Taking the time to share your organization’s case for support with your closest stakeholders is crucial to the success of your campaign. But as we know well, it can be difficult to convince your board or your marketing team that the quiet phase is necessary. They want to share the big news. It’s understandable. However, the quiet phase of a campaign is a vital stage prior to a public phase when the majority of fundraising will happen. Quiet phases, when deployed effectively, can create a sense of belonging, build confidence in your project, and promote deep understanding of why your project is worthy of support.

The truth is, when nonprofits launch capital campaigns, one of the first questions we hear is: “When can we announce this publicly?” The easy answer: The public phase should begin when you’ve raised 60%, 80%, perhaps even 100% of your fundraising goal. But it is more than that. Just because you aren’t putting out a press release doesn’t mean you should hold back from talking about your priorities (e.g. capital project, endowment need, etc.). In fact, it’s critical to share the message about the campaign within your community during your quiet phase. The warning here is that issuing a press release and sharing your story before you have personalized the messaging for individuals, foundations, and other partners is a missed opportunity.

Here is why you should think critically about your quiet phase:

Humans crave a sense of belonging

By inviting donors in pre-announcement, you allow them to share their knowledge or skills for the benefit of the project, introduce other interested parties within their networks, and build sustainable relationships that can lead to greater giving in the future. Studies show that our interests, motivations, health, and happiness are all tied to a sense of belonging.

Early gifts build confidence for the subsequent phases

Leading change is not easy. And most often, that’s what you’re doing in a major fundraising campaign. Strong leadership, strategic planning, and a clear value proposition can help, but even in near-perfect circumstances, you may still find opposition. Even in the best circumstances, you still need to convince your closest supporters that this is the right path forward. And that success begets further success – as those early supporters come on board, they create a network effect.

Early feedback helps to create a bulletproof case

When you can’t explain why a change needs to happen, you risk deepening cynicism and fueling resistance. Donors need to see clearly how their gifts will impact the community. Early supporters will always ask questions and encourage a deeper understanding of the change you’re aiming to implement. The tough questions may take time and effort to answer. If you hold true to the principles of the quiet phase, when the time comes to announce your project, your community will have all the answers they need to sign on to supporting your campaign.

Even the best laid plans…

Word has a way of getting around, and you may not always be able to control who hears about your project. In such cases, remember that just because you’re in the quiet phase of a campaign doesn’t mean it needs to be a secret.

Three Steps to Maintain Your Quiet Phase

  1. Build a Campaign Communications Plan with implementation in mind. When you plan a capital project, most organizations can expect to submit plans for review or request permits that will become a matter of public record. Imagine that a local neighborhood association catches wind of your capital project and feels that the project will have a negative impact. With advanced planning and a communication strategy in place, you can turn this target audience into insiders. You can welcome them in for a tour and field questions, integrate feedback into your plans, and clarify misconceptions about the progress. Depending on the community you work in, you might even proactively seek out feedback or conduct a study to assess the potential impact on the community and to ensure questions can be addressed. Knowing when, where and how your information will be shared is critical for your ability to control the message.
  1. Celebrate incremental progress. Positive coverage for your organization is almost always a good thing. Tactical steps can be exciting to celebrate and you can often do so without formally announcing your campaign. Did the city finally approve your building plans? Did the board agree to a major contract with a local company? Take time to think about all the steps in your plan that may be newsworthy and keep your wonderful donors in the know before the press gets wind. Take this situation, for example: A donor made the largest gift ever to a university working with CCS Fundraising on a capital campaign. The organization went ahead to announce the historic gift and impact it would have on the institution, but never mentioning the overall campaign. You should celebrate people and benchmarks and can do so without betraying your quiet phase.
  1. When all else fails, guide the messaging as much as possible. If your organization has the opportunity to offer messaging to a reporter and encourage them to preserve the integrity of your fundraising plans, do it. Remind them that you are in the early planning phase of your fundraising campaign, but you’re thrilled that the project continues to move forward. You patiently tell them this: “Thanks for your interest in our project – it is indeed an exciting announcement for our community. I’d ask that we hold off on formal reporting about the campaign until we’re ready to make the big announcement and set up to take contributions. I will be sure to keep you apprised, since we expect there will be big moments to strategically share along the way.”

By its very nature, your campaign will be newsworthy. It’s perhaps one of those most exciting and transformational moments for your organization. During the quiet phase you will do everything you can to succeed in fundraising and be ready to pivot in an evolving environment. In doing so, you will maintain a positive message, bring your best friends closer, and shape a sustainable fundraising trajectory for your organization.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.

About the Author

Nicole Stratton is a collaborative partner to nonprofit executives who are working to grow fundraising capacity and scale organizational impact. As a Vice President with CCS Fundraising, she specializes in strategic planning and implementation of fundraising initiatives with goals ranging from $15M - $150M, major gifts program development, and organizational change management. Nicole has worked in a variety of sectors including health, human services, and arts and culture, and in several major markets, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland. Nicole received her Masters in Public Administration from New York University and resides in Portland, OR.