Capital Campaigns: Preparing for Battle

The fictional City Theatre Guild has been a staple of its community’s arts scene for 40 years. A large volunteer force produces shows, the shows routinely sell out, and supporters contribute adequately to an annual fundraising campaign.
But looking to the future, the theatre guild sees a major obstacle. The nonprofit has outgrown the one-room schoolhouse it uses for productions and can neither produce the large-scale shows it would like nor accommodate the range of activities it envisions. Further, the former schoolhouse will soon need major repairs.
Rather than renovate, the organization has chosen to construct a new theatre building that will allow it to significantly expand its operations. The board has estimated building costs at $5 million, and it realizes that a capital fundraising campaign will be necessary.
Start with a commitment
Committing to a capital campaign isn’t easy. Fear that people won’t donate in a stagnant economy can cause nonprofits to hesitate to ask for additional funds. But when a dedicated group grabs on to this opportunity to expand and grow, it’s time to start planning.
It’s no surprise that a massive effort to raise money for a new building, costly equipment or an endowment is called a “campaign.” Like a succession of military attacks designed to produce a particular result, a capital campaign is a series of efforts aimed at a specific end. And like a wartime campaign, a capital campaign calls for strategic preparation and skillful execution.
The campaign might span three or more years. Campaign workers typically raise funds through direct mail, e-mail solicitations, direct solicitations, special events and other traditional and creative maneuvers.
Appoint the general
You’ll need a leader to head the campaign and direct the troops into battle. Look to your current and past board members and the greater community to find someone with the right qualifications. You want to find someone who:

  • Has a fundraising track record,
  • Knows your geographic area and local issues,
  •  Will be fully committed to the cause,
  • Can motivate others, and
  • Has time for regular planning sessions and fundraising activities.

As you search for the right individual, consider those with a personal reason to make the campaign a success. For example, a bank president from immigrant roots might be just the person to lead a capital campaign for an English as a Second Language program. Or a community leader who’s a former stay-at-home mom might be motivated to head a campaign for a women’s job-training organization.
Line up the troops
The City Theatre Guild knows it must assemble a small army of volunteers for its campaign. It will look to its current and past board members, producers, directors, actors, stagehands, and so on — in other words, its volunteer base. It also will draw from its staff, knowing that it can’t rely on volunteers to do all the work.
As you assess your “troops,” you might see a need to hire additional staff, such as a professional fundraiser and administrative personnel. Seek a mix of talents and personal qualities among your volunteers, staff and new hires. Include energetic individuals with strong people skills.
Guide your soldiers
To ensure your staff and volunteers are focusing on the most promising donors, start by identifying a large group — say 2,500 individuals — to solicit for donations. Draw your list from past donors, area business owners, board members, volunteers and any other likely prospects. Then narrow that list to the 250 largest potential donors and talk to them first. Secure the large gifts before pursuing anything under $1,000.
Most people don’t like asking other people for money. So it will be necessary to train team members on how to solicit funds. Don’t expect your solicitors to wing it; instead, provide them with scripts aimed at particular types of donors.
Take tips from professional telemarketers when giving feedback to team members. For example, tape phone call solicitations, play them back and critique interactions with potential donors. Does their approach and tone of voice match up to the professionalism and enthusiasm you require?
Execute key operations
Your campaign plan should include goals, a timeline, a budget, a compelling message and ways to chart donations and measure success. Here are some tips:
Goals and successes. Make sure that your key constituents are on the same page about your vision for the campaign and the primary strategies for getting there. Break down your overall goal into smaller objectives and celebrate reaching them. Regularly report gifts, track your progress toward reaching your goal, and measure the effectiveness of your activities. See the sidebar “Measuring your capital campaign’s success.”
Campaign message. Craft your message carefully. Here’s where a professional fundraiser, experienced with capital campaigns, might come into play. Potential donors must see your organization as capable and strong, but also as the same group they’ve championed for years. Additionally, instead of focusing on what donations will do for your not-for-profit, show potential donors the impact on their community.
Initial launch — and beyond.  Fundraising wisdom holds that you shouldn’t go public with your campaign until you’ve secured a significant amount of “lead gifts” from major donors. The recommended percentage varies, with organizations commonly waiting until 50% to 60% of their fundraising goal is reached before announcing the campaign. As the campaign progresses, publicly recognize your donors. For example, list them on your website and in your newsletter and thank them at public events.
The long haul. Because of the high level of funds being sought, capital campaigns often stretch over three years or more. To keep the momentum going, you’ll want to mix up your fundraising tactics and events. Plan some events that attract media attention, such as a 5K walk-run, a gala ball or a silent auction. Keep the campaign fun and the activities varied. Now is the time for your team to use its imagination.
War isn’t won in a day
Like a campaign in wartime, a capital campaign isn’t won overnight. Pace yourself and strive for good timing as you pull out all the stops. Be consistent and stay on track, but remain flexible to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Sidebar: Measuring your capital campaign’s success
You’ll want to measure the return on your investment (ROI) and establish other metrics to gauge your capital campaign’s progress. Measure ROI for individual fundraising efforts such as phone call solicitations, events and direct mail campaigns.
Here are some useful ratios:

  • Number of identified prospects / target number of prospects to identify,
  • Percentage of past donors who contribute / target percentage of past donors who’ll contribute, and
  • Dollar amount actually raised from a certain activity or during a specific time period / goal for that campaign activity or time period.

Your financial advisor can help you refine your metrics and devise a plan for analyzing and following up on results.

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