I recently had a call with an Executive Director whose campaign was failing. Her performing arts center had completed a feasibility study with an experienced and reputable campaign firm, which had recommended proceeding with a campaign goal of $14M.

In the first two years (pre-Covid) they raised less than $3M — a small fraction of what they needed to reach their goal.

On our call, the Executive Director talked, and talked, and talked for 20 minutes straight, telling me why she was cut out for the job (and how she was doing a good job). I tried to interject twice with questions, but she literally kept talking right over me.

Without knowing any other details, I have a pretty good idea why she hasn’t been able to raise the money (see number 4 below).

4 Essential Traits for Leading a Capital Campaign

There are a number of skills, traits, and characteristics leaders need to succeed. Many can be improved with practice and coaching. Most leaders don’t emerge from the womb as natural born leaders. They work at their craft and improve over time with the help of experience, mentors, and coaching.

Here are four key leadership traits that are absolutely necessary for conducting a successful campaign.

1. Passion

I hope this goes without saying. Leaders must have a genuine and authentic passion for the mission and the organization they are working for. If you don’t truly believe in the work you are doing, it’s probably time to find some other work to do. This becomes even more true during a capital campaign, where you have to convey your vision for an improved future to donors and supporters.

2. Courage

There are points in every leader’s journey where courage will likely be required. And a capital campaign is a great example of a time when you need courage. It takes a lot of courage to announce that you intend to raise more (often, many times more) than you’ve ever raised before. And, it takes courage to ask people for more than they’ve ever given before.

The good news is that people often become more courageous over time. As you gain experience and confidence in your abilities, you will be more courageous in the decisions you make.

Another example of when a nonprofit leader needs courage is during times when you may need to stand up to a board member or donor. If you’ve ever had to “fire” a board member or tell a donor you can’t accept their gift, you know what I mean.

3. Commitment

This differs from passion in that commitment is about duration.

Commitment means seeing the project though, even when times get tough (which they invariably will when it comes to fundraising and nonprofit management). A leader needs to stay committed to the vision, even when stumbling blocks get thrown in the way.

4. Curiosity

I almost called this one “listening,” but curiosity makes more sense in terms of leadership traits.

Curiosity means you’re interested in what others think and say. The good news is that you can improve your ability to ask thoughtful questions and focus on others through practice and awareness building.

Curiosity and good listening skills are critical to fundraising success. If you aren’t truly curious about your donors, it’s unlikely you’ll ever learn what would inspire big gifts. Use open ended questions to learn about your donors. For example:

  • What do you love most about our organization?
  • What would encourage you to consider giving more?
  • What sort of change you would like to see in the world?

When having conversations with donors, you should be doing about 70% listening. If you find yourself talking half the time or more, you know you’re not being curious enough.

Improving Your Leadership Skills

Of course, there are many more traits of great leaders — including honesty, compassion, resilient, etc. The list goes on and on.

Leadership skills will make a real difference between success and failure in your campaign. So if you don’t have a leader who is passionate, courageous, committed, and curious, it might not be the best time to embark on a campaign.

But, you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. With good coaching, every leader can improve — we’ve helped many ED’s and DD’s over the years. If coaching is of interest to you, our Executive Fundraising Coaching might be an ideal solution to help you better lead any type of fundraising campaign.


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