Capital campaigns are intense fundraising efforts designed to raise a specific amount of money within a defined time period to build an organization’s assets and capacity.
Here you will learn everything you need to know about capital campaigns. This guide has been updated for 2022, so you’re getting our latest strategies in a post-COVID world.
You can use a capital campaign to renovate or build new facilities, fund special projects requiring capital investment, build capacity, and increase endowment. Campaigns invite donors to make special gifts over and above the recurring, annual operating gifts they make to an organization. Most nonprofits conduct a capital campaign every 10 to 15 years.
Quick Links — Use the links below to learn more about capital campaigns:
- Capital Campaign Basics
- Capital Campaign Essentials
- Planning a Capital Campaign
- Capital Campaign Timeline
- Capital Campaign Consultants
- Capital Campaign FAQs
- Capital Campaigns in Uncertain Times
Capital Campaigns: The Modern Approach to Capital Campaigns
If you’ve never planned a capital campaign before, you may find it hard to know where to start. We recommend taking a modern approach — one that’s flexible and can be adapted to your unique needs and goals, but still rooted in sound capital campaign principles.
Successful capital campaigns grow out of a plan developed by the staff and board to move the organization to the next level of operation. Those plans usually require specific investments to increase the organization’s capacity. Typically, capacity building requires investment in some or all of the following assets:
- New buildings
- Building renovations
- Start-up funds for new programs
Capital campaigns can be used to raise money for those investments in capacity. Campaigns are not well suited to raising money to support long-term operations. And while we have included endowment in the list above, it should be included as a secondary item in a capital campaign. Endowment funds are better raised through planned giving than through capital campaigns.
The Key Principles of Capital Campaigns
Capital campaigns raise money in a very specific way that differentiates them from recurring fundraising practices.
Below are nine practices used in successful capital campaigns. When used together, they set up a powerful fundraising process:
1. Campaigns raise money for specific objectives
Unlike much fundraising for annual operations, capital campaigns target specific objectives that will springboard the organization to a new level of operation. Money raised through a campaign does not go to annual operations. Rather, it raises money for shorter-term special investments that will increase the organization’s capacity.
2. Ask for gifts that are over and above ongoing annual gifts
Because campaigns raise money for items that are not part of the annual operating budget, campaigns ask donors to make gifts that are in addition to the gifts they regularly make to support operations.
3. Require a compelling case for support
The case for supporting a capital campaign must be exciting and inspiring. You must be able to articulate a case that highlights how the investment in the campaign will benefit the people being served by your organization. An effective campaign case rises beyond the organization’s needs to describe the lives that will be changed by the organization once the money has been raised.
4. Rely extensively on large gifts
In a capital campaign, you will raise at least half of the goal from approximately ten large gifts. While campaigns will reach out to the entire donor base toward the end of the campaign, the primary focus will be on the top 20-30 donors from whom those top ten gifts are likely to come.
5. Rely on one-on-one, personal solicitation (in-person or virtually)
Because campaigns raise the bulk of the goal from a few large gifts, you will solicit those donors using the most personal approaches. Those large solicitations can be done in-person or using zoom. And they are often combined with personalized email and materials.
6. Engage top level volunteers in asking for gifts
Campaigns involve top level volunteers in planning and implementing the campaign. Some of those top level donors — perhaps a campaign chair or a board chair — are often involved in soliciting the largest gifts.
7. Encourage donors to make multi-year pledges
Campaigns usually offer donors the opportunity to pay their campaign gifts over a period of three years. Occasionally, an organization will enable a donor to extend the payment period.
8. Use a strategic order of solicitation
Campaigns start by soliciting the largest potential donors and those closest to the organization before asking for smaller gifts from the broad base. Because each of those top gifts is critical to the success of the campaign, soliciting those gifts first will clarify what the final campaign goal should be. That final goal can be adjusted up or down depending on the success with the lead gifts.
9. Raise at last 65% of the money before announcing the goal publicly
The official campaign goal will not be announced until more than 65% of the money has been raised. Then, once the top gifts have been tied down, you will adjust the goal and publicly announce how much money will be raised. This strategy ensures success.
Expanding Access to Capital Campaign Support
It is likely that no one in your organization has been responsible for planning and carrying out a capital campaign from soup to nuts. So most organizations engage consultants to help them along the path.
Traditional consulting services usually use consultants on-site for one or two days per month. Those consultants tell the staff and volunteers what to do piece by piece as they are ready. Information is doled out as needed. Some traditional consulting firms place a consultant on-site for weeks or months during the high-activity portion of the campaign to work side by side with the staff. But many consultants do not place staff in situ. They work closely with staff to guide the process going forward but do not do the work of the staff.
The internet and widely adopted video conferencing have provided other ways to get support for your capital campaign. The Capital Campaign Toolkit has developed a new innovative approach to providing capital campaign support that combines a full set of downloadable online resources, virtual expert advising, and small group peer learning. This approach which began prior to Covid-19 has become well-accepted as most people have become comfortable with working virtually. It’s also a model that can more easily accommodate capital campaigns for small nonprofits in ways that the traditional approach often can’t.
Benefits of the New Campaign Support Model
The new approach offered by the Capital Campaign Toolkit has some important improvements over the traditional model.
The online campaign resources are available in their entirety rather than being doled out one piece at a time. That provides an overview and greater understanding of how campaigns are structured and why they work. This open format invites staff members to become partners in the campaign process and encourages them to actively participate in the campaign design thinking.
Virtual meetings are both efficient and effective. A great many campaign volunteers prefer meeting virtually for their committee meetings. They like not having to travel to meetings and the more efficient nature of the meetings themselves.
Campaign experts find that they can work well with their clients virtually. What used to require several hours can now be accomplished with regular, well-organized virtual meetings between campaign advisors and staff.
Today’s internet-based campaign consulting models are less expensive because they require a fraction of the time that traditional consultants have needed. Travel time and expenses are not an issue in the new models. And shorter, more efficient meetings actually enable more contact rather than less.
Finally, development staff conducting capital campaigns often find it a high-stress, isolating process. The peer-learning groups organized for people conducting campaigns provide an opportunity to build a community of people going through similar experiences.
Capital Campaign Essentials
Capital campaigns are not the right fundraising approach for every organization. But if you can check off all six items below, then capital campaign fundraising may be a wonderful opportunity for you to raise significant amounts of money to increase your organization’s capacity.
- A high-functioning board
- Effective and willing volunteer leadership
- Involved leadership level donors
- A well-organized development office
- A clear plan and a compelling case
- A positive image in the community
Let’s go through all six of these essentials one by one.
Everything You’ll Need for Your Campaign to Succeed
A High Functioning Board
A fully committed board active in fundraising now, is critical to the success of your campaign. A simple way to assess this is to answer this question:
Do all of your board members make meaningful contributions?
If your board members aren’t committed enough to make personally meaningful annual contributions to your organization, chances are good, they won’t do much to support or help with your capital campaign.
Effective and Willing Campaign Leadership
Can you identify influential leaders in your community who might we willing to serve in a leadership capacity for your campaign? The right people chairing your capital campaign can make your success inevitable. So you should start identifying and recruiting a strong leadership team very early in your campaign planning process.
Involved Leadership Level Donors
If you can identify a donor who is likely to make a gift of 20% or more of your campaign goal and at least 20 other donors who have the ability and inclination to make a large gift, you are on track for a successful campaign.
A Well-organized Development Office
Your development office will have to be equipped to handle a capital campaign. You will need experienced development staff and effective systems before you begin your campaign. And make sure that you budget adequately for the additional staff you will need for your campaign.
A Clear Plan and a Compelling Case
Every capital campaign is based on a clear and specific set of campaign objectives that outline what you will raise the money for. Those objectives must then become the basis for a clear and compelling case for support.
A Good Image and Reputation
Your organization does not need to be known throughout your community. However, you do need a strong positive reputation in the community you serve. Are you seen as a leader in your service area? Do people in your community have confidence in your work? Your campaign will build on the sense of trust you have created in your community.
How to Plan a Capital Campaign
Capital campaigns are big, complex endeavors, and a good plan is critical to keeping you and your team on track. The planning process is used to engage potential donors, committee members, and volunteers who will help make the campaign a success.
When you take time to plan properly, you…
- Build confidence among donors and volunteers
- Engage powerful people
- Develop a clear plan that others can help you execute
Preparing for your campaign is divided into 2 parts: Pre-planning and Creating the Plan:
Part 1: Pre-Planning — 6 Key Steps
- Develop a working goal that includes all of the expenses/costs related to your campaign.
- Draft an early case for support.
- Create a gift range chart that reflects the number of gifts you need at each level.
- Develop a list of potential lead donors and supporters, including board members.
- Engage prospective lead donors in visioning conversations to get them on board.
- Educate and inform your board members about their role in the campaign, as well as the plans and the strategy.
Part 2: Creating the Plan — 8 Key Steps
- Hire a capital campaign consultant or campaign advisor.
- Create a Planning Committee (review our Ulitimate Guide on Capital Campaign Committees for more).
- Plan and execute a feasibility study, and consider the importance of simultaneously building relationships with your largest donors.
- Adjust and revise your campaign plan based on study feedback.
- Hire additional staff to assist with your campaign.
- Create a budget, timeline, campaign policies, communication strategy, and a donor recognition plan.
- Recruit your campaign chairs.
- Prepare to solicit gifts.
A Capital Campaign Timeline
Capital campaigns generally take between 2 and 3 years. And for large, complex institutions like universities, they can take much longer.
A standard capital campaign will flow over the course of seven phases, which you can see in the campaign timeline graphic below:
Let’s look more closely at each of these seven phases.
Phase 1: Pre-Campaign Planning
During this phase of the campaign, you will determine the objectives of your campaign and settle on a preliminary dollar goal.
Phase 2: Feasibility Study
During the feasibility study, you will test the plans you developed in phase one. Some organizations engage a consultant to interview their top donors to assess their willingness to support a campaign and then develop recommendations about the potential of the campaign.
At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we use a process that guides the organization’s leaders to conduct their own donor interviews and we develop recommendations based on that process. This more cost-effective approach further builds the relationship between the organization and its top donors.
Phase 3: Campaign Planning
After the feasibility study is complete and the board approves a capital campaign, you will assemble a campaign planning committee to review and finalize a campaign plan. The campaign plan includes items like a campaign budget, timetable, policies, donor recognition plan and a communications plan.
Phase 4: Quiet Phase
During this phase of the campaign, you will solicit the largest gifts to the campaign, as well as gifts from board members and other key stakeholders. This phase of the campaign is conducted without publicity or fanfare. Most campaigns raise at least 65% of the campaign goal during this phase of the campaign.
Phase 5: Kick-Off
The kick-off of your campaign is a celebration, a recognition opportunity for campaign leaders and donors, and a press event all rolled into one. By the time of your kick-off, you will already have at least 65% of your campaign goal committed. You will have solicited most if not all of the largest gifts and every one of your board members.
The actual results of those solicitations will give you a realistic assessment of what your final campaign goal should be. You may adjust the goal from the initial number either up or down. But by the time of your kick-off, you should know how much money you will be able to raise. That’s the goal you will announce at your campaign kick-off.
Phase 6: Public Phase
The public phase of your campaign is short, intense and full of energy. That’s the time when you spread your campaign message as widely as possible and invite everyone in your extended community to give. By the end of the public phase, you should reach or exceed your campaign goal.
Phase 7: Post Campaign
While you may imagine that the campaign is over once you reach your fundraising goal, that’s far from the case. You will have many loose ends to tie down, donors and volunteers to thank, reports to prepare, and pledges to bring in. The long-term success of your campaign depends on how well you do this final follow-through.
What to Look for in a Capital Campaign Consultant
Many organizations hire an experienced capital campaign consultant to help them plan and implement their campaign. Because most organizations only have a capital campaign every 10 or 20 years, very few fundraising professionals and board members have deep experience organizing them. And, because the amount of money to be raised is usually quite high, the investment in consultants seems worthwhile.
Good capital campaign consultants have deep experience in the field. Many have worked on dozens of campaigns. They have developed materials and wisdom specific to that kind of fundraising. Typical roles for a campaign consultant include:
- Development assessments
- Feasibility (Campaign Planning) studies
- Campaign planning
- Campaign materials
- Solicitation training
- Board training
- Post-campaign assessments and reports
Traditional consultants often work with an organization throughout the campaign, unveiling the work to be done phase by phase. Some consulting firms actually embed a staff member in the development office for several months of the campaign to serve as a campaign manager. Most consultants, however, don’t manage the campaign but instead provide guidance as required to move the campaign forward.
The Capital Campaign Toolkit uses a different approach — one made possible by the accessibility of online and virtual communication. Through the Toolkit, organizations gain immediate access to all of the tools and materials they will need for their campaign organized in a step-by-step process. They are given the option of working virtually with a very experienced campaign advisor (in a group or individually), to help them move through the campaign process.
This approach enables staff and board members to develop their skills and be more involved in designing and implementing the campaign. For organizations with capable development staff and eager board members, this approach is more effective and affordable.
Capital Campaigns: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do you start a capital campaign?
Most capital campaigns grow out of a strategic planning process that determines what the campaign will raise money for and how much you want to raise. Once you know that, you will be able to develop the case for supporting the campaign and start to work on identifying the people who might be the top donors to your campaign.
Q: Will a capital campaign cannibalize our annual fundraising results?
If you plan your campaign correctly, it will not cannibalize your annual fundraising. In fact, most organizations find that their annual funds increase during the campaign period.
The reason annual funds tend to rise during a campaign is because you’ll be in closer touch with your major donors and your relationships with them will grow. If they support your capital campaign, they are likely to want to continue to support your operations generously.
Q: How much will it cost to conduct a capital campaign?
Capital campaigns are the most cost-effective way of raising money. The budget for your campaign will likely be under 10% of your campaign goal. Although a very small campaign may cost more, the budget for a campaign with a goal $10 million or more is likely to be under 5% of the goal. In addition to being cost effective, your campaign expenses will be included in your campaign goal and not come out of your organization’s operating budget.
Q: What does a capital campaign consultant do?
Because organizations conduct campaigns only every 10 or 20 years, very few nonprofit professionals have had extensive experience planning and implementing campaigns. Therefore, a good campaign consultant brings years of experience working on multiple campaigns, along with an outside perspective to your planning and implementation.
There’s a wide range of services a consultant can provide, ranging from on-site, full-service work, to more minimal support (usually at a premium price).
We’ll look more closely at capital campaign consultants (and alternatives) later in this guide.
Q: Should we conduct a feasibility study before we go ahead with a campaign?
You should conduct a feasibility study to help assess the likelihood of raising the money needed for your project.
Feasibility studies are often completed by a consultant who is retained to interview the campaign’s largest potential donors. Some organizations, however, prefer to speak with their largest donors themselves and engage a campaign expert to help them plan that process. The Capital Campaign Toolkit has been an innovator in this Guided Feasibility Study approach.
Q: What is a case statement?
The case statement is a simple statement of why donors will want to support your campaign. Your case statement describes the benefits your campaign will have on the people you serve.
You will not need a slick, professional case statement to solicit the largest gifts for your campaign. It may seem strange, but most large gifts are solicited early in the campaign, using only a draft case for support in combination with project plans and other material. A campaign brochure isn’t necessary until much later during the public phase of the campaign.
Q: Are large national foundations likely to support our local capital campaign?
Very few, if any, national foundations support local capital campaigns. Don’t waste your time hoping that wealthy foundations or individuals that you have no contact with yet are likely to give large gifts to your campaign. Your largest campaign gifts come from people who already support your mission and your work.
Q: How much money will our board be expected to give to a capital campaign?
The amount of money your board will give to your campaign will depend, of course, on the capacity of your individual board members. Most boards, however, give 20% or more of the campaign goal. Whatever their capacity, every board member should step up and make a personally meaningful gift to your campaign.
Q: What is the quiet phase of a campaign?
The quiet phase of a campaign is the period during which you solicit the largest gifts, as well as gifts from your board members. That phase often extends for many months during which you will raise well over half of your campaign goal. The quite phase ends with a campaign kick-off when you announce the campaign goal publicly. After that kick-off the campaign work broadens as you expand your fundraising throughout your community and raise the amount remaining to reach the goal.
Q: Can we have a capital campaign before we have identified the site for our new building?
It’s very difficult to raise capital before you have identified and gotten control of the site for your project. While you can talk to donors about your plans even as you are searching for the right site, most — though not all — donors hesitate to make significant financial commitments before your plans have taken shape.
Q: When should we identify and enlist our campaign chairs?
The sooner you are able to recruit your campaign chairs, the better. That said, having the right chairs — people who bring a sense of inevitability to the success of your project — is even more important than enlisting them early.
Q: Will we need additional development staff for to help with our capital campaign?
Yes, you will likely need additional staff to help with your campaign. It is unrealistic to think that you can raise millions of dollars without increasing the capacity of your staff.
Campaigns require a lot of work — including time and effort. Some organizations hire additional administrative staff to free up the executive director and the head of development so they can spend more time on the campaign. Others hire a campaign director or manager.
Q: Does a capital campaign always have to raise funds for a new building?
While many capital campaigns are organized to raise funds for building projects, some campaigns focus on other aspects of increasing your organization’s capacity. Other objectives might include new equipment, startup funds for new programs, investment in branding and marketing programs, and testing and program evaluation.
Q: Can small nonprofits conduct a capital campaign?
Small nonprofits can have successful capital campaigns that follow the same principles as campaigns for larger organizations. The goals will probably be smaller, but the power of the campaign model can work just as well whether your organization has an operating budget of $500,000 or $5,000,000.
Fundraising in Uncertain Times: How to Pivot Your Capital Campaign
Unexpected shifts in the market and social crises (like the COVID-19 pandemic) can throw a wrench into even the best laid campaign plans. So it’s important to understand how and when to pivot your capital campaign.
When it comes to fundraising in difficult times, you may feel anxious about the future and worried that your donors will stop giving. However, your job as a development professional is to stay calm and keep right on asking your donors to help support your organization.
Stay in Touch with Your Donors
The more uncertain the times, the more closely you should stay in touch with your donors. In particular, uncertain times provide opportunities to reach out to your largest donors and ask their advice.
Donors will respond to financial uncertainties in different ways. Some will hunker down and reduce their giving. Others will step up because of the crisis at hand. But just about all of them will be willing — even happy — to tell you about how they are responding to the situation.
Use the uncertain times to build even stronger relationships with your donors by staying in touch with them, sharing the ways in which your organization is carrying out its mission, and finding out how the crisis is affecting them.
Continue Raising Money
While it may feel inappropriate during a crisis (particularly during COVID-19), don’t hesitate to ask donors for help. Some donors may be even more inclined to make a commitment to your campaign just to be sure that it doesn’t come to a halt. Those donors understand that your campaign is important and that the projects and programs it will fund will continue to be important long after the crisis has passed.
Celebrate your donors’ generosity and sympathize when they have to trim their philanthropy for the time being. You and your donors are in this crisis together. The way in which you work with them will shape your organization’s future for years to come.
Our Free eBook Offers More Help
For more information and stories about raising money during uncertain times, download our free e-book that offers stories and tips and practical advice about how to make the most of crisis to strengthen your fundraising:
If you’re considering a capital campaign, schedule a complimentary strategy session to discuss your campaign goals with one of our experts. We’ll help you plot a path forward and determine whether the Capital Campaign Toolkit would be a good fit for your campaign.