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Our friend, Gail Perry, and her colleagues have suggested that you should eliminate the public phase of your capital campaign.

Quick Recap: Quiet Phase and Public Phase

Capital campaigns have traditionally been structured to raise the bulk of the money in the “quiet phase”, during which you solicit the largest gifts. And when you’ve raised 60 or 70 or even 80% of your goal that way, you celebrate your success, announce the campaign publicly and raise the remaining money through broad base fundraising strategies.

Gail and her team have taken the stance that campaigns don’t need public phases. They believe that the final public phase of a campaign is too time consuming and costly. Their position is that it is not only possible, but better to ditch the public phase of your campaign and raise all the money from large donors.

Gail knows that this idea is controversial — “almost heresy” as she put it. She has invited responses, and here is mine.

A Short Personal Note

Before I go on, you should know that Gail Perry and I are long-time friends. I have tremendous regard for her work and her smart thinking on most fundraising issues. She’s a wonderful leader in the field and even though I disagree with her about this particular issue, I continue to be a big fan of Gail and her work.

That said, I strongly disagree with her about skipping the public phase of capital campaigns. Let me further explain.

The Public Phase of Your Campaign is More Important Now than Ever

Gail rightly says that you CAN get to goal without a public phase of your campaign. She reminds us that raising money through large gifts is far more cost effective than all broad base fundraising initiatives.

She reminds us that the public phase of a campaign is a huge amount of work, gobbling both staff time and resources. All those events and direct mail and social media and digital media and low-level personal asks take enormous amounts of time and effort.

On the face of it, the public phase is a foolish undertaking when you can just ask for a few more large gifts and reach your campaign goal more easily.

But just because you CAN get to your goal by focusing only on large gifts doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.

Efficiency Isn’t the Only Thing at Stake in a Capital Campaign

We believe that your capital campaign should be about more than the money you raise. You have an opportunity to use your campaign to broaden your base, expand your constituency, and involve everyone in being part of your success.

If you sew up your campaign without inviting your broad constituency to participate, you are perpetuating the old-fashioned and outdated idea that nonprofits are organized by the rich to help the poor.

Today, with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) very much on the minds of many in the nonprofit world, our campaigns must double down on the importance of including people from all social classes in the fundraising process.

Donor centric fundraising at the top levels continues to be important to capital campaigns, but the community centric fundraising of the public phase has become all the more important.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity to Make Your Campaign Inclusive

The public phase of your campaign provides important opportunities to expand your reach and embrace your entire community by inviting them to be part of the success of your campaign.

Don’t miss that opportunity. Invite as many people as possible — from all walks of life — to be part of your success story. Use your public phase to:

  • diversify your fundraising
  • create fundraising equity
  • become more inclusive

We can’t afford to go backwards on the important work that is happening across the country to make our nonprofits more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive.

Remember: Campaign Goals Extend Beyond Raising Money

Skipping the public phase of your campaign hinges its success on people with money. But if you expand the goals of your public phase to embrace your larger, diverse community, you’ll bring a wide range of people into the fundraising conversation and the eventual success of your campaign.

Broader Campaign Goals Are Strengthened by the Public Phase

As you plan your campaign, you should consider campaign goals that are broader than the dollars you want to raise. A well-planned campaign can help you:

  • Strengthen your development processes and practices
  • Increase the number of people who include you in their estate plans
  • Diversify your fundraising
  • Ramp up the awareness of your organization in diverse communities
  • Build donor relationships for future fundraising
  • Engage future potential board members

Yes, your campaign can do all of that. But without a healthy public phase, you’ll be passing up or watering down many of these important opportunities.

5 Key Reasons to Have a Robust Public Phase

A robust public phase of your campaign will have very real practical consequences:

  1. You will be able to involve volunteers who didn’t feel equipped to help during the quiet phase of your campaign.
  2. You can begin to democratize the fundraising process by giving people of color and people of limited means a place at the table.
  3. You can spread ownership of your success far beyond a small group of wealthy people to your stakeholders.
  4. You can celebrate gifts of every size.
  5. You can build the base of your annual support.

During the public phase, you actively invite smaller gifts. In this phase, everyone is important — not just people with lots of resources. And because the public phase starts when the campaign is close to its goal, those small gifts are significant in proportion to the amount of money that has yet to be raised.

The Public Phase Invites the Best of Both Worlds

Capital campaigns provide an opportunity to combine two very powerful fundraising processes — raising money through large gifts from wealthy people with grass roots fundraising that empowers a broad base of donors.

Instead of advocating for dropping the public phase and further narrowing our approach to fundraising, we should remember that money isn’t everything. The best capital campaign practices can raise money in large gifts from wealthy people AND involve people whose smaller gifts are also powerfully important.

Bottom Line: Double Down on the Public Phase of Your Campaign!

When you consider the arguments made throughout this post, I think you’ll agree that it actually makes good sense to double down on the public phase of your campaign.

Use your capital campaign’s public phase to make your organization more equitable and celebrate the contributions of those remarkable small-dollar donors whose gifts represent a true commitment to your cause. The public phase provides the perfect opportunity to make sure all your donors are given the chance to play a role in your campaign. And that’s a great way to reinforce lasting and equitable donor relationships.

11 Comments

  1. Cassandra

    I couldn’t agree with you more! The idea of an “elite” campaign is just one more way to recognize the power differential between the wealthy and the rest of us. Sing your message far and wide!!

    Reply
  2. Liz Marchitto

    Really great points–expanding and diversifying your constituency is a long-term effort (and usually is critical to meeting a nonprofits mission). A public campaign provides a megaphone to do just that.

    Reply
    • Dan Kirsch

      I love the iconoclastic approach here. Even your own group is dabbling in bucking tradition via feasibility study changes. The inverse relationship between effort and outcomes on the final stretch of a campaign should not be ignored. Those efforts could be better focused on boosting annual support, growing sustainer programs, and building legacy giving efforts with long term impact among folks who’d otherwise be asked for the bottom of the pyramid campaign gifts. Go Team Perry!

      Reply
  3. Marianne Pekala

    Andrea/Amy

    I totally agree with you! When orchestrated properly, a capital campaign strengthens the organization! Among many other cited reasons in your reply, having broad community support builds your pipeline for major gifts! Gail’s viewpoint in my opinion is narrow minded and not in the best interest of any nonprofit!

    It definitely reduces Gail’s credibility in my mind!

    Thank you for your prompt and accurate response!

    Reply
  4. Amy Varga

    I couldn’t agree more, Andrea. I would offer an additional reason a public phase is critical. I believe there is essential business case for a strong public phase in addition to all the of reasons you listed. When an organizations grows, its annual operating costs will also grow. The need for more resources to fund the growth a campaign creates from an annual operating perspective is a vital reason to also have a robust public phase. You need more donors giving to grow your annual fundraising post-campaign to sustain your larger programs and facilities. My philosophy is that the success of a campaign should be seen through the lens of raising the money you need for the specific project, but also through the lens that you are able to raise more money annually post-campaign to fund your expanded impact, program and facilities. A strong public phase supports the other half of the “success” metric — and provides a more inclusive, equitable path for more to participate.

    Reply
  5. Timothy J Dougherty

    Another important point is that a lot of time and effort is put into establishing momentum in the “quiet,” phase; so why not make the most of that momentum to broaden your base of support?

    Having no public phase is NOT efficient as you would not be making the most of the opportunity of a campaign. Fundraisers have a dual obligation to raise lots of money in the short term while building for the long term. The public phase may not measure up to the quiet phase in terms of immediate cost per dollar raised, but done right it is an investment in long-term financial sustainability.

    Reply
  6. Trisha S

    I disagree with you. I think Team Gail Perry is correct in taking out the public phase. Let’s be honest, today non-for-profits are looking to save money, cut staff, and triple the work of the staff they do have. The truth is there some have room for the public phase and others do not. It’s not a credibility issue, it’s a matter of fact – deal with the current time’s issue. Simply put, some orgs can use the public phase to their advantage and others need to cut it. Way to go to all! we are changing the world!

    Reply
  7. Andrea Kihlstedt

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I’m happy we are debating this important topic. In truth, there may be some campaigns for which the public phase is less important than others. I suspect there’s more to be said on the subject and perhaps I’ll write more about that in another post. Stay tuned…

    Reply
  8. Bruce Arbit

    I completely agree with the importance of using a campaign to engage a larger number of donors, for all of the reasons you state, Andrea. It need not be a public phase in the traditional sense, but I strongly believe in finding ways to include more people in the philanthropic process.

    I’m particularly concerned about the outsized influence that BIG dollars have in shaping funding priorities. Interestingly, this concern is reinforced in the Giving USA Report for 2021(released earlier this week).

    One trend they report on is the increased proportion of individual giving from megadonors. More to the point, is the decline in households that contribute to charitable causes (down from 66% to50% over the past many years).

    As you rightfully state Andrea, these times we’re living in call for a broader democratization of philanthropy – with representation from more, diverse voices. It’s an issue that goes well beyond charitable giving, to the future of our democracy.

    Thank you for opening this important conversation.

    Reply
  9. Jill M

    I agree 100% with you, Andrea! I can’t even imagine leaving out the members of our community who have given in our public phase. Our project is more than a building; it’s the continuation of a nearly 75-year vision that has created intense love and loyalty for our programs from our participants. Our community members all own a metaphorical piece of that and would be crushed to be left out of contributing to the physical embodiment of their relationship with our organization. Yes, the public phase has been a lot of work, but the strength of the relationships fostered through that work can’t be quantified.

    Reply

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