Are You Ready for a Capital Campaign?

Click on the photo to reach a very helpful planning document (pdf) from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University.

This post was one of my first (summer, 2011). I have updated it, and it has become one of my most-visited articles.

After years of working with nonprofit organizations on “major gift campaigns” to build buildings, to secure endowments, and to fund other significant projects with hefty (five to seven-figure budgets), I have learned that if nonprofit organizations are able to address a few key questions prior to embarking upon a major gift campaign, they will be more likely to succeed.

Yes, it is true I have seen some nonprofits tackle a major gift fundraising effort after being told by respected professional advisors they have absolutely no chance of succeeding. But, in fact, some have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. As President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1854) once said,

“The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”

More often than not, however, a little advance consideration about where your organization stands vis-a-vis a potential major gift effort will save you time, money and potentially, embarrassment.

Ted Grossnickle formulated a list of basic questions your organization should ask before considering a major gift campaign. I have added comments of my own.

Originally posted on the website of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Ted’s article was taken down. But happily, I captured the information beforehand.

1. Your nonprofit is needed. The organization is actively making a difference in the community and can make an even bigger impact in the future.

2. Your nonprofit is known and respected. The community knows about your organization, and when you recruit board members, they consider it an honor to be asked.

Note: do not assume this means your nonprofit must have been in existence for a long, long time.

3. Your nonprofit is focused and healthy. The organization has a practical strategic plan that fits with a capital campaign. The organization is financially healthy, meaning it has a balanced budget, access to credit, and financial and audit records that are in order.

4. You have a base for fundraising. A strong corps of annual donors exists, and you have had success with increasing gifting levels by active stewardship.

Your Board should be “on board” for a major gift campaign to succeed.

5. Your board of directors is ready. Each member of the board makes an annual gift to the organization, and many have made additional special or extra gifts. Board members understand what a campaign would require in terms of their own individual and collective financial support and time. The board is willing to help cultivate and solicit gifts, and each member has helped identify one or two donors that can make a gift for the campaign. The board has put a development committee in place, and board champions are advocating for fundraising.

6. The staff leadership is ready. The CEO is respected by staff, board, donors, clients and the larger community, and willing to commit time to working on the campaign. The organization either has a full-time development director or has addressed which staff member will be responsible for the campaign. The CEO and board have secured campaign counsel, or addressed why they are not hiring counsel.

In regard to the last sentence, “campaign counsel” can also mean hiring an experienced capital campaign professional on staff for the duration of the campaign. I have served in this capacity on several occasions – and sometimes I have found outside counsel to be a poor investment. Consider this carefully.

7. You’ve done your homework. The organization knows what it needs to raise funds for, can articulate the outcomes and has a written and refined case for support. A feasibility study has been conducted to test the case before going forward with a campaign, and you’ve set a realistic campaign goal.

A personal caveat, if and when you conduct a feasibility study, be sure the people doing it are a good fit and that they communicate comfortably and well with your donors and potential donors. See additional discussion about feasibility studies at the conclusion of this page.

8. You can effectively tell your story. You have a written plan to communicate your campaign and its key messages. Staff and board members can tell the organization’s story and communicate why a campaign is necessary.

I would add to this, your plan should make use of multiple channels of communication, including social media. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to support the “public portion” of a major gift campaign – which traditionally falls at the conclusion of the effort – than by using social media. You might also consider developing and using specially-tailored “apps,” both for use by “insiders” during your major gift campaign, and for the general public as the campaign moves into its final phase.

What would I do? If my team were comfortable with the idea, I would create a private Facebook “group” for campaign insiders to communicate throughout the life of the effort, and perhaps beyond for donor and volunteer “alumni.” I also believe systems like Microsoft Office 365 could be tailored specifically for use during major gift campaigns (Office 365 includes a closed loop for email communications, calendaring meetings and the like).

9. You can spend money to raise money. The organization has identified a budget for a campaign and has allocated funding for it. The budget includes funds for donor recognition and communication, training and materials, counsel and equipment. It also has a provision for travel and meals.

This is an excellent consideration. On a personal note, I am asked fairly often if I will work on a “percentage basis,” which is considered unethical according to industry best practices. The reason behind these requests is often that the nonprofit isn’t sure it will succeed with a major gift campaign, and it wants to put the burden of success or failure on the fundraising professional hired to do the job. Not good. Don’t go there, smiles.

And, most importantly,

10. Your campaign is important, exciting and will make a difference! Your board and staff are excited about what this campaign can mean. You can create important changes in people’s lives if you succeed in raising the funds.

In closing, I would like to share another article on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog you may find helpful, “Taking a Step Back Will Lead You Forward.” This is the text of my presentation on March 29, 2018 to ADRP: Association of Donor Relations Professionals. It provides specific information about my experiences, and how I was able to overcome hurdles and fundraise with great success!

Additional Resources

  • Claire Axelrad writes for Fundraising Success, “R.I.P. Donor Pyramid?” (May, 2014). I enjoyed this quote, “Why do we always think of donors with pyramids? The pyramids were built in Egypt. On the backs of slaves. It took a very, very long time. The cost, in human terms, was untenable and unsustainable. That’s why you don’t see many pyramids being built these days. Except in nonprofits, where building the donor pyramid is still the holy grail.” Maybe not for long, though.
  • You might enjoy Tom Watson’s article for Forbes, “Learning to Listen: Where Organized Causes Really Begin” (May 23, 2014). The kind of listening Tom describes is what those organizing major gift campaigns need to consider. In the section below, you will find advice related to this. In brief, I have found those closest to the organization are best able to conduct meaningful conversations along these lines.

Capital Campaign Alternatives

Admittedly, many nonprofits – including some of the more innovative and younger ones – are balking at traditional major gift campaigns as outlined above. They are considering new alternatives like crowdfunding. In truth, many of the fundamental principles of tried-and-true major gift campaigns apply also to crowdfunding! Follow this link to a page of resources that might be helpful to you.



One thought on “Are You Ready for a Capital Campaign?

  1. Pat Martin February 14, 2014 / 2:25 pm

    Amen sister! I can’t agree with you more about the classic feasibility study. Also, major philanthropists are pretty sophisticated. It didn’t take them long to figure out the “game” of the feasibility study. I think we, as consultants, need a new model – I think the interview part is great and that asking a range of current and potential stakeholders is a great idea. But, we need to do it more quickly and cheaply – and we need to provide a range of information that is truly useful to the organization – even if they don’t launch a whole campaign. I love your blog and all the comments. The only thing I would add is – sometimes there is a way to get to your capital needs without the pressure of a giant capital campaign.


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