Let me tell you a dirty little secret!

Have you ever wondered how capital campaign consultants figure out how much money your organization can raise for your campaign?

Do you ever wonder if their assessments are wrong?

Could Campaign Consultant’s be Wrong?

For many years, I was a capital campaign consultant. I did dozens of feasibility studies over that time for organizations of all different types. And in every one of those studies, as I sat down to write the report, I had to decide how much money I was going to indicate that client could raise.

It was a daunting task.

Every time, I labored mightily to determine the right amount. I would collate the notes from all my interviews. I’d make a list of gift ranges that people had told me they would consider for that campaign. I’d list the organization’s strengths and weakness that people had shared with me.

My favorite part of the process was creating a sort of word-clouds that clustered the specific words people used to describe the organization and their feelings about it.

Where I could, I would gather information about the most prominent donors to factor in other gifts they had given to similar size campaigns.

A Stab in the Dark at Your Campaign’s Potential

No matter how I sliced and diced the numbers and what people had told me in my interviews, it always felt like a stab in the dark. A well-informed stab in the dark, but a stab in the dark nonetheless.

Yes, that’s the “dirty little secret.”

Even very good and experienced capital campaign consultants are taking a stab in the dark when they assess how much money you can raise!

I often felt queasy about the goals I recommended. Were they too high or too low? I knew that the number I suggested would shape the organization’s campaign — and in some cases their future — and it made me uncomfortable.

So why was I uncomfortable?

I was uncomfortable and unsure of my assessments for a number of key reasons.

  • Often the organizations weren’t able to obtain interviews for me with their largest donors. Sometimes this was true because of scheduling problems. Other times the largest donors simply didn’t want to speak with an outside consultant.
  • I was seldom confident in the organization’s ability to identify their top donors. They did their best, but that often wasn’t good enough.
  • I believed (and still do) that donors are often unlikely to tell a consultant what they are really likely to give to a campaign.
  • In many cases the donor had only limited prior knowledge of the project I was discussing with them.
  • And finally, my small sampling of donors, while it did tell me something about how donors saw the organization, it didn’t tell me everything I would need to know about broader base of donors.

My Biggest Mistake

As I concluded my campaign consulting business, I came to believe that the biggest error I had made was not encouraging the organizations I worked with to have the courage to try for a bigger goal. More often than not, I opted for safe assessments.

Now, in the later years of my career with more wisdom and hindsight, I would advise them differently. I would suggest they have the courage to set an aspirational goal — one that would make an outsized difference in the impact they have.

I’d encourage them to think big and be willing to scale back if necessary. I’d implore them to inspire their donors with their big, exciting goals and not worry quite so much about being safe.

When You Select a Consultant for Your Feasibility Study…

If you’re planning to do a feasibility study to evaluate your campaign goal, be sure to ask the candidates you are considering to be your consultant how they determine the goal they will recommend for you.

Ask them to evaluate their risk tolerance and tell you how safe or ambitious the goals they suggest are likely to be.

Every capital campaign consultant is different. Some are more conservative and others are more aggressive. Take the time to probe a bit so that you know which type you’re getting.

In other words, know better BEFORE you hire your capital campaign consultant. At its heart, that’s what our Capital Campaign Toolkit is all about.


  1. Cassandra George Ramos

    Wonderful article! And coming at just the right time. I’m working on a planning study for a local performing arts school. Great people, great programs. Interviewees are excited about the school, and the donors I’ve spoken to are passionate supporters.

    The interviews have revealed two basic camps: older more conservative donors who want to enable the school to keep doing what it’s doing and younger more entrepreneurial folks who are looking for a big, exciting, community changing idea. And they think the school can do it.

    I’m about half-way through the interviews, so I hesitate to be too confident about suggesting a goal. But I’m definitely leaning towards a larger goal with an exciting, visionary project that does more than just shore up the school’s current path.

    Maybe I’m just a sucker for Goethe, (Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.) but I also believe that without that vision and energy a campaign will struggle, functioning more from its head than its heart.

    • Andrea

      Thanks for this wonderful comment, Cassandra. I love being reminded of Goethe’s wisdom!

  2. Miriam Pereira

    Thank you for sharing. It’s a timely blog post. Our board met last week. What was supposed to be a short discussion about our working goal became a long conversation because they don’t understand the numbers. I think that some board members believe the goal is too high. They’re probably only thinking in terms of a new building and not what it takes to maintain it, how the campaign will affect our annual fund and programs, etc.


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