A Capital Idea

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2004

I kid you not, a local nonprofit spokesman told me last summer his group is relying on the spiritual self-help book The Celestine Prophecy to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a new facility. "The people who are going to fund it are going to come to us, we won't have to go to them," he told me with sincerity. "When they walk on the property, those people who 'get it' will give to support it. Those who don't, won't."

In planning a capital campaign to raise $7 million for its new headquarters on 12 acres at the corner of Cattlemen and Proctor roads, Girl Scouts of Southwest Florida wisely chose a less New Agey, more methodical approach.

The Girl Scout council, which serves 9,700 girls in 6 1/2 counties from the Skyway Bridge to the Everglades, embarked last fall-not on a fund raiser-but rather on an awareness campaign meant to boost broad understanding of the organization's programs and values before anybody asked for money.

"In our feasibility study, we found that while Girl Scouts is a household word, there was a low level of awareness of it beyond they were cute and sold cookies," says Julie Taylor of Sarasota-based Philanthropy Management, Inc., which is consulting the council on its capital campaign. "Raising the organization's profile should always be a precursor to launching any kind of major fund raising."

Together, the Girl Scout council and Philanthropy Management planned a two-fold approach: holding about 40 events last fall and winter-everything from speaking at civic organizations to a hoe-down at a Manatee County ranch to teas at the Ritz and a cookie bakeoff at Michael's on East-and running a series of newspaper and television ads featuring testimonials from high-profile community leaders who were former scouts. The theory, says Taylor, was the discovery that "Girl Scouts nationally, not just locally, had never tracked their alumni. So many adult women say, 'I learned x, y and z in Girl Scouts and it's helped me to be what I am today as an adult.' We felt that women need to reconnect with those experiences."

Among the participating women were Herald-Tribune publisher Diane McFarlin, attorney Linda Getzen, Presbyterian minister Susan De Wyngaert, bank founder Christine Jennings and Sarasota County tax collector Barbara Ford-Coates. The Herald-Tribune contributed $19,000 worth of free ads in its Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte editions, and 30-second spots ran on WWSB-TV the entire month of March.

"It's a lot easier when you approach someone to get involved if they associate the Girl Scouts with those kinds of high-profille women who were featured in the ad campaign," says Taylor. "They added tremendous credibility."

The uptick in awareness was "huge," says Girl Scouts executive director Sandi Stewart. And it translated to dollars. As of late July, the group was approaching $4.7 million in gifts from 380 donors. (The largest was $2 million from Searcy Coen trust, Stewart says; the second largest was $675,000 from the estate of Dow Jones heir Jane Cook.) Stewart admits that the idea of a capital campaign was so intimidating, "at first, it was literally too nerve-wracking to even say the words." Planning was the key ingredient. "It's a the misnomer that when you have building needs in a nonprofit, two months later you're going to launch a cap campaign," says Philanthropy Management's Taylor. "It's all about the preparedness of the board and staff. The Girl Scouts had been planning this for 10 years."

Taylor says the big push comes this fall. "We're keeping on, keeping on," she says. "You make the plan, and you work it."

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