Identifying the Common Mistakes in Project Planning

Identifying the Common Mistakes in Project Planning

“You never have to recover from a good start.” My mentor in capital campaigns, Dave Sutherland, drilled that statement into our heads on the importance of planning out a campaign. 99% of campaign mistakes could have been avoided during the planning phase of the campaign. A big part of being a campaign consultant was helping church leaders identify and avoid mistakes ahead of time, giving them a better chance of successfully raising the dollars they needed to fund the dream God had given them. I’m going to do that for you.

I’m continuing my series of free capital campaign advice called Giving Away the Farm. In this post, I delve into the topic of Identifying the Common Mistakes in Project Planning, with the aim of equipping you to avoid these pitfalls. Avoiding pitfalls gets us off to a good start and keeps you out of the ditch from start to finish!

Let’s start by understanding the basics of project planning. There are three levels of project development.

  1. The Project Itself—Whatever you are raising over and above dollars for. This includes everything from permitting to the final walkthrough for the Certificate of Occupancy.
  2. Financing—Who will loan you the money to do what you have in your heart?
  3. Funding—Raising the funds to pay for the financing.

Churches in project development often make critical errors early on, which can significantly hinder their fundraising efforts. I’ll come back to these three levels later in the post.

In my over twenty-five years of working in the stewardship industry, I have found that many churches inadvertently set their capital campaigns up for failure long before the launch of the campaign. This is a recurring issue I’ve observed in my work with the top 100 churches and those running 100 in attendance. Let’s avoid these mistakes.

There are seven common mistakes churches make at the start of project planning. When it comes to developing a project successfully, again, most churches make mistakes far in advance of the start of the project. In this post, I want to share with you the top seven I have seen so that you can learn from them and avoid them. Here are my top seven…

1. The first, and perhaps the most crucial, mistake is not planning far enough in advance. Many churches, caught up in the ‘tyranny of the urgent,’ fail to start the planning process early enough. However, I firmly believe that you can never start soon enough. Long-range planning is not twelve months out. For a project, it is about thirty-six to twenty-four months at least. That is the planning timeline, not the project development timeline! So, it might well be later than you think. Start planning now to avoid this common pitfall. This period is also a crucial time for planting seeds for future commitments.

2. The complexity of project development is often underestimated. This is why the first mistake is so common. Many churches, in their enthusiasm, fail to fully understand the intricacies involved. For instance, I once worked with a client who spent a decade navigating the city’s approval process for their project. There are numerous potential pitfalls that can significantly delay or even derail your project. It’s far more complex than you might think. This is another reason why early planning is crucial. Stay informed, stay prepared!

3. Overselling the potential to be raised. I talked to a church once that told the congregation they could raise $4 million dollars. This was two times their operating budget. In their last campaign three years ago, they did not raise their budget one time. They minister in a state still ravished by the economy, with declining membership and offerings. Why in the world would they “sell” the idea that they could raise that much? They are trying to do just that, “sell” the congregation with overly optimistic projections so that the members would vote for the project. I’ll write more on this in a few weeks.

4. Underselling the cost. Trust me, it will take you longer than you think and cost you more than you want. If an architect is telling you it “might” cost around $5 to $7.5 million, I would use the high number, not the low number. You might want to avoid sticker shock with your congregation, but if the final tab is over what you promised, you lose change out of your pocket with your members. The next time you make a decision, they will remember how you missed it on the last decision.

5. Sequential thinking. I once asked a potential client, “Have you talked to the bank yet?” The reply back was, “How can we talk to the bank when we don’t have the final estimate from the architect?” I replied, “Do you at least have an estimated range of cost?” The answer was yes. I again pressed the need to find out if the range of cost was something they could successfully acquire from banks. If your own bank slams the door on you, it doesn’t mean you won’t find financing, but it won’t be easy. The problem that many churches have is that they view project development as happening sequentially. Project development is like playing chess on three levels. Remember, those three levels are:

1.    The Project – Whatever you are raising over and above dollars for.
2.    Financing – The lending institution financing the project.
3.    Funding – The plan for paying for it all.

You must keep your eye on all three levels simultaneously and in sequence. Each has its own timeline that can and does impact one another. The more complex the nature of the project, the more skill is required for successful planning.

6. Going cheap. Remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for?” The same is true for project development. I often hear churches brag that they were going to run their own stewardship campaign. Then, I watch them make huge mistakes and raise far less than they would have with a professional firm. Large and complex projects that need to raise more than three times your annual operating budget, in my experience, require additional help. The fee you pay will be more than made up by the funds you raise. I’m giving away basic advice but sometimes you need an experienced partner helping you.

7. Not giving enough time before the launch of the campaign. I always say you can’t get an idea on a Saturday night and implement it on Sunday morning. This is especially true for raising over and above dollars. I have found that the larger the amount you need to raise, the longer you will need to give to the process. I believe you need to start your planning twelve to twenty-four months ahead of the launch of your campaign.

Making any of the above mistakes could derail your project and put you in the ditch. When your car goes into a ditch, it does not mean you will never get where you are going. It does mean, however, that it will take you longer and cost you more. My goal is to help you stay on the paved road so that you get there faster with a smoother ride. Avoid these mistakes, and you might even enjoy the ride!

Mark Brooks – The Stewardship Coach, the leading online giving processor in America, sponsors my writing. Find out more about their services at

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