An Interview with Helen Dannelly

Running a Successful Giving Campaign: An Interview with Helen Dannelly

Nonprofits face greater challenges than ever as they strive to compete in a tech-driven world. For The Nerdy Nonprofit, this means reinventing the way nonprofits interact with potential donors. For Helen Dannelly, an experienced nonprofit development professional, the transition has been fascinating. Recently, Dannelly spoke to The Nerdy Nonprofit about her work with nonprofits and running a successful giving campaign.

What’s your background?

I have worked in several different organizations, both hospitals and universities. I started in annual giving, and then over the years rose to the level of vice president of individual giving. As vice president, I oversaw a team of 24 fundraisers including annual giving, major gifts, principle giving, planned giving, and prospect research. It was the whole spectrum of anyone who gives individually.

What are the keys to running a successful giving campaign?

First and foremost, you have to have buy-in from the leadership; they have to be on board and understand their role in fundraising. It cannot be assigned to someone else. The leaders are the face of the institution and they need to champion the campaign, and also to get other organizational leaders on board.

It’s imperative that there be a good strategic plan prior to launching a campaign so that the institution can lay out its vision for where it’s going in the next five to ten years. The organizational priorities need to be determined, and then philanthropic priorities need to be delineated so that they can be highlighted in the campaign.

Campaign materials such as case statements describing priorities then need to be written, including examples of how gifts could make a difference to those particular areas. It’s important to have a robust pipeline of prospects. If there aren’t enough prospects with high capacity, the organization is going to have a difficult time reaching its goals.

In a college or university, there has to be a good alumni base. And in a hospital, there have to be identified grateful patients who the institution can go to for support. Again, organizational leaders need to participate. Especially at hospitals, it’s critical that there be at least a handful of key physicians who are willing to play ball, as it were, with the development office, and help identify some patients who are grateful. It’s easy for the development office to determine who has money because if you’re going to do a large campaign you need to have prospect researchers. And you can identify who has money in the community or within your organization. But in a hospital, what’s absolutely essential is knowing which patients had a positive experience. Patient families may have means to make a gift, but if they aren’t feeling a sense of gratitude, or if their experience was negative, it’s unlikely that they will contribute, though I have seen exceptions to that rule.

Is it tough getting buy-in from the physicians?

It is tough because there’s a natural reticence on the part of doctors to approach their patients for money. Many of them think it’s unethical. But those who have worked with development in the past, usually those who’ve worked with development successfully, understand the process. They realize that fundraising is a process, not a transaction (which is why it’s called “development”. We’re developing relationships.) It’s building on the doctor-patient relationship to engage grateful patients and their families more with the institution. We try to educate them about the priorities within particular departments and finding out what their interests are. Once you have just a handful of physicians who understand the process and are willing to work with fundraisers, it demonstrates the process to other doctors.

What do you feel is important in putting a successful campaign together?

You have to get volunteer leadership involved. The successful campaigns that I’ve worked on have had campaign committees where high-level volunteers are engaged and identified to help solicit others. The institution needs to realize that they need to invest in the development office because there has to be sufficient, and usually increased, resources for development in order to make a campaign successful. The more major gift officers you have, the more major gifts you’re going to successfully solicit. You need increased communications and marketing staff, events staff, prospect researchers, and stewardship staff, who are the people who help craft all the ways to appreciate donors. But I think most importantly you have to have fully-vetted, well-articulated funding opportunities to inspire the philanthropic community. There is a lot of groundwork to get in place before the first solicitation occurs.

How long does kind of this process take?

Usually, when a campaign ends at an institution, the legwork for the next campaign begins. It takes a minimum of a year, but more like two to three years to really gear up and get things in place again before the quiet phase of a campaign is launched. You ideally want to have 50 percent of the fundraising completed before a campaign goes public. This means you’ve already gone to your biggest donors, those closest to you – your board chair, board members, high-level volunteers, etc. – and solicited the largest-level gifts so that once the campaign is launched it doesn’t feel daunting. We’ve found that 80 to 90 percent of the gifts come from 10 to 20 percent of donors. So you want to solicit the highest level gifts first before you go public.

Tell us a little bit about a successful campaign that you worked on.

There have been several. I was at Macalester College when we completed a successful $50 million campaign, and that was probably 18 years ago, so $50 million was quite a lot.

I had a really wonderful experience at Mills College, a women’s undergraduate liberal arts college in Oakland, California. I was there for their sesquicentennial campaign – it was their 150th anniversary of the school – and we had a $100 million campaign. There were less than five major gift officers at the college, and we completed that campaign and exceeded the goal by over $30 million, so that was pretty exciting.

About Helen Dannelly

In addition to being a seasoned professional in the nonprofit fundraising world, Helen is also an accomplished artist. Visit to view her work.