Campaign Basics

volunteer hands raised

A capital campaign is designed to successfully reach a pre-determined financial goal in order to fund a defined initiative or set of initiatives in a set period of time; for example, build or renovate a facility, introduce or expand a major new program, or grow the endowment. Capital campaigns succeed when they have the right leadership, a compelling Case for Support, and a pool of prospective donors who have the capacity to be generous if appropriately motivated.
Plan A Advisors’ six-part series, Campaign Basics, is a primer for any nonprofit contemplating a capital campaign.


Campaign Strategy

Successful capital campaigns are 50% strategy and 50% prospects. Here’s what falls into the “strategy” category:
Volunteer Leadership. Campaigns may be driven by fundraising professionals, but they depend on volunteer leaders (the Campaign Committee) to chair, support, and solicit. An effective Campaign Committee includes members who are generous, connected, and fearless. They make gifts that are personally meaningful, they engage in identifying and cultivating prospects, and they are willing to play an active role in soliciting gifts. (The best gifts often come when prospects are solicited by a peer who can say: “I’ve made a commitment; I ask you to join me.”)
Case for Support. Capital campaigns are built on a persuasive argument or “case” that gives each prospect a compelling reason to make a gift and conveys a sense of urgency. Wealthy prospects have many calls on their largesse, so a campaign’s Case for Support needs to convince them to respond generously and it needs to give them a good reason to respond now.
Campaign Design. Campaign gifts, all together, almost always follow a pyramid-like pattern with a small number of major gifts responsible for 50% or more of a campaign’s overall goal. To “design” a campaign, first design the pyramid (or “Gift Table”) by determining how many gifts are needed at each level (i.e., $100,000, $50,000, 25,000…). Then do the research to make sure you have multiple prospects to approach for each major gift you need. (For more on Campaign Design and constructing a Gift Table, see the fifth eblast in this series.)


Campaign Prospects

Successful capital campaigns are 50% strategy and 50% prospects. Here’s what falls into the “prospects” category.
Qualified.Most gifts to a capital campaign will come from donors already known to your nonprofit or known to someone affiliated with it. A prospect list should include prospective donors who are capable of and likely to give if appropriately motivated and solicited. Since major gifts (those that fill the top of the “pyramid”) can only come from prospects who have the means or financial wherewithal to make them – and the motivation to do so – your list can be “qualified” using a simple ranking scale for Affinity and Capacity so you can figure out who is most likely to respond most generously to a solicitation.
Affinity. Rate each campaign prospect on a simple 1-to-4 scale, giving the higher score to individuals and families who are closest to your nonprofit: board members, active volunteers, and long-time supporters are likely to be given the highest affinity rating. These prospects need less cultivation before being solicited for a gift. They will be among your first “asks.”
Include staff in the process of creating volunteer position descriptions; they’ll know best how volunteers can be of the greatest value to their own areas of responsibility. Ensure that position descriptions are accurate, so volunteers have realistic job expectations and don’t feel exploited. Think about volunteer roles that may appeal to current and prospective donors; what experiences might interest them and what resources might they bring to your nonprofit?
Capacity. Rate each campaign prospect on a simple 1-to-4 scale, giving the higher score to individuals and families who have the capacity to be generous when asked. High ratings go to those who have accumulated significant personal or familial wealth that they can deploy to make a gift; perhaps they have a family foundation on which to draw. Keep in mind that significant annual earnings alone (rather than accumulated wealth) may not lead to generosity because big earners also often have expensive lifestyles.
Foundations and Corporations. In contrast to family foundations, professionally run foundations often explicitly state that they don’t make gifts to capital campaigns. Corporate funders are also rarely open to supporting capital campaigns unless the corporate CEO or other members of the “C-suite” are directly involved in the cause. Make sure you qualify any foundation or corporation you add to your prospect list by double-checking their policy on capital campaign grants and gifts.


Feasibility Studies

A Feasibility Study is a form of market research designed to test whether a set of prospective donors is likely to respond by making a gift, if asked, and at what level. A Feasibility Study aids a nonprofit in deciding whether to initiate a fundraising campaign, determines how much money to seek, and informs campaign strategy: volunteer leadership, Case for Support, and campaign design.
Feasibility Testing. A Feasibility Study is a set of confidential interviews with prospective donors that seeks their reaction to a draft Case for Support, tests the campaign’s likely goal, determines the likelihood the prospect will be forthcoming with a gift, and asks what level of gift they’re inclined to make. A consultant conducts the study, which can take 4-6 months. Interview responses are aggregated and analyzed to project the likely success of a proposed campaign.
Study Findings. A Feasibility Study can be revelatory. Feedback on the Case for Support can lead to revisions that make it more compelling. A Feasibility Study can help shape architectural or program plans based on prospective donors’ feedback. A Feasibility Study helps identify individuals who might serve on the Campaign Committee. A Feasibility Study can reveal donors’ overarching sentiments about a nonprofit which can help it rethink its marketing, communications, and donor stewardship. A Feasibility Study can be used to build the prospect list since each conversation asks: Who else do you know who might find this project of interest?


Build Your Case

A Case for Support is a campaign’s core document. It lays out the rationale or “argument” for the campaign and provides the boilerplate content you’ll need for campaign communications of all types. Consider using the rubric of a Theory of Change to develop your Case for Support which should include the following elements:
Problem Statement. What problem or challenge will the campaign address? Why does this need to be addressed now? Use data to support your claims.
Resources. What resources or “inputs” will you bring to address the problem or challenge? These “inputs” can include funding, staffing, volunteers, expertise, relationships, facilities, technology, curricula, etc. Be sure to highlight resources that you are uniquely able to offer.
Strategy. What strategy will you use to address the problem or challenge? You might plan to construct a new facility; introduce a new program or expand an existing one; or develop a special fund or endowment. Be sure to highlight any proposed strategy that is unique to your nonprofit.
Audiences. What is the audience or population that your strategy is designed to reach, serve, or engage? Be specific about numbers and about your ability to reach that particular audience or population.
Outputs and Outcomes. Detail the “outputs” that the campaign will produce such as the completion of a new building, the introduction of a new program, or an increase to the endowment. Then enumerate the “outcomes” that the campaign will make possible focused on its measurable impact on the audience or population you serve. What will be different or better once that new building is completed, the new program is introduced, or the endowment made larger?


Build Your List

Successful campaigns need good solicitors doing the “asking.” Solicitors need good prospects to be asked. And everyone needs a roadmap with clarity around what is, and is not, possible.
Gift Table. Your Gift Table (or “pyramid”) helps determine how many gifts you need to secure as well as their relative size. A $1 million campaign can be almost impossible to achieve if it is to be composed largely of very small gifts. Big gifts drive campaigns. The Gift Table for a successful $1 million campaign might strive to secure one gift of $250,000, two gifts of $100,000, four gifts of $50,000, eight gifts of $25,000, and so on. For each gift needed on the Gift Table, you’ll need to identify at least three prospects with the capacity to make that gift – if they are motivated and moved to do so.
Prospect Matching. Match your Gift Table to your prospect list from the top down. Make sure you have at least three prospects for every major gift needed at each level. If you don’t, then redraw the Gift Table to match your actual prospect list. You may need more gifts at more modest levels if you don’t have enough prospects to make very large gifts. Keep in mind: more gifts mean more prospects. If your largest potential gift for a $1 million campaign is $100,000 rather than $250,000, you’ll need many more prospects.
List Size. Most campaigns need to start with hundreds of names of individuals or families capable of making a generous gift. How big is “generous”? Generosity can mean $1000+ for a very small campaign; $10,000+ for a mid-size campaign; or $50k+ for a large campaign. Build your list in a format that is easy to manage and manipulate using your fundraising software, or use an Excel or Google spreadsheet to capture and manage campaign prospect names and relevant information.
List Building. Use every source available to you to identify prospects for your campaign prospect list: your current donor and/or member roster; individuals who volunteer for your nonprofit; people known to members of your board who might have a passion for your cause; and donors to similar nonprofits.
Wealth Screening. Learn more about your prospects with a wealth screening. Offered by some fundraising software providers, and by others as a stand-alone service, a wealth screening combs publicly available data to tell you something about the capacity (and much more) of each name on your list so you can better match prospects to the Gift Table, and determine what to ask for.


Essential Pillars

Successful campaigns have the infrastructure in place to propel the fundraising process and provide the support that encourages a Campaign Committee to do its best work.
Recognition. In any campaign, a handful of donors give anonymously. The vast majority appreciate recognition commensurate with their contribution. Events that acknowledge donors are important. Publicity and published lists are more important. Compelling naming opportunities are most important. Naming a place, a program, or a person’s role motivates most donors to give more generously than they otherwise would. Don’t start a campaign without a long list of naming opportunities.
Policies and Training. The many policies and practices that a campaign needs in order to operate should be contained in a Campaign Manual. Sample correspondence, a copy of the Case for Support, procedures around gift acceptance…all should be codified and readily available to staff and volunteers. Orientation and solicitation training helps committee members feel comfortable asking for money.
Staffing and Consultant Support. Campaigns add a lot to the annual rhythm of any nonprofit’s workload. A Campaign Director is empowered to run the campaign day-to-day and make certain decisions unilaterally. A Campaign Associate processes, records, and acknowledges gifts; sends pledge payment reminders and collects payments; maintains campaign data and produces reports; supports the work of staff volunteers doing solicitations. A Campaign Consultant can help drive and facilitate the entire campaign process and provide expert counsel from experience.