Major donors fuel capital campaigns. And when it comes to capital campaigns, three questions always pop up, again and again:

  • Will our capital campaign cannibalize our annual fundraising?
  • Should we include our annual fundraising in our capital campaign?
  • What should we ask our major donors for between campaigns?

Turns out the answers to these three questions are related in wonderful ways. The answers aren’t super simple. But sometimes it’s worth digging in a bit deeper to understand how things really work.

So, stick with me here — it’s story time.

A Story to Help You Think Like a Major Donor

To sort out these questions, you’ll find it helpful to think like a major donor. That is, someone who can make regular gifts from her checkbook but who also has other assets to give from. It will help to understand all of this if we tell you the story of an imaginary donor.

Meet Isabel and John

Isabel is 72 years old. She’s married to John (76) and has been for 40+ years — a well-oiled partnership. They have two grown children and three school-age grandchildren.

Isabel and John maintain their own checking accounts. Together they have joint checking and savings accounts. Each has a retirement account. And they have a stock portfolio which John oversees.

Isabel and John are both generous donors. For gifts of under $1,000 or so, they make gifts without consulting one another. But for larger gifts, they usually make joint decisions, or at least consult one another.

John often makes annual gifts to his alma mater, a local youth development organization, and his church. Isabel directs most of her annual giving to the arts organizations she has been involved with and some to social justice and women’s health organizations.

Their regular giving, when added up together, usually amounts to around $20,000/year.

You are the Development Director for the Stonington Art Center

Now imagine that you’re the development director at the art center where Isabel has taken watercolor classes for years. She has served on the board and is now on the steering committee for a capital campaign to build a new home for the art center.

Every year, Isabel gives $1,000 to the art center in December. The check always comes from Isabel’s checking account. Her gifts usually come in response to your year-end solicitation. You always email when her check arrives to thank her and you let your ED know so she can call Isabel to thank her too.

You’ve written Isabel asking her to increase her annual giving to $1,500, but to no avail.

An Opportunity Arises…

A unique opportunity presented itself when the art studio needed new easels and other equipment. In response, you created a mini-campaign to raise $25,000 for the art studio fund.

In May, your ED asked Isabel if she might give a special gift for that fund. Her gift would cover the cost of five new easels. Two weeks later, a check for $2,500 arrived from Isabel and John’s joint account. And, several months later, Isabel’s regular annual contribution of $1,000 arrived in response to the end-of-year solicitation.

So What Has This Story Taught Us So Far?

  • Isabel gives $1,000/year habitually.
  • She probably gives several thousand dollar gifts at the end of each year.
  • She decides about those gifts herself and doesn’t check in with John. She’s not eager to increase the amount which might make you believe (incorrectly) that she won’t give more.

However, when you asked Isabel to help with something specific, she didn’t hesitate. But, before writing the check, she probably consulted with John to make sure it was okay with him and then wrote the check from their joint account.

It’s a pretty good assumption that Isabel loved using one of the new easels when she next went to her watercolor class.

Donors Think About Different Gifts in Different Ways

A specific ask, over and above her annual support triggered a new gift. She thought about her two gifts that year in different ways:

  1. The first was just her usual “duty.”
  2. The other gift made something specific possible.

Two gifts — one was a recurring gift that she intended to give year after year. The other was a special gift she was happy to make when the need arose.

Now, let’s take things a step further…

Throw a Capital Campaign into the Mix

The art center is launching a capital campaign to raise $5,000,000 for their new building. Isabel is on the steering committee and is excited about the project.

The campaign chair called on Isabel to ask her to make a leadership gift. Isabel stopped him before he got started saying, “John and I give large gifts together. Let’s set up a meeting that includes him.”

Isabel had been talking to John about the building and the campaign. So it came as no surprise to John when the campaign chair wanted to meet to discuss their gift. Together John and Isabel had looked at the gift range chart to decide what they wanted to give.

John had an idea.

John’s Solution — A Win-Win

Every year, Isabel and John were required by law to withdraw a minimum distribution from their retirement accounts. And that year, the Required Minimum Distribution had been set at $100,000. Because of other income and investments, they didn’t need that money to live on. And John realized that they could maximize their giving if they directed their investment firm to send their Required Minimum Distribution directly to the art center instead of sending it to them.

John figured that if the money was sent directly to them, they would have to pay approximately $25,000 in income tax. But by having the RMD sent directly to the Art Center, it would in effect cost them only $75,000 to give the Art Center $100,000 — the leadership gift they had been asked for.

John was hopeful that they would also be able to deduct $100,000 on their tax return that year, but when he checked with his accountant, it turned out that he couldn’t also deduct the charitable gift on his tax return.

Nonetheless, from John’s viewpoint, it was still a good deal.  They could give the Art Center $100,000 from pre-tax dollars — a nice savings!

So, that’s what they did. They made a leadership gift of $100,000 to the art center in August.

And can you guess what Isabel did in December?

Yes! She sent her usual check for $1,000 to the annual fund.

Three Gifts in One Year

So in just one year, Isabel (and John) had given a gift of:

  • $2,500 in May for the mini-campaign
  • $100,000 in August to the capital campaign
  • $1,000 in December for the annual fund

That’s a combined total of $103,500 — $102,500 more than they typically give in a year.

Do you think they felt taken advantage of?

No — in fact, they felt great!

6 Lessons Learned from the Major Donor Mindset

  1. People often give out of different buckets — different financial buckets and different mental buckets.
  2. While Isabel was happy to give a recurring, general gift each year, she truly enjoyed making a gift to something specific that she connected to.
  3. The larger capital gift required more financial thinking. John and Isabel did that together. And finding a way to give that saved them money on their taxes only increased their joy.
  4. Your capital campaign is not likely to cannibalize your annual fund.
  5. Keeping the capital campaign and the annual fund goals separate provides a simple clarity that many donors prefer.
  6. And finally, you should always be asking for money for special projects.

While donors are happy to make recurring gifts, many of them will be equally enthusiastic to give special gifts to something specific that will help the organization do a better job of carrying out its mission.

The ABC’s of Major Donors — Always Be Campaigning

Isabel and John are amalgams of many major donors we’ve met over the years. Like all major donors, they are generous and eager to help the organizations they care most about. But they won’t give if they’re not asked.

At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we believe that you should adopt a smarter mindset when it comes to your fundraising — the campaign mindset. In other words, you want to always be in campaign mode to give your major donors multiple opportunities to contribute.

Conduct a small mini-campaign every year or two. Conduct a larger capacity campaign every 3 to 5 years. And now and again, when it’s time for that major growth spurt, conduct a bigger capital campaign.

It’s as simple as A-B-C… always be campaigning!

Important Note: When raising funds, do not provide legal, financial, or tax advice. Always refer donors to consult with their own advisors — accountants, lawyers, financial planners, etc.

This post is not intended as tax advice, but merely one example of how planned gifts can work. Tax laws vary from state to state and change constantly. Always have donors check with their own professional advisors prior to making any significant gift decisions.


  1. Laresa Griffin

    This is a very helpful story and a great example of how we need to always think like a donor. Lightbulbs are going off in my brain! Thank you!

    • catherine kabubi

      This has been useful tool

  2. Helene Hassell

    Thank you Andrea! This has helped me understand several of my current donor’s mindset. Helping me prepare to go get that lead gift!!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      I’m so glad you find this post helpful, Helene. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Barbara Barron

    Great story! Gotta ask, right? And thank you for the important reminder of the 3 mental buckets.

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks Barbara. So glad you like this story. I’m sure you know that these people are not unusual in the way they give. It’s all too easy to forget how giving feels to a donor, isn’t it?

  4. Steve Wasserleben

    Great post and story . . . thanks so much! For me, one of my “takeaways” is being donor-centric (as it always should be)! Some donors like and need the bucket approach. Others (I’ve found) like “one-stop” shopping, meaning they’re more comfortable with a structured combo “ask” rather than multiple “asks” within a set period of time. Thanks again!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Yes, different donors prefer different approaches. I’m not sure why people are afraid to ask them what they prefer. They’ll be happy they were asked and are likely to tell you their giving preferences. I shared with someone my own giving preferences recently and she told me that it shocked her to realize that not everyone made giving decisions the way she and her husband do. We all have to beware of assuming that people think about giving in the way we do. It’s quite personal, isn’t it! Thx for your comment Steve.

  5. Derry Deringer

    Insightful article and one I just shot off to a client ED who was wondering about the approach to asking for both an annual gift and campaign gift in the same year. The story element really hit home. Thanks Andrea and Amy!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Hi Derry, I’m so glad. It was fun to write and though it’s about fictional people, many donors fit their profile and giving style.

  6. Kaye Berman

    Terrific example! I’ll be sending this to my board. Thanks for all the valuable information you and Andrea share.

  7. Miriam Pereira

    Thank you, Andrea. I’m about to mail this to our board.

  8. Katie Deuel

    This is so helpful and clear. Thanks Andrea.

  9. Nina Mulller

    Thank you, Andrea! This is so helpful and a great reminder!


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