Creating themes for capital campaigns is one of Libretto’s key specialties. (Our overall expertise in names and themes ranges from naming buildings to developing themes for anniversary celebrations.) We’ve developed a strong reputation in this essential skill, having provided themes for fundraising initiatives totaling more than $2 billion.
Extracting the needle of a theme from the haystack of the language is a daunting process. Here are some points to keep in mind when faced with developing a theme for a major effort.
1. Get the timing right
Most institutions create a theme – along with a visual identity and messaging platform – during the quiet phase of their campaign, so that they can share a cohesive story with major lead donors.
2. Build a team
Limit the number of decision-makers involved and work collaboratively as a team. While the final decision may ultimately rest with the chief fundraiser (typically, the college president or nonprofit CEO), the thoughtful input of other qualified stakeholders is invaluable.
3. Answer one question
Your team will need to answer a critical question: “Given everything we’re trying to accomplish, if we had to identify one thing that this campaign is about, what would that be?”
4. Balance clarity and originality
You’ll want to find a phrase that has a personality and a pulse but doesn’t feel obscure or pretentious. While this is a difficult balance to achieve, it’s absolutely worth pursuing. A theme will serve as a rallying cry for an effort focused on raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars – you need to get it right.
5. Involve senior leadership at critical milestones
The ultimate decision-maker must be involved in discussions around the initial creative brief for the theme, and should be present at key milestones – particularly during the presentation of theme candidates.
6. Pay attention to mouthfeel
Remember that the theme will be spoken as well as read. Pay attention to how the phrases you’re considering sound when said aloud. (We call this “mouthfeel.”) The theme should also lend itself to shorthand treatment in conversation, e.g. “Are you going to the reception for the Imagine More campaign next week?”
7. Be courageous
When faced with a choice between an appropriately audacious theme and a more “vanilla” phrase, we always lobby for the bolder choice. At the end of the day, our clients never regret taking the more courageous route.
8. Remember that your audience is highly targeted
Don’t be discouraged if you Google a candidate and find that another institution has used the phrase before. Unless that institution is in your backyard, it’s highly unlikely that your stakeholders will ever discover the similarity.
9. Don’t crowdsource the final decision
When it comes to themes, everyone has an opinion – but only your core team will know the backstory associated with the creation and evaluation of your theme candidates. Resist the temptation to poll the person on the street for off-the-cuff responses to your finalists.
10. Don’t expect the theme to do everything
We often compare a campaign theme to the prow of ship. It’s the first message many of your stakeholders will encounter, and it needs to be an effective and memorable conversation-starter, but it shouldn't – and can't – tell the whole story.
11. Don’t forget the visuals
Your theme will be made stronger through the creation of a visual identity that brings it to life, and through the use of the custom photography, high-quality design, and compelling copy that will distinguish your public-facing campaign communications.
12. Enjoy the ride
A vivid campaign theme is an invaluable tool for advancing your institution’s strategy, increasing your visibility, and engaging your stakeholders. A great theme offers a singular opportunity to showcase your vision, creativity, and distinctiveness; following these steps will increase your ability to make the most of the process and the final product.