Starting a capital campaign is one of the hardest decisions a non-profit can make. Back when I began directing them in 1986, we used to say it was a “once in a lifetime project”. Well, as any university can tell you, the current idea is to do one with a five year payout, then wait maybe a couple of years, and do it again.
Another change is that back in 1986 capital campaigns usually were to fund “capital construction” or bricks and mortar building projects. Over the years they have been used in conjunction with the Annual Fund and called a “Comprehensive Campaign”. Often they now have an endowment goal and perhaps even a planned giving goal. And even salaries can now be attached.
In the old days, donors usually took funds out of their “capital” or assets to make a donation. Now, it is unusual to have donors use their reserves and more normal to be funded out of discretionary income, thus, cutting down on the number of larger gifts.
BUT…of course, non-profits still have needs. And when they do they think of having a capital campaign.
So when is your organization ready for a capital campaign?
I use the following four items to measure readiness:
- Is the agency known and respected?
- Are the key staff leaders trusted?
- Is the Board of Directors respected?
- Are there any fiscal, programmatic, scandalous or other “red flags” suspected in the community?
- What items are proposed for funding?
- Do they make sense?
- Are they priced appropriately?
- Are they sustainable?
- Are they the most important things needed to move the agency forward?
- Are they exciting and enticing for potential donors to support?
- Is there anything major not needed today but soon to come over the horizon?
- Is a campaign needed NOW?
- What would happen if it were postponed for a time?
- Would other campaigns and fundraising projects in the community negatively impact success?
- Is there a healthy fiscal picture now? Has the Annual Fund shown steady growth over the last three years?
- Can current donors consider gifts over and above their annual giving to support a campaign?
- Is there a good climate for attracting new donors?
- Are there potential volunteers to reach out to current and new donors in a campaign?
- Is the preliminary case goal too high or too low?
If you find discouraging answers in any of these items, you may not be ready. Go ahead and address those problems now.
One common problem I find in agencies is urgency. Staff, board members and volunteers may sense an urgency that your donor base does not feel. Usually more communication and story-telling is needed in these cases, but take it very seriously.
Also, what is the “sex appeal” of your case items? Do they grab your donors’ heartstrings? If not, find others that do. Unless donors can get emotionally involved in the big need they are solving, they will not “dig deep”. That’s why buildings and other capital projects usually are the most compelling. Also, having a naming opportunity tied to your building or capital project is another compelling draw for donors to “dig deep”.
Finally, do not worry too much about item 3c. (Would other campaigns and fundraising projects in the community negatively impact success?). Several years ago in a town of 50,000 the CEO of the local community foundation pulled out and showed me a list of 74 charities that were conducting or about to start a capital campaign. There are ALWAYS going to be a lot. But waiting seldom provides a time when the number of competitors decrease. Research this carefully, but if it is the right time and you have an urgent need, get to it.
If all of the questions under the four items yield pretty strong and affirmative answers, it’s time to rev up the engines for a capital campaign!
One final note, and this is admittedly biased. Hire a professional to conduct a feasibility study ahead of time and keep him or her on to direct the campaign. Your Director of Development and Executive Director have their own jobs, and crazy problems arise during campaigns. A professional will move you through the tough times and will pay for their services over and over. In the 40 campaigns I have directed, every single one needed professional help in lots of different ways. Going without a professional is beyond risky.
Alex Comfort, CFRE