Season 2, Episode 74
In this episode, Andrea Kihlstedt speaks with Paul Jalsevac, Chief Advancement Officer of Christendom College, about the Guided Feasibility Study he and his team have completed recently. Paul shares his insights and thoughts about why a new model worked well for them.
Do you ask your largest donors for advice? You know the old saw: want money, ask for advice; want advice, ask for money. But do you really ask your largest donors for advice or are you afraid that you’re going to get advice you don’t want?
Welcome. I’m Andrea Kihlstedt, co-host of this podcast. My partner in crime, Amy Eisenstein, isn’t here today. She’ll be back next week. But I am excited to introduce you to a very special guest, Paul Jalsavec. Welcome, Paul.
Hello. Glad to be here.
Paul is the Vice President for Advancement at Christendom College where they have just worked with Capital Campaign Pro to conduct a Guided Feasibility Study. The guided study model prepares leaders of the organization to conduct interviews with top donors instead of bringing in an outside capital consultant to do those interviews.
Paul has just been through that process from stem to stern, so I’m eager to hear from him about what it was like, what his experience was.
Why a Guided Feasibility Study?
Let’s get going, Paul. Paul, why’d you decide to do it this way?
Well, I mean, Andrea, you always had interesting ways of doing things and you caught me at a need.
So this was my second large campaign. And the last one we did a feasibility study that I felt was, I’d say a bit of an abstract exercise. So in the sense of it happened, we weren’t really very involved with it. We couldn’t really actualize a lot of the data. It helped us move forward, but there was a lot of limitations.
So, for me, one of the things was we have great relationships with the donors. We have a very sort of close-knit cultivation process. And it seemed like there was something that just felt wrong to me about the last study. And you sort of nailed it for me when you got to the point:
Let’s talk about the feasibility study as actually a step in the cultivation process.
And that really appealed to me because the idea of having great conversations with your donors and a good excuse to do it was, hey, this is a great opportunity.
So the last feasibility study we did as well, it just seems like it was a little bit of a self-limiting situation where the consultants gave us a goal that they thought we could achieve and we ended up being able to do more. They weren’t horribly off, but we were able to do more. We challenged it. We went for the goal that they told us we could not achieve and we ultimately achieved it.
So it was just an experience to me of I didn’t really want to bring in outside people to put them in front of all of our top donors for a conversation that we could have.
It’s so interesting to me how hard it is just to go to your top donors without a context for doing that, right? To call your top donor and say, “Hey, Joe, I’d just like to come and talk to you,” it feels a little peculiar because Joe thinks you’re there to talk about money and you are really sort of there to talk about money. That just feels awkward.
So I think people hesitate to have those probing conversations, but when you put it in the context, and the way you said it appealed to me. When you create a context for having those conversations, all of a sudden you can call your top donors quite easily.
Yeah. I mean, although every consultant and every trainer will talk about, here’s all these great questions you ask all your donors, and when you meet someone for the first time or someone who’s made their first gift, you can go in and actually have a lot of that conversation.
But when you’ve been cultivating someone for seven years or 10 years or 12 years, it’s not always easy to sit down and say, “Let’s go back to the drawing board. What do you really care about? Let’s talk about things. Where are you at in terms of your giving? Where are your priorities? What’s important to you at the college or the institution? What’s important to you right now?”
And being able to do that, like for me with this process, was just an awesome opportunity, an opportunity that I’ll try to make up more often. That’s a real win.
Donors Take Center Stage in Guided Feasibility Studies
Yeah, it’s so interesting. Paul, how many people did you actually talk to in your study?
About forty. About forty.
And how many people did those interviews?
So four people, but the majority were done by two of us.
So we had my Executive Vice President , who’s sort of second to the president, and I can explain more why we chose the people we chose, but my Executive Vice President did the majority of the top donors. I did the majority of others who were sort of people, whether board members or others who needed to be involved, but not necessarily as big donors or who the Executive Vice President just couldn’t get to.
And then there were a couple that major gift officers did, actually, because those people requested the major gift officers. And then we had our present chair of our board actually done by our consultant, Jeff [Hensley], for Capital Campaign Pro, just because that was a unique circumstance and we feel like he needed that separation from institution. So, a good mix.
Asking More and More Insightful Questions
Right. Did you find that the people who did the interviews by the time they had done a few of them really enjoyed them?
Yeah. And they got better at it. So, I mean that would be one of my recommendations. The fewer people who do it, the better. If the Executive Vice President had the time to do all of them, we’re a national organization in terms of our donor base, so he had to travel all over the country. If we had been in a city and very regionally focused, I would’ve tried to get him to do all of them because as we went on, he got better at them, he got knowledgeable about them. Each of us got sort of comfortable with it.
But also we learned from the prior interviews. So we started to ask even more insightful questions. And you started to see also when it comes to assessing the data afterwards, for all the talk about feasibility studies giving you data, most of the decisions I think is intuition based.
So if someone’s done 40 interviews and they’re going off of their intuition, that creates a much deeper sense of intuition and just you’re really looking for a few undercurrent themes that make a big difference. And you can just start to sense that particularly if the person doing the interviews has that natural intuition, is a good decision maker.
I think it’s such an interesting and good point. I mean we do work with people so that they push donors to give indications of what they might give. And watching the cues of that, as they would say in Poker, I suppose the tells. Is that a Poker word? I don’t know. Watching the tells, watching how people twitch or when they get red in the face. That instructs you way more than what they say sometimes.
And the more you do of these kinds of conversations, the better you get at letting your intuitions tell you what’s really going on and give you that.
Yeah, knowing where you can push where you can’t. But also, I mean our experience was that many of the donors who were capable of larger gifts sort of undervalued their potential.
Now, part of that, maybe where we were in the context of our projects, ours is a comprehensive campaign with multiple subprojects, many of which still need to be fully crystallized because it’s such a complicated… There’s so many things going on.
If it was one very clear, concrete process that we already had absolutely clear drawings, we probably would’ve got even more precise responses. But we’re dealing with a comprehensive campaign or we’re dealing with multiple different priorities. The conversation I think can give you slightly less clear answers in the sense that there’s more cultivation needed to give you a direction.
But a lot of the people said they could give $250,000, we’re asking for 500 or a million, and they may give 250, but one of of three of them is certainly going to give a lot more. So that’s where I think some of that intuition is important.
Building Lasting Relationships with Key Donors
Right. Do you have a sense, Paul, that those conversations actually did deepen your relationships with at least some of those donors?
Yeah, that’s a good question about the whole process.
I think when I used to think of feasibility study, it was to get a sense of numbers and know if we could do it. And this whole [guided] feasibility study flips the whole thing on its head. I think I’ve learned from discussions with you and just do the process itself, that the goal of the process for me… The numbers and the sense of the context — it’s a side thing. The real win is engagement.
I mean, because last time, even with my board, even my campaign committee and our last committee, it was sort of abstract. They weren’t super-involved, again, because our donor base is sort of all over the place and it’s not some simple local project. It’s hard to find ways to actually engage people. But when people are engaged in the whole thought process and feel like they own it…
Last time I was more talking to a board and was saying to them, or even other people, “Here’s the thing that the college is doing. Can you be a part of it? Here’s the thing that…” Now through the process, what you can do is when you go into the very beginning, you’re saying to someone, “My president or Executive Vice President — the guy who reports to the president who actually is implementing all this stuff — is coming to meet with you and wants your opinion and talks it through with you in a very open way, shares all this inside information, asks what you think.”
All of a sudden you start to get that ownership language of like, “Okay, what are we doing? Yes, can we do this? How can we be involved?”
So obviously you have to be open to that information and that engagement, but [with this model]:
- They’re helping you craft your language.
- They’re helping you focus on the priorities.
And so all of a sudden what you see is, number one, the engagement of all those people. Even the people on the board who might not be the highest givers in that group, they’re now part of the process. They’re involved in the campaign, they understand the inside of it, they understand that it’s sort of our thing.
So the engagement for me was huge. And then just overall relationships, well, that itself improves the relationships. But you see that there’s people, if there’s people who are sort of… There’s the people who you’ve known forever, right?
And it’s just, for them, the engagement is key because it’s like they want to help. And so this gives them a way to help. And particularly even when it comes to editing the draft and stuff — a lot of that stuff I did use. And so they’ll see it come back.
But then there’s the other people who are maybe newer donors or donors you think could do much, much more. And the conversation gave us an opportunity to send my Executive Vice President who doesn’t see them all the time and have this sort of deeper conversation and move to another level.
So we saw a couple critical relationships where there was:
- First of all, we got information that we never could have got just on a regular visit.
- And second of all, it just got them involved in a deeper way.
An Example of Deep Donor Engagement
I’ll give you one really good example for me. Also, one other huge value is you just getting objections up front and shows the value engagement.
So one of our board members who I met with initially saw the campaign study, not the campaign study, the document I gave him, and his initial reaction was kind of negative. Like:
“I don’t know about this message. I think you should have been more inspirational. I don’t know if you get it.”
And in part, I think it was because there was another institution that he was a part of that was doing a different message, and he liked that one. So he was kind of trying to get us to follow the same message to a certain extent.
So that initial conversation was fine. He was very engaged though. He was very engaged. He got really excited about it. And I sort of explained, we went back and forth, there’s a lot of back and forth. But then he actually wrote me an email the next day rethinking it, being like:
“You know what? I’m coming around. I see where you’re going with this. Getting very excited.”
He’s now very involved in the campaign and through that whole process. He owns it, right?
He was initially saying:
“Well, Paul, I’m probably a gift of $50,000, but if I get really excited, I could do up to $500,000.”
Well, now we’re starting the conversation at $500,000 and seeing what he could do beyond that. So that was a really great example to me of just like, oh, you bring people upfront. You have the conversation. You’re kind of like, this is annoying, because I’d rather just come to you with the finished product and say, “Aren’t you excited?” But if he wasn’t –
So now he’s so engaged in the process through the whole thing that by the time we get the final thing, he’s almost forgotten those initial objections. He’s excited to be a part of it. He knows he’s been heard.
I mean it’s such a great story. I often think how powerful it is when we take seriously the idea that people have to talk themselves into something, that we never talk anybody into much of anything. But we have to create the circumstance where people can actually talk themselves into something. And that sounds to me like exactly what you did.
He started out negative, and then you created the opportunity by tinkering with what he was saying, by exploring what he was saying for him to start talking himself into it. I mean, including sending you an email the next day. I love that.
I’m a slow learner on that. But that experience showed me, and he has a lot to give. He had a lot of energy. He has a lot of vitality. He has a lot of good ideas. It was good for me to hear it. Right?
And I did really try to incorporate a lot of his suggestions and sort of the thinking. So it helped me, helped him, and now we’re in it together. That’s the key thing is like —
Right. You’re in it together.
If you can get everyone, your board members and others and say:
“We’re doing this together.”
Then that’s progress.
That’s huge progress. Yes, indeed.
How Guided Feasibility Studies Feel to Donors
Paul, did you have any people that you were going to talk to who wanted to talk to consultants, who felt uncomfortable talking to the leaders?
No, we didn’t. We actually had the opposite, well, we had a couple donors who actually requested their major gift officers because they said they’d be most comfortable and they said:
“No, we don’t want to talk to consultants and we don’t want to waste senior leadership’s time.”
So we actually had, that was the only circumstance.
One of the questions people say is, “Would it be possible that there’s somebody who wasn’t open when they could have been?” Well, that’s why we actually had just the board chair talk to a consultant. I’m not even 100% sure that that was necessary after the fact.
Looking at the conversation, I almost wish that we’d been able to have that conversation to dig deeper in some of the points and follow up on it. Maybe that worked.
But no, I think that’s where it’s a question to the institution — but in our case, our donors like us in the sense of at least we try. We get along with them. We have relationships. And so I think this process was natural to them and an important part of the process.
Creating the Guided Feasibility Study Report
Right. Let’s talk for a minute, Paul, about what it was like to actually create the report. I know your advisor, Jeff, was helpful in doing that, but that’s quite different from having a consultant do the interviews and then the consultant writes the report and comes back and you’re not quite sure where those recommendations came from.
In this model, you and Jeff actually created this report [together]. What was that like for you?
Yeah. One of the things I was going to mention to you in terms of this process is you got to be committed to it. It is more work. I think it’s work that is all valuable in the sense of, because I was so involved in creating the report, I own it, I understand it. And in many ways I helped to drive it. So it’s not this, again, abstract campaign where you’re being foisted something on by an outside consultant. You’re a little bit uncertain… you’re unclear.
But it did take more work in the sense of, because there was a lot of… I think the report was not easy to create in our case because we wanted to include the… We had 40 interviews. So I did get someone to review them all and do some summaries, but I ended up reading all the 40 interviews. I went through that process because why wouldn’t you? I mean, that’s just incredible information.
You got 40 pages of your donors talking. It’s like gold. It’s a gold mine.
So that took time. Now again, it’s like, oh, it’s hard work, but it’s like this is… Even just, again, for that intuitive information that had poured into my psyche somewhere of just what our donors think, that was really valuable.
So I had to read all the interviews, I had to look for trends, all that sort of stuff. And then we did have to do some help with that data analysis of thinking through what does the rest of our database look like? And that was probably the harder part. And then work through that with Jeff, review it. Jeff really reviewed a lot of the discussions.
In my case, I probably wrote more of it than Jeff, I think just because of my role. For years I’ve been very involved in the work that we do. This is part of my job. So writing these sort of reports is more my part. It’s what we do. In a different case, the consultant might have written more of the front end type of work. I think it just worked because I wanted that sort of ownership of the project. I needed to understand it. So what’s the take on there?
So ownership, I was involved — I had the ownership.
I worked with Jeff on that. Jeff was very helpful in providing the guidance, narrowing things down, focusing it in. But I was able to have that ownership, have that understanding of the direction, really get to know the data and the information.
And then that gave me a lot more energy and excitement, but also focus in talking about the campaign and preparing the documents and following up. It just gave more clarity.
Right. Yeah. To me, it’s so different.
A Campaign Consultant’s Perspective on Writing the Report
I mean, I have been a consultant on the other side having done traditional studies where I’ve made up the recommendations and the goal. And to me, the lack of transparency, even as a consultant often felt odd, felt like it was hard to explain how I came up with the numbers sometimes because they were sort of intuitive.
And to me, it’s so much better to hear you talking about honing your intuitions and you’re knowing why you came up with the numbers, you knowing how much risk is involved in the numbers you’ve put out there.
So many times a consultant will put out fairly conservative numbers because they want to make sure the organization is going to be successful.
Whereas if you’re willing to take that risk and understand that you can pull down that goal, you can fully own it, you can talk to your donors about it. So I think it’s a much better model actually. It’s one that really forces you in your seat to say, “All right, how much risk am I willing to take in putting a goal out here?” And I know you’re taking some.
A Challenging, But Rewarding Process With So Much Upside
Yeah. So it’s like I’ve used lots of consultants for many different things over the years, but sometimes that conclusion that they just can’t do the hard work for me. It’s like the really great ones are the ones who force you to do the work for yourself and help guide you on it.
And so you’re often looking for that consultant for whatever organization and whatever aspect of fundraising, it’s just figure it out and make it easy. And I don’t think that’s ever as productive as either a very involved relationship or even doing it yourself.
In this case, it’s like, yeah, I had to be forced to do the work, but we took on a fair amount of risk and that was a decision that we made. A consultant probably wouldn’t have recommended as much risk. I don’t actually think it’s a ton of risk in the sense that, well, the risk is that we shoot too high in the quiet phase and then we back down. We’re not really losing much, it’s just making my job a lot harder.
So, [it] requires more inventiveness and ingenuity and challenges. We opt for the challenge factor. Whereas it would’ve been hard for a consultant to even push me to that, and most consultants probably wouldn’t have.
But also we talk about that nuance and that intuition. The thing that I’ve seen with many, many consultants is there’s certain types of things in fundraising that are more proforma. There might be certain things like analyzing data or whatever, but most things involve knowledge of your mission, your institution, all these intangibles.
The more complex your institution, there’s more of all these intangibles and it’s very hard for an outside consultant to have like… They can give you judgment advice, but if they’re actually getting to the point of making those big decisions, there’s a good chance that they can’t understand all those intangibles that are involved in impacting the direction of your institution.
And so, for me, this decision was too complex to hand off in that sense of, yeah, I should be responsible for it. That’s my job. There would’ve been more risk of… Even I saw this last step, even some conflict between myself and the consultant or the consultant and upper management or different parts of the college, in the sense of a little bit of wrestling for different directions, for example.
So this process actually, because my Executive Vice President was involved, we were reporting on the reports. There’s a lot of conversations along the way. The board members were involved. And because it was more of a back and forth with you and the board members and different people, it took away I think some of that potential risk of miscommunication, wrestling for different directions.
In this whole process, there hasn’t been any moments of what the heck are we doing in that direction? Or why are we doing that project? Or where are we? Because everyone’s been involved in some way, shape or form, even through the interview process for the case as well. Whereas last time it felt like a little bit, I had this campaign that I was tasked with, but it was kind of my thing. And if I screwed it up, it was on me. Yes, it was like everybody was sort of there, but didn’t really know what was going on. That’s a very intangible thing. I don’t know if that helps.
Yeah, no, that’s super helpful.
Paul’s Advice About Guided Feasibility Studies
Paul, if you were to give advice to someone just considering a [guided] feasibility study, just starting and are now in a campaign mode and thinking about a feasibility study, what would you advise them?
A lot of things in life… I used to be a lawyer. One of the big things I learned was preparation. You got to prepare well. I do think you should do a plan, one of these. I would never do an old feasibility study. I would always do this type of feasibility study just because fundraising is about relationships, let’s build relationships. But I do think you have to be prepared. I do think it is a sort of involved process. I do think you should.
My thought would be to think through a couple of things. The timing of the feasibility study. You want to make sure you have that case for support thoroughly prepared, but also enough concrete information about the project.
On the Timing and Structure of the Process
So one thing, for example, I might have rethought through the timing of the process in the sense of I’ve had to do so much work after the feasibility study, certain uncertainties came around the projects that have sort of slowed down the follow-up a little bit. So should I have delayed the feasibility study just a little bit more to allow some of those discussions to happen?
But also I’d probably make sure I had an admin assistant helping me a little more particularly and aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. I’m not good with the follow-up details. I’m not good with tenacity type stuff, like make sure all those little things are done, I’m following up and spreadsheets. I’m a big-picture guy and my mind glazes over. So it’s like, have we seen 42 people or 41? When was that scheduled? So having someone to just support and keep the process rolling so I could do the thinking.
So I would think through the, just process, the structure, making sure you understand it upfront. Ask your consultant the questions and understand the time it will take. And then think through that so you can be very focused on it because this is really worth it. And ideally that you can come out on the other side. Really think through who you get to do the interviews.
I strongly recommend you get senior management, whether that’s the president or someone right below the president. My instinct says, as much as possible, get the person who will do the follow-up in the sense of we have a couple tiers of donors and there’s certain donors who the president’s going to go back and do the ask with the major gift officer. There’s some who that Executive Vice President would as well. Ideally the president would’ve done the feasibility study interviews for the people he’s going to ask.
Think Through Who Your Interviewers Will Be
With the caveat, if your president’s not a great listener, maybe he’s not the right person for that thing. So you got to have a good listener. But also connecting, in our case, having a senior manager who wasn’t a major gift officer, allowed the person to feel like they were really being cared for, allowed a good conversation and gave them inside knowledge. But that senior manager is also somebody who will encounter them through the course of business and was very important.
So think through who the interviewers are. I think less interviewers the better. Of course any senior manager or executive or CEO doesn’t have the time, but it’s worth the time. So if you convince them that this is going to produce as much revenue as anything else they’re going to do.
Make the Most Out of the Process
And then I think just think about how you could use the process. What we’re actually trying to do is we finished the feasibility study, but we’re actually trying to take the process and for our next tier of donors do something similar.
I wish I could have had our top 200 donors in the feasibility study. It’s like, how can you waste the opportunity to go talk to your top donors about what’s most important to them and get them excited? So I think you can use that process.
It’s so interested to hear you say that because we’ve done now at Capital Campaign Pro, I think we’ve done probably 30 or 35. We’ve worked with 30 or 35 clients that have done these Guided Feasibility Studies, and a whole bunch of them have said at the end:
“This was such a great process. We got used to doing them and we started enjoying doing these interviews. And we just want to keep right on doing these interviews.”
Which, of course, is what you’ve just said. So you’ve fallen into that very same, this is a great thing to be doing. We should just keep on talking to our donors.
And really what’s more important than having probing conversations with your donors?
We should be doing it anyways. It just helps to have some sort of an excuse. And now once the feasibility study over, it gets harder and harder to coach it in the conversation of, we want your advice, right?
But some way you can do that like, “Hey, this is now the draft. We’re in the quiet phase and we’re thinking about using this for the broader community. We want your advice. Are we on the right track here? Are you interested? Help us keep this process going.”
So you can still continue that. I’m hoping we can have the same sort of process going for the next year.
Right, right. Yeah, using the whole campaign this way. I mean, you’ve really bought this model hook, line and sinker. I think it’s fantastic.
Yeah, take it and run with it. It’s sure there’s plenty other things that I’ve learned that I’m not thinking about. It’s just like, talking to your donors — it’s going to produce results. That’s all it is.
Having the Courage to Do Things Differently
Right. Well, Paul, it’s inspiring to hear you talk about your study. I know it was a big shift. It’s a pretty big campaign that you’re talking about. Yours is a pretty good-sized, well established institution. You’re not one of these little community organizations. So for you to make a decision to go in this direction took, I think some will to say:
“We’re going to do this differently from the way we’ve done it before.”
And I appreciate it. It makes me so happy to hear everything you’ve learned from the process and we want to circle back to you as your campaign now gains steam in the quiet phase.
Thank you. Yeah. Well, thank you for your insights and your suggestions. It’s been a very helpful process. I’m delighted that we tried something different and we’ll have to see how it all works in the long range. We still got to finish the execution, but we’re excited to see how it all plays out.
Well, thank you, Paul, so much for sharing your experience and wisdom with us and with our listeners. I always learn from you. Every time I talk to you, Paul, I always learn something and it’s just we don’t get much of a chance to talk together. So it’s a special treat to be able to spend a little time with you.
Well, thank you so much. Likewise.
Thanks to you for listening to this podcast on Guided Feasibility Studies.
Next week, my friend and partner, Amy Eisenstein, will be back for a new episode of All About Capital Campaigns. But if you’re considering a capital campaign, we’d love to hear from you. You can find us at capitalcampaignpro.com. Looking forward to hearing from you.