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Feeling Unprepared for Your Capital Campaign?

I attended a fundraising conference where a friend and fellow fundraising consultant presented a session on the 15 essentials to launch a capital campaign. The title made my heart skip a beat. Running a thriving fundraising program while trying to orchestrate a multi-million-dollar capital campaign can be so stressful. I had to learn more, so I tracked my colleague down.

After exchanging updates on family and business, I asked how he came up with so many requirements. His response, “They wanted me to talk for three hours, so I came up with 15 to fill the time.”

Funny, I thought, the amount of work needed for a successful campaign depends upon how much time your consultant has to speak?? The idea of 15 essentials is more than enough to instill panic in the minds of busy Development Directors! I imagined participants giving up before they even got started.

Capital campaigns emerged more than 100 years ago in the United States and are growing around the globe. There is no shortage of opinions about what is needed to be successful. A simple Internet search results in any number of essentials, but 15 was the most I’ve ever seen.

Since 1989, I’ve helped lead hundreds of capital campaigns and from experience, I can confidently say the essentials boil down to five. That’s right, I’ve found the following “essentials” at the core of most successful campaigns:

    Both institutional and volunteer leaders who will be actively involved in the campaign are needed to validate and share the campaign’s purpose with others.
    The needs that are articulated in your Case for Support must be extremely compelling and emotional. The Case must clearly demonstrate that a campaign is absolutely necessary to ensure that your organization can realistically achieve something important (change lives, change the world, etc.). Constituents will take your campaign seriously when they are convinced that the need is valid, urgent, and compelling.
    Organizing volunteers, meeting with donors, preparing materials, and guiding a campaign take time. You must have adequate internal resources to conduct a successful campaign. Resources include people, systems, processes, volunteer support, and a campaign budget.
    Every campaign has just one opportunity to be executed properly. Creating the proper leadership structure, a timeline with measurable milestones, and a strategy for early campaign momentum are imperative parts of a great plan.
    Obviously, sufficient contributable dollars must be available to achieve success. Therefore, you must be certain that the number of prospects needed to ensure success exists and that the proper proportion of prospects relative to capacity is available.

While I believe in the importance of these five, I have often seen campaigns succeed without strength in each area. Curious to know if my experience mirrors others, I reached out to more than a dozen experienced capital campaign consultants to get their thoughts. Here is what they confirmed:

First, very few organizations start their campaigns with all five essentials in place. Most have to “build the bicycle while they ride it.”

Second, if leadership is not in place at the start of a campaign, it is the most difficult essential to obtain.

Third, as the chart below shows, the experts consider leadership to be the most critical with a compelling Case for Support coming in second. As one noted, “Excellent leadership has the potential to obviate other deficits.”

If you have leadership at the beginning, it indicates that people with passion and capacity believe strongly enough in the need to use their resources to influence others to get involved. The remaining essentials can evolve. For example, the Case may not be articulated perfectly at the beginning but can develop along the way. And, part of a great plan can include how you’ll manage the campaign until “adequate resources” are in place. But if you don’t have great leadership from the start, you will be hard-pressed to get the campaign out of the starting gate.


None of the experts considered adequate resources to be the most important. As one noted, “So far, every development team I’ve observed has been understaffed and under-budgeted for campaign work.”

How strong of a difference can leadership make? I once worked with an organization that had very little experience with philanthropy and the Executive Director had no interest in the campaign. She just wanted the money to help expand their services. The Board was not a “fundraising board” and very few donors supported the organization outside of buying tickets to events. However, one passionate and generous volunteer so loved the work of this organization that she went “all in” to make it a success. Not only did she make a very generous gift, she also met with at least one, more often two, donors a week throughout the duration of the campaign. As a leader, she almost single-handedly put the campaign over goal, and in the process deepened donor engagement and relationships.

With so much importance placed upon leadership, and knowing that most organizations must focus limited resources on the most critical activities, here is a list of suggested campaign readiness activities:

  • Internal Leadership – Begin educating your organization’s executive team (CEO, CFO, etc.) about campaigns and the importance of a strategic plan and vision. The most successful campaigns are always rooted in a shared vision among the Board and staff, so make sure your internal leadership has spent time on this before campaign discussions begin.

    Consider sharing this blog post with your team so they understand how critical their involvement is. Ask for their help in guiding a process to identify priorities, create a budget, and show the impact of contributed dollars on the organization’s mission. Develop a practice of having monthly meetings to discuss campaign readiness, key donor relationships, and next steps. Help your team become more comfortable with the fund development process by involving them in meetings to thank donors, answer their questions, and share the strategic vision with them.

  • Board Leadership – Work with a Board committee, such as Governance, to evaluate your Board’s current strengths, particularly as it relates to fundraising, and develop a plan for putting in place the strongest possible Board. Engage the committee in regular meetings to discuss leadership identification, recruitment, Board training, and next steps. Ask the committee to make sure every Board member can easily articulate the organization’s mission and why it is personally important to them.
  • Donor Leadership – Identify three to five people who could make significant gifts to the campaign and who could influence others to give as well. Create a plan for building relationships with these individuals. Note, I did not say create a plan for asking them for a campaign gift (at least not yet). Involve them in discussions about the ideas for the campaign, with a focus on the impact a campaign could have on the lives of individuals, the community, and the world. Share their feedback with your organization’s leaders.

There is always more you could do to prepare for a campaign, but don’t let that paralyze your organization. Prioritize your focus on developing leaders, volunteer and professionals, who are passionate, determined, and have confidence in the unlimited potential of your organization. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, attract leaders who “believe you can, and you are halfway there.”

Kristina Carlson

Managing Director, Carter Global

For more than 30 years, Kristina Carlson, CFRE has guided nonprofit institutions in their efforts to secure major gifts and other resources necessary to make a significant impact. She is a proven leader, an entrepreneur, an author of the best-selling Essential Principles for Fundraising Success, and an in-demand speaker at national and international conferences and workshops. As Managing Director with Carter, Kristina works to inspire philanthropists, volunteers, nonprofit leaders, and development professionals to do more by defining and focusing on mission-critical activities, creating systems of accountability, and experiencing the joy of philanthropy.

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