The Top 15 Campaign Calamities: How to Avoid Them and Ensure Your Major Campaign is Positioned for Success

The Top 15 Campaign Calamities: How to Avoid Them and Ensure Your Major Campaign is Positioned for Success

Embarking on a major campaign can be intimidating. It is a huge, often multi-year endeavor, and you have just one chance to execute it properly. But there are tried and true methods to perfecting campaigns, and if your organization has not started a capital or endowment campaign recently, now is the time to seriously consider it. The campaign marketplace is ripe due to today’s philanthropic trends.

Preparing for and completing a major campaign requires great planning and execution. With our partners, we emphasize the five campaign essentials to ensure success: leadership, the case for support, adequate internal resources, a great plan and access to contributable dollars.

In my 25-year career as a nonprofit professional and consultant working with hundreds of organizations across the world, these are the top 15 “campaign calamities” I’ve seen compromise a campaign’s results within each of the five campaign essentials, and ways you can avoid them and ensure your campaign’s success. 


One: Leadership
The success of your campaign will hinge on leadership! In most cases, the available dollars for success are present within your constituency. The key to your success will be enlisting the best and strongest possible leaders to be actively involved in your fundraising efforts. While we may not always be able to get the perfect leader enlisted in the perfect role, we must get all of the perfect leaders involved to position ourselves for success.

Leadership Calamities

  1. The invisible board. The board has the ultimate authority over the campaign and must take complete ownership of it.
  2. Enlisting campaign leaders too early. Do not begin enlisting campaign chairs or leaders until they have already made an investment that illustrates that your campaign is one of their top two philanthropic priorities at this time. Instead, get them involved in the early planning process first. Involvement invites investment.
  3. Soliciting the board too early. Optimizing your board gifts will set the pace for the rest of your campaign. Be sure to develop a process for rating each board member’s capacity. It is then important to develop the appropriate sequence and strategy for all board solicitations.


Two: The Case for Support
The needs that are articulated in your case for support must be extremely compelling, urgent and emotional. The case must also clearly demonstrate that a campaign is absolutely necessary to ensure that the needs of your organization are met. Constituents will take your campaign seriously when they are convinced that there is an immediate, life-changing need.

The Case for Support Calamities

  1. Thinking small and focusing on your organization’s needs rather than your community’s needs. It is important to develop a BIG, BOLD VISION for the future. After all, BIG VISION leads to BIG GIFTS! If money were no object, how much money would you need to fulfill your ultimate vision for the future? Be sure to illustrate the impact that your campaign will have on your wider community rather than simply…your organization. Share how your community will be transformed by your campaign. Test your BIG VISION for your community during a planning study. This will help you yield a more positive response by raising sights among your key leaders and donor prospects.
  2. No connection to a strategic plan. People will invest at higher levels if they see that your campaign plans have been informed by a thoughtful and diligent strategic planning process.
  3. All facts, no emotion. Philanthropy is 86% emotional. Eighty-six percent of all philanthropic dollars come from individuals who make their investments based on emotion. Emotion leads to action. Be sure to share emotional stories and testimonials that highlight the impact you are having on specific people.
  4. Waiting for the perfect brochure. Brochures don’t raise money. People do. During the early stages of a campaign, the campaign materials should be “living documents” that can easily be customized and enhanced. When testing your case early on with key stakeholders, including a “draft” watermark on your documents isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It lets them know that they are part of your team and “under the tent.” Thus, giving them greater ownership in your campaign.


Three: Adequate Internal Resources
You must have adequate internal resources to conduct a successful campaign. Resources include people, systems, processes, volunteer support and a campaign budget.

Adequate Internal Resources Calamities

  1. Not investing in your campaign. A major campaign will result in the best return on your investment in the fundraising profession. Be sure you are prepared to invest $.05 to $.12 to raise a dollar.
  2. No campaign budget. Your campaign budget will typically consist of: staff time, campaign materials, donor recognition, awareness event costs, travel for staff and volunteers, analytics, possible outside counsel, etc.
  3. No existing donor systems. Be sure you have strong gift acceptance and stewardship policies and procedures for your campaign. It is also important to develop gift counting policies for deferred gifts and naming policies for named gifts. Lastly, let technology help you! Investing in wealth screening is highly recommended if you do not currently have a screening solution, and a CRM is vital for keeping track of donor engagement.
  4. Lack of access to experienced fundraisers. Before you embark on a campaign, ensure you and your team have access to knowledgeable and experienced professional fundraisers. Whether these professionals are on your staff, serving on your board, hired through outside counsel, or even if you are a longtime fundraiser yourself, two heads are better than one, and nothing beats experience.


Four: A Great Plan
Every campaign has just one opportunity to be executed properly. Far too many organizations rush into a campaign without first creating the proper volunteer leadership structure and internal capacity to sustain long-term fundraising. Therefore, it is imperative that you create the best possible campaign plan to ensure success.

A Great Plan Calamities

  1. Announcing the goal before you have won the campaign on paper. You should always continue to share the financial “need” but avoid using the word “goal” until you are prepared to go public with a stated goal that you know you will reach based on the remainder of your donor pipeline. Using historic yield rates versus ask amounts can be a good way to forecast whether or not you have won the campaign on paper. It is not unusual to raise 80% of your campaign objective before going “public” with a goal.
  2. Lack of campaign planning. If you fail to plan…plan to fail. Campaigns must be effective first and efficient second. Slow and steady will win the “raise.” 😊 You must ensure that you have earned the right to approach a donor with a gift opportunity that will inspire them to give at the high end of their capacity.


Five: Access to Contributable Dollars
Obviously, access to sufficient contributable dollars must be available to achieve success. Therefore, we 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.

Access to Contributable Dollars Calamities

  1. Money chasing. If you view your donors as ATMs rather than partners, you will be in for some challenges. Focusing on mission rather than money will allow you to effectively cultivate your donors in a way that will inspire them to invest significantly at the appropriate time. Take your time by listening to your donors and ultimately marrying a future appeal with their own values and interests.
  2. Launching a campaign without a well-informed base of donors. Having access to contributable dollars includes having access to donors who are knowledgeable about your organization’s goals. Campaigns should not be part of your donor acquisition strategy. Campaigns are grounded in existing donors who share the organization’s vision and can be motivated to impact it in bigger ways. Launching a campaign without a well-informed base of donors who have linkage, ability and interest will cause the biggest calamity of all.


Campaigns can be a fun and enriching experience. They have a way of galvanizing people to work together to achieve a common goal that can completely transform lives in so many positive ways. Embrace your BIG, BOLD VISION for the future and always approach your campaign from a place of abundance, not scarcity. Enhancing your mission and fulfilling your vision requires your best efforts. Plan, execute and enjoy!    

About the Author

Steve Higgins

Steve Higgins, CFRE - President & CEO

Steve Higgins, CFRE, President & CEO of Carter, is one of the most respected and seasoned nonprofit consultants in the profession. He works with organizations’ development staff, executive leaders, trustees, and volunteers, providing counsel in fundraising, governance, and strategic planning. With over 25 years of combined consulting and nonprofit experience, his fundraising counsel focuses on major and mega gift strategies, leadership coaching, campaign counsel and readiness, capacity building, and organizational assessment. Steve currently resides in Vero Beach, Florida. Learn more about Steve here.

About Carter:
When it comes to transformational change, nonprofits are experts at knowing what they need to achieve but don’t always have the tools they need to get there. Carter makes the journey easier. With over 1,000 years of combined experience, the Carter team is comprised of over 40 senior-level professionals working to advance philanthropy worldwide through fundraising, organizational planning and governance. For more information, visit

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