Podcast: A Capital Campaign Success Story with Sebastian Ruth
Season 3, Episode 2
Campaign expert Andrea Kihlstedt is joined by Sebastian Ruth, Founder and Artistic Director of Community Music Works. Sebastian shares the remarkable story of his campaign and highlights the importance of having the courage to go for your dreams.
I’ve got a great campaign story for you today. It’s a story of a small organization that raised more money than anyone thought it could. Want to learn about their secret sauce? Stick around.
Hi there. I’m Andrea Kihlstedt. My friend, and colleague, and partner in crime Amy Eisenstein is off today. And I am here with Sebastian Ruth, the founder and executive director of Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island.
Greeting Sebastian, thanks so much for joining me today.
That’s great to be with you as always, Andrea.
Meet Sebastian Ruth, Artistic Director
So are you the executive director or chief, CEO? What’s your real title Sebastian?
My real title is founder and artistic director.
Well see, I got it wrong on all counts. So Sebastian, you and I have had a wonderful time working together for some years now. And I want to say that you were the very first Guided Feasibility Study person we ever did that with. But why don’t we begin by you’re telling our listeners about CMW, just a little background so they know what kind of an organization it is?
Sure, yeah. It’s been such a thrill to have been working with you on all of this, and looking forward to this conversation. But Community MusicWorks is community based organization that has a professional musician ensemble residency in an urban community in Providence, Rhode Island.
And that means that the members play chamber music, perform together, teach about 130 young people for free string instruments. And organize community events. And really, it’s all under the umbrella of the question, what’s the relationship of music, performance, education, social justice, and community life?
I’m going to say it’s a fantastic organization. As you know Sebastian, I have a particular interest in music. So this project’s been right up my alley. And when you called me some years ago, having a friend, someone we both know recommended that you call me because you were looking to do a feasibility study to see how much money you could raise to build a new building for this organization in Providence. And people were sort of opining about how much money you could raise. And you wanted to do a feasibility study, but you didn’t want consultants to go out and talk to your largest donors, right?
That’s right. Yeah.
Sebastian’s Initial Capital Campaign Challenges
So we had been working for a number of years to identify a site or a building that could house these programs in a way that felt consistent with our mission. And we had spent a long time because it wasn’t obvious to us what we needed.
- Did we need to be in a campus with our nonprofits?
- Did we need to be sharing space with the for-profits?
- Did we need to be in disconnected leases throughout the neighborhoods we work in?
But ultimately, we found a property that’s real close to our current headquarters, and decided to do new construction.
Not at all clear how much money we could raise, but we had our architects sketch conceptual design for something we thought could be affordable. It would be the bare bones version. And we went ahead and bought the land. And just at that point, it was 275,000, and we raised that initial money from about seven donors. We just approached and said, “We want to start this and could you help us start?”
So about a month before closing is when I called you, because we knew we were going to get the land. But beyond that, we really didn’t have a sense how much money we could raise, and how that would then guide the design for this building. And like you said, our own back in the napkin thinking was we maybe could raise $6 million, and our donors and advisors agreed. That’s probably about the limit for this town, for this size organization.
Sebastian, I remember from those early conversations, my thinking or saying to you, “Well gee, do you think you can actually build that building?” And they have the other things you need to do for $6 million. And there was sort of an uncomfortable pause about that.
Right. We knew the building would be too small. We knew it wouldn’t have all the features. We knew it wouldn’t acoustically work. But we knew we could build something that would have us have a center, have us have a stable home that that would work.
But back to your question about the feasibility study, it did feel like here was this organization at that point around 20 years old. We had a strong donor base. We had good relationships with a number of key supporters. And it felt like the most backwards thing at that moment when we were going to step out and articulate a very big, new vision for the future, to not be having those conversations directly with their supporters.
I feel like the best way to strengthen those relationships is to go out and talk with people and say, “Is this crazy? Is this great? What do you think?” And everybody’s told us, “No, you have a consultant. Do those conversations because they can be this passionate.” People can say to things to them that they might not feel comfortable saying to you in terms of concerns about the organization.
And then you and I got on the phone and you said, “Oh, no, no, no. A consultant should be having those conversations. You should be having those conversations.” And it was a real click. And you were Andrea Kihlstedt. You wrote the book. So it was a good reason to believe you.
Of course, when I wrote the book, I didn’t think that way yet. Right? That’s been a fairly new way of thinking. And for me, when I had that conversation with you, it was like, “Here’s someone who’s willing to try this new model out.” You were exactly the person I needed, because I knew I had a real idea that I thought was a good idea. But I didn’t really know if it was going to work, or how I was going to do it, or how could I say to a client, “Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing and are you willing to try it out with me?”
And then you called. You said, “Yes, this is exactly what I want to do.” So you were willing to be there and try this idea out. And from your perspective, did it work?
A Guided Feasibility Study Was Exactly What Sebastian Needed
Yeah, it [the Guided Feasibility Study] was all the things that we hoped it would be. Well, I should say you prepared us over the course of, what was it? A good six or eight months to start, right? We didn’t go into this half-baked, right?
You said, “Here’s how you need to articulate this case. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it. This is getting closer. This is getting closer.” You helped us form what we called the core committee, and that core committee looked over these drafts, and weighed in.
You had us design, and redesign, and redesign a yet more concise and more polished but informal donor discussion guide. So there was a lot of work. I think one of the early things I learned from you is… This is probably a direct quote from you actually. But how much work it takes to have something appear simple and informal.
You kept saying that the discussion guide has to have the word draft on it. You don’t want something shiny and glossy to bring out for the first conversations. You want people to understand they’re really there at the ground floor with you. That’s the appeal of it. You’re not supposed to look more polished than you are.
But the first conversations, like I said, eight months later or so. We started a donor who was a part of the core committee. So this should have been a really easy one, and it was a great first conversation.
It was actually a funny one, because I asked this donor to be a Guinea pig with me to help me practice. So I thought we were kind of in Guinea pig mode, and she thought we were in showtime mode. We were having a lunch together. And I said something to her, which I meant to be kind of off to the side of our real conversation, “Do you yourself think that you’ll get involved in this campaign?”
And we went through the rest of the conversation. And at the end she said, “The feedback I would give you is I don’t think you should ask, do I think I’m going to be part of”… I meant that to be our off the record comment. But she’s like, “I think if you’re talking to somebody, you want to ask if they would like to be, not if they would expect to be.”
Anyway, so from there, I think the thing I valued was after each one of these initial conversations, you and I talked. And sometimes, minutes afterward when I wanted a quick download with you. But to say, “Okay, what worked about this? What’s the follow up? What didn’t work? What could you do differently?”
Yeah. That was as formative for me, and now for Capital Campaign Pro, as it was for you. So I am unendingly grateful for your willingness to try it out. Where we ended up, where you ended up, I think at the end of these is that it would be possible to raise, I think what? 8 million? Is that where we were at the moment? Or 10. I can’t remember.
I think we bot to 10.
We get to 10. Okay.
Yeah. Because what you said to Kelly and me, my managing director Kelly, is make the budget that includes all the things you really want out of this project. And when we got to the number nine, nine, nine, nine, however many nine. We got to 10 million. We sweated. We began to have a cold sweat, because we said there is no way we’re raising 10 million. And you said you don’t know that yet, right?
Right. That’s probably the biggest lesson out of all of this that you’ve given me and us was:
Test your biggest vision. You don’t know until you’ve tested your biggest vision.
Right. Well even this morning, Sebastian, when you talked about be about raising $6 million and you knew it would be a building that would be too small, and that wouldn’t have good acoustics. Even now, makes my stomach lurch to think about having a campaign to create a building that off the bat won’t work. And it just highlights the importance of being willing to step forward with your vision. And you really did that. You did. It was remarkable.
Sebastian on Soliciting Gifts During the Campaign
So let’s fast-forward a bit. You got past the feasibility study. We came back and said, “All right, maybe you can go for $10 million.” And you started to solicit some of putting together some committees and campaign plan. You started to solicit some gifts. Tell me a little about that, how you remember it.
Yeah. Well, one of the first things you helped us with was developing a gift range chart. And the top gift was two and a half million for a $10 million campaign. And you had us put together a short list, and there were probably three names on it of people who could possibly be approached. One of them pretty quickly fell off the list after a short exploratory conversation. And a family foundation that we’d had a close relationship with for a long time was one of the prospects.
And the conversation with them was so interesting, because I really didn’t think they would go for it. But the way you set us up for it was helpful. It was like in fact, it’s not a high pressure conversation. It really is exploratory.
The tenor of it was, “We don’t know whether this number 10 million is possible. But we do know if it’s going to happen, it’s going to require a lead gift. You’re among a very few supporters who could do this. Do you think you’d have interest in thinking along these lines?”
And it really took the pressure off. It wasn’t like, “We have to have your gift or this won’t go through.” It was really like, “We don’t know if we’re doing a $10 million campaign yet.” And thankfully, they felt the energy and excitement. They saw the logic of it within that first conversation.
They later reported to me that the two trustees walked out of there, stood on the street, and they said to each other, “I have a good feeling about this.” They didn’t give an immediate answer. And then a month or two passed, and I was supposed to have written them a letter formally asking. And we were in a core committee call, and you said to me one day, I don’t know if you remember this. “Sebastian, you haven’t done it yet. There must be a reason you haven’t done it yet. Why are you hesitating?”
And I said, “I am just really worried about screwing up this relationship. These people have been a cornerstone of our annual fund. I really just don’t want to screw this up.” And we all talked together in that core committee. And somehow, I can’t remember. But within a 30-minute conversation, not only did I agree to do the letter that week. But somehow we agreed that I should be asking for 3 million.
And that’s what happened. I wrote the letter, and it was similar. I mean, it was similar tenor, re-articulating this is where we are. We’re figuring out how much we can do. “If you were to commit a 3 million gift, we know we’re rolling.”
And a short, very informal call, maybe a month later. They said, “Yeah, I think we’re going to do it. We want to make half of it a challenge.” And that’s kind of what set us in motion.
Yeah. I mean, so interesting. You started by thinking about raising $6 million. And after all the planning, and the feasibility study, and the wrangling with the lead gift stuff, you ended up asking them for what would’ve been half that goal. And they did. That organization, those people have been mainstays for your campaign ever since.
I think it surprised everybody. And it set the tone for your whole campaign.
Within that period, they weren’t the only donors we were talking with. And one of the other surprises, even before that family committed, was a conversation with another supporter who had indicated to us some years earlier when it came time for us to do this building, that they would’ve interest. That’s how they left it.
And this was a family who had recently come into some money, some inheritance. They had a modest lifestyle, and really thought philanthropy was the way they were going to spend this money that they inherited.
And I called them, having no idea what kind of a gift they would think about. And after a very short conversation, “Here’s the plans, here’s what we’re thinking. Do you think you’d be,” they wrote an email a week later and said, “We think we’d like to do a million dollars.” So things like that started to happen.
And I think again, because you pushed us to say, “What’s the biggest vision,” here it is at $10 million. It was pretty clear that that family would not have given a million if the goal was six. The other family would not have given three if the goal was six. Right? I’ve come to understand and appreciate your advice that people will give a proportion that seems right to them. And it’s more about the proportion than the dollar amount.
Yeah. It’s so interesting how hard it is for people to have the courage to say, “Well, what do we really need?” And even though that number sounds outrageous, I mean at the time, 10 million really did sound outrageous to you. To have the courage to do that set you up for success.
Exceeding the Original Goal by One and a Half Times
Now, you still didn’t anticipate what was possible. So we should tell everybody what’s happened now, and then we can step back and say, “Well, how did that happen?”
Right. Well, now it’s a $15 million campaign. Yeah. 10 was the static number for a bit. Then, COVID happened, and cost escalations started rolling in, and the design started getting refined.
So a combination of the cost escalations and just frankly, now we’re seeing really what this design’s going to be. And some of the elements we got attached to turned out to have a higher price tag. The estimates that seemed reasonable at first started coming in larger. And then we began to ask in a way, a very parallel question. “Can we afford this full vision, or do we have to scale back the design?”
And for a few cycles, your advice was pretty much the same. Well, test it. Let’s see. Let’s see. We don’t know yet. We don’t know yet. And so over the course of, I don’t remember what the time period was. But sometime in the COVID blur of the last few years, it went up to 12 million, and then 13, and eventually 15.
But each time, because there seemed to be more major gifts coming in that indicated it would be possible. So when we had another million dollar gift, another million and a half dollar commitment. There were enough of these very, very large chunks that we had confidence. My colleague would do a new gift range chart and say, “Hey look. It looks like there are prospects at each level. Maybe it’s not crazy to go up to the next campaign level.”
And each time you did that, you went to the board to approve a changed campaign goal?
And each time, the board agreed. Board said yes. After some robust discussion. These weren’t just rubber-stamping what Sebastian wants. Your board is very engaged and involved in this whole process.
Right. And it has been a good process all along. Really, it started with the campaign steering committee. Maybe even sometimes, the lead gifts committee making a recommendation to the steering committee that this looked possible. The steering committee chewing it over and making a recommendation to the board that looked possible. So several different moments.
Robust conversations at each level. Doubts expressed. Could we do it? And what are the drawbacks? At this last number, 15 million, maybe even at 14, you started to say to us, “This shouldn’t keep expanding forever. People will start to be tired of this campaign expanding.” And when we got to 15, you said, “I have a feeling we’re there. It should not get bigger.” Not that the cost increases had slowed, but you said, “Well, you just have a sense it can’t indefinitely keep going up.”
Yeah. One of the things about campaigns is that they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that all the people who are involved in the beginning want to celebrate getting to the end. So if you keep escalating, at some point it feels like, “All right, this is getting old. We don’t want to do this anymore.”
And I did have a growing instinct about that. And finally recently said no more. Well, we still had a board member who said, “Well, you can just keep raising the goal.” No, at some point you can’t keep raising the goal.
I think where you are now is you raised more than 14 million. You can pretty much identify where the last million is going to come from. A chunk of that is going to be from the public phase of your campaign. And at the same time, construction is now beginning. So the project itself is actually taking shape in a visible sort of way.
Sebastian on Conducting a Campaign While Doing Everything Else
So looking back Sebastian, one of the amazing things about this campaign from my perspective is that all this time, you have been running the organization, playing the violin, performing, raising kids, and a family. Dealing with a whole host of other issues, and being the primary person to raise all of the lead gifts. What’s your secret? How do you do that?
Well, I think one of the key things is that I don’t have a typical ED job. My colleague, Kelly Reed and I share what might be typically an executive director job. She is the manager director, and my role is founder and artistic director. So I don’t run the organization alone. So I think that’s a big part of this.
And part of that is our organization’s strategy and structure. I’m still a teacher and a performer, as well as organizational leader. So in order to keep my hat in those spaces, I couldn’t do all the other things. So that’s I think a big part of it.
We’ve also had awesome development colleagues all through this process, who’ve been talented and skillful at either doing some of these solicitations themselves. Or at least preparing the materials, preparing the strategy together as a team. So even if I’m out doing some of these solicitations myself, there’s a good crew of us working on it. Both on the institutional side, writing grants. And on the individual side, thinking about individual philanthropy.
To me, it’s been really impressive just to see how steady you’ve been in doing this. And you have had very good people supporting you in it. Nonetheless, it has been a chunk of steady work for someone who is super busy, and you’ve done such a thoughtful job. I think that’s what I would say.
Everything you do in that world and that work of lead gift is thoughtful. You never go racing out to ask somebody, because you’re anxious. You always think carefully about what donors would like and how to approach them. I think that thoughtfulness has been a major part of your success actually.
Thanks for saying that. I think that one of the things that’s been surprising… Well surprising, and in a way very organic. Is that really these are conversations with people who have already been in our circles, that don’t feel out of the character of the relationship we already had. But in some ways, just deepened those relationships.
I guess what’s surprising about that is I would’ve thought to approach someone who’s given us say a gift of $30,000, to approach them for a million would change the relationship somehow. And instead, it has felt like the major gift fundraising is lower key, easier, more conversational, less transactional than some of the annual fundraising. And that I would not have expected.
So even though yes, there’s been a lot of work. Sitting down for a conversation with somebody and saying, “Here’s where I think we’re heading. Here’s why it’s so exciting. Here’s the plan that’s really well thought-out. Here’s what we’re going to need to get there. Here’s how it’s going to change what this organization can do in this community. Do you want to be part of it?”
That’s in the end, kind of an easier conversation. And while we’re serving, we started this new program this year. So we need to ask for a 15% increase from each of our supporters. “Do you think you could make your annual gift a little bit bigger this year?” Somehow, it feels more difficult in retrospect.
Yeah. That’s so interesting. I think you said to me at one point recently Sebastian, that this has spoiled you in terms of your fundraising. Now you know what fun it is to have these real, wonderful conversations. Hard to go back.
Yeah. And I can see it from the other side for a supporter who who’s thinking, “Well, I do love this organization. But if I increase my gift this year, it means they’re going to expect me to stay at that higher level every year.”
So that’s in some ways, a more difficult yes to give than, “This one time, we could stretch into this other pot of money we have and help catapult this project forward.” I can see how from the other point of view, it’s easier to say yes to a big one-time chunk.
Sebastian’s Thoughts on Donor Recognition
Sebastian, one other subject and then we’ll wrap up. But one other subject that I don’t want to leave without talking to you about is the question of donor recognition. And as you well know, and if you’re listening to this in a capital campaign, I’m sure you know that many campaigns have naming opportunities as a part of their campaign. And they tie the largest gift amounts to naming various spaces in the building or naming the building entirely.
And when working with Sebastian and his organization when we were putting the campaign plan together. And I said, “Well, this is traditionally how it’s done.” Sebastian said, “I’m not sure we want to do it that way.” Why did you say that, Sebastian? And how has that played out?
Yeah. We were really thinking about the future users of the building being young people from these urban communities that we serve. Walking into the building. And what are the ways we can ensure that they walk in and feel this space belongs to them.
And even though everyone who knows fundraising knows that when somebody’s name is on a big sign on a room, what it means is they gave a largest gift. It can also look like that’s the person who owns this space. And it didn’t seem congruous with what we were looking for, that the names that showed up around the building would be the names of folks who had very little day-to-day connection with the neighborhoods we’re working in. And everyone knows the symbols of who has power in our society are everywhere already around us. And did we need to reinforce the great problems of inequality?
So the question was not how can we hide the money that made this possible. But rather, how do we adequately recognize and show gratitude for people who have really stepped up and made this possible? But without just having names on spaces, and that we felt one of two things could be possible.
Either the students and families help us name rooms based on some other set of criteria, or the rooms get named after longtime family participants in the program, or other community leaders.
Anyway, we haven’t actually sorted that out yet.
And some of our earlier conversations, I think you were unsure whether this would work. You said this is probably what people expect, and I don’t know if you can swing it. And we weren’t sure either. Well, Andrea knows this stuff. Maybe she’s right. But then at a certain point you said, “Well, why not try? Why not try what you’re trying to do?”
We just haven’t made a huge issue of it. Nobody has asked, “Can I have my name for this gift?” And whenever the discussion comes up, we explain what we’re trying to do. And we haven’t experienced a lot of pushback to this idea.
So we’re designing some kind of plaque. We’re playing with ideas of how to represent everybody who’s given anything on this plaque. Not to say that it’ll be listed alphabetically. We still will recognize the different levels. But we also conscious that for a family that’s participating in the program that makes a $200 gift to the campaign, that might be equivalent in terms of the size of their gift relative to their means, as another donor who gives $100,000 compared to their means. So how do we reflect in the recognition that everyone has stretched to make this possible? So that’s what we’ll work on.
Well, thank you for having the courage and the will to do that. Since then, I have written some about donor recognition, and the fact that we don’t have to assume that that’s what every donor wants. It has been striking to me that you have gone to many of the major donors in your community, and that no one has particularly cared that they can’t put their name on a building. And that to me was a wonderful test case.
So I am now spreading the word to people to at least consider that they might have alternative ways of dealing with donor recognition, and they don’t have to do the traditional, standard model. And you’ve really led the way both in the feasibility study process, and the donor recognition. And I am just so grateful to have had you as a partner in testing out some of these things.
And it’s been fun to just develop this as we go. I think for some institutions, I had a conversation recently with a private school who was thinking about donor recognition. They have a different challenge, because there’s already a tradition of naming spaces for donors. So in a new campaign, if they decided not to, it would be more of a break from their tradition.
For us, this is the first campaign, I think in some ways we have more latitude to define it how we want. But I can see how that wouldn’t be quite as simple for others.
Yes. Yes. Sebastian, as we wrap this up, are there three things you think people should think about as they go into a campaign? Three things you’ve learned that you want to highlight?
Well, I think they’re the ones we’ve talked about. But I think first and foremost, getting clear and articulating the biggest vision. And then testing that. I think that’s a huge one. And I think it applies to more than capital campaigns, actually. I’ve been thinking about that a lot with life.
If you already decide you can’t do something that you want to do before you figured out if you can do it, boy, you’re cutting yourself off at the knees, right? So I think it’s a great lesson.
Another is this is a business about real human relationships. And leaning into those, being honest. This isn’t sales in a way. This is really exploring partnership. I know that sounds like just a spin, but I think it’s real. Really are not going to people to convince them to do something they don’t want to do. You’re really exploring whether there’s an alignment of interests. I guess a third one is it can be kind of fun. And if it’s not fun, step back a minute and figure out how it can be.
Because really, you’re trying to realize something big in the world. That’s what a capital campaign is. You’re trying to realize something big in the world. And it’s serious, but it’s also imaginative, and creative, and playful.
Well Sebastian, working with you has really been an honor and a treat. This campaign has been more successful than I think either one of us imagined when we began on this journey together. As you know, I don’t venture very far from my office these days. Takes a lot to get me out. But when you cut the ribbon on that building, believe me, I’m going to be there.
Well, the honor has been totally ours and mine, Andrea. To be not only working with you based on all the experience you’ve accumulated over your career, but to be working with you as you explore new territory. That has been so great. What a cool honor to be with you on your own, new exploration.
And in keeping with that, you know that Capital Campaign Toolkit has just become Capital Campaign Pro. And if you are listening to this and thinking about doing a capital campaign, we would be delighted to talk to you. Just go to capitalcampaignpro.com, and you will see many buttons you can click in order to get you to us.
So Sebastian, thanks so much. I look forward to continuing my relationship with you and seeing how your building takes shape and your program grows.
Leave a Reply