Gearing Up for a Capital Campaign: What You Need to Know Before You Launch

Point A to Point B

This post first appeared in Philanthropy Front and Center Washington D.C.

Done right, a capital campaign can both expand your nonprofit’s mission in bold ways and build the major donor pool for your annual fund.

Done wrong, it can shrivel resources, morale and dreams.

With proper preparation—and usually outside help—your nonprofit can create momentum to head toward success.

“A capital campaign is a great tool to get what you need in order to fulfill your mission,” says Matthew Alcide, development director of Inscape Publico, a nonprofit architecture firm in Washington, DC, that serves nonprofits in the U.S. and internationally.

He spoke at "Gearing Up for a Capital Campaign: What You Need to Know Before You Launch", a program held last month at Foundation Center in Washington, DC. Joining Matthew on the panel were Gregory Kearley, Inscape Publico’s executive director, and Nicole Majestic, executive director of CCS, a nonprofit consulting firm in the area.

The program began with the basics, defining a capital campaign as a “temporary fundraising initiative to raise significant funds for a special project, above and beyond typical development operations.”

Alcide stressed that nonprofits need to make sure a capital campaign doesn’t drain donations from one pot to another. “You don’t want to start this initiative,” he said, “and forget about other needs.”

The panelists shared the following tips with attendees:

There are steps you can take right away.

While you explore a capital campaign, make sure your nonprofit is ready to launch one. Do you have a strategic plan? Financial stability? An experienced leader?  Is staff ready to take on the extra workload? Will your board be invested in the idea and ready to lead the way?

Is your donor database thorough and up-to-date? Are you gaining or losing donors? How many repeat donors do you have? Are they giving more than before? Who are your major donors?

Consultants can make sure your campaign is built to last.

Some things are best left to the pros. A feasibility study is one of them. While hiring outsiders will cost money to make money (fees vary but run about 5% to 10% of the campaign total), consultants can forecast a realistic target for an idea that generates excitement—a crucial element, since campaigns can last three to five years.

Consultants can work on tight timelines and gather objective views from stakeholders. Unless there is one pressing need, they might test several concepts.

Raise money quietly at first.

Campaigns begin with a “quiet phase,” which builds momentum by lining up 50% to 75% of the campaign goal. Most money will come from major gifts; other sources might include bank loans and government grants.

The public phase to raise the remainder typically draws many smaller gifts. Individuals like to feel like they are the ones who will get you to your goal.

Make sure you collect pledges and maintain the momentum for future giving.

Make sure to track donations. Three recommended donor databases include Salesforce, Donor Perfect and Raiser’s Edge. And, as always, say thank you and stay in touch to keep those donations coming in.

For additional material on capital campaigns, search Foundation Center’s bibliographic database, the Catalog of Nonprofit Literature, using “capital campaigns” in the subject field.

Barbara Cornell

BARBARA CORNELL is a volunteer at the Foundation Center in Washington, DC. She has volunteered at nonprofits in the U.S., Portugal, Italy and Cambodia. Barbara worked for Congressional Quarterly before becoming a staff reporter for daily newspapers. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the Kansas City (Mo.) Star and El Nuevo Dia in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has freelanced for Reuters, Time Magazine and other publications.