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.
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.
Jump to any section to learn more about capital campaigns:
- Capital Campaign Basics
- Capital Campaign FAQs
- Planning a Capital Campaign
- Capital Campaign Timeline
- Capital Campaign Consultants
- Capital Campaigns in Uncertain Times
Capital Campaigns: The Basics
Successful capital campaigns grow out of a long-range or strategic plan that specifies the need for investments to facilitate the organization’s growth. Typically, organizations use campaigns to raise money for the following assets:
- New buildings
- Building renovations
- Start-up funds for new programs
9 Essential Capital Campaign Practices
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.
- Raise money for specific objectives
- Rely on one-on-one, personal solicitation (in-person or virtually)
- Require a compelling case for support
- Encourage donors to make multi-year pledges
- Rely extensively on large gifts with approximately ten gifts accounting for at least half of the goal
- Engage top level volunteers in asking for gifts
- Raise at last 65% of the money before announcing the goal publicly
- Ask for gifts that are over and above ongoing annual gifts
- Use a strategic order of solicitation, starting with the largest donors and those closest to the organization
What You Need for a Successful Capital Campaign
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 is right for you.
- 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 necessities one-by-one.
Need #1: A High Functioning Board
Is your board active in fundraising right now? Do all of your board members make meaningful contributions? If board members aren’t committed enough to make small annual contributions to your organization, chances are good, they won’t do much to support or help with your capital campaign.
A fully committed board active in fundraising now, is critical to the success of your campaign.
Need #2: Effective and Willing Leadership
Can you identify potential campaign leaders? Are they influential in your community? Do you have a plan to engage and enlist them? The right people chairing your capital campaign can make your success inevitable.
Need #3: Involved Leadership Level Donors
Can you identify a donor who is likely to make a gift of 20% or more of your campaign goal? Can you identify at least 20 other donors who have the ability to make a large gift, the inclination to do so, and are involved in your organization? If so, you’re on track for a successful campaign.
Need #4: A Well-organized Development Office
Have you allocated funds to staff up for your campaign?
Do you have gift acceptance policies and a process for stewarding donors once they’ve given? Is your development staff experienced? These are critical elements for a successful campaign. Make sure your development office is well-organized and effective before beginning your campaign.
Need #5: A Clear Plan and a Compelling Case
Do you know what you are going to raise money for? Is the need urgent? Can you articulate the need in a way that is clear and compelling? If so, you’re on your way to a successful campaign.
Need #6: A Good Image and Reputation
Is your organization a leader in your service area? Do people in your community have confidence in your work? Do you communicate your results to the community? Your campaign will build on the sense of trust you have created in your community.
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.
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.
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.