.

Wrapping Up

If your organization is preparing for a capital campaign in the coming years, the exact approach you choose to take to your feasibility study will naturally depend on many factors.

The main idea is to make your campaign your own and to generate as much long-term value from the experience as possible.

The feasibility study is an important part of the complete capital campaign process. It starts your campaign off on the right foot and gives you the initial direction you need in order to use your time and resources most effectively. Just don’t let valuable opportunities to learn, grow, and strengthen your relationships fall by the wayside. 

In some cases, a hands-off approach led by a consultant or a looser DIY approach can be the right choice. You’ll need to think carefully about your organization’s own goals and needs as you make your decision. Overall, however, we believe that active participation guided by professionals will be your best bet, especially if this is your very first capital campaign.

Andrea Kihlstedt
Andrea Kihlstedt has literally written the most comprehensive book in the field on capital campaign fundraising, among a number of additional fundraising titles. Her book, Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, serves as the text in advanced fundraising courses for the leading non-profit programs worldwide. This remarkable book is now out in its 4th edition. Not only is she an expert on capital campaign fundraising, she worked for many years as a campaign consultant and is now a top flight coach, having both studied and taught at the Gestalt International Study Center.