Is It Campaign Time Already?

I received an e-mail the other day from a vendor that serves United Ways. The subject line of the e-mail was something along the lines of “Are you ready for campaign?” The implication of this subject line is that United Ways prepare for campaign, they execute campaign, and then they prepare for the next campaign in a never ending cycle. It reminds me of my shampoo bottle which admonishes me to “Lather-Rinse-Repeat,” another never ending cycle.

Perhaps two or three decades ago, campaign season at each United Way was clearly defined with a start date and an end date. Over time, the hard and fast schedule slowly eroded away as workplaces changed and employers began to set their own dates and rules for when and how workplace campaigns would operate at their organization. Nearly every United Way we work with tells us that campaign has basically become a year-round affair with workplace campaigns happening nearly every month of the year.

Is it time to get rid of campaign season? I cannot think of another nonprofit organization that holds their primary, and in many cases their only, fundraising activity during a specific time of the year. The Girl Scouts sell cookies, the Boy Scouts sell popcorn, the Salvation Army has red kettles, but in nearly all cases these fundraising activities are a small part of the total fundraising or resource development activities of these organizations. I have served on the boards of a variety of nonprofit organizations and every one of them is raising money on a year-round basis.

Is it time to get rid of campaign season? The campaign season is traditionally accompanied by the campaign goal. Most United Ways announce a campaign goal to raise a certain amount of money between campaign kick-off and the campaign celebration. Comparatively, do the Girl Scouts publicly declare a goal for cookie sales? Do the Boy Scouts proclaim a popcorn sales goal? Does the Salvation Army ring out a red kettle goal for all to hear? The campaign goal is one of the least interesting things for a United Way donor. Nearly all United Way donors want to know about the impact of their contribution and how people are being helped, but our research has found very few donors care about the campaign goal or progress toward the campaign goal.

Is it time to get rid of campaign season? Again, our research has found that not all donors make their decision to support United Way during the campaign season. We have found that the larger the contribution, the more likely the donor is to make their decision about contributing and the amount of their contribution before campaign season. Leadership donors are especially likely to decide how much to give to United Way long before campaign season.

I sincerely appreciate the amount of time and effort that is necessary to organize a campaign. I know it takes time to prepare materials, meet with employers, train volunteers, recruit loaned executives, etc. I can see how it is helpful for United Way staff and volunteers to have a campaign season to plan for, however, I am not as sure it is as helpful for employers and donors to have a campaign season. If the primary purpose of the campaign is to raise money, and that money comes from employers and donors, do your employers and donors want and benefit from a campaign season? In my opinion, the answer to the question “Is it time to get rid of campaign season?” can only be answered by your employers and donors. If you are not sure how they feel, take the time to ask – you’ll be glad you did.