Technically, any fundraising initiative can be termed a “campaign.” However a working definition of a capital campaign might be "an intensive fundraising effort designed to raise a specified sum of money within a defined time period to meet the varied asset-building needs of an organization."

More often than not, capital campaigns have become “comprehensive campaigns,” particularly in a university setting, where the status quo is to go from one campaign directly into the next.  These comprehensive campaigns may include goals for buildings and other tangible assets, as well as scholarships, endowments, and even current operating support.

Campaigns are normally conducted over a period of years – anywhere from 3 to 7 years could be considered typical.  They are growing longer as the goals grow larger.  Currently, many universities are in campaigns with goals in the billions.  Harvard University’s 2013 announcement of a $6.5B goal is believed to the largest yet, topping Stanford’s $6.2B campaign successfully concluded in 2012.

The timeline for a campaign typically includes four (sometimes overlapping) phases:

  • Pre-campaign Planning
  • Quiet or Silent Phase
  • Public Phase
  • Post Campaign Analysis

1. The planning phase is essential to the success of the campaign.  During this phase organizations must:

  • Get consensus from the board and leadership that they are ready for a campaign
  • Do an internal audit (formal or informal) to understand and correct any areas of infrastructure weakness
  • Conduct a feasibility study or other assessment to determine the amount they anticipate being able to raise in a campaign during the specified time period
  • Create a working “case for support” which lists, among other things, the projects and programs for which the money will be raised
  • Develop the campaign structure and recruit volunteer leadership (most campaigns depend in part on volunteers to lead the charge, although universities are beginning to run their campaigns primarily using staff solicitors)

2. The Quiet or Silent phase is the start of the campaign proper, in which lead gifts are sought.  Lead gifts are major contributions representing up to 20% or more of the campaign goal.  A campaign gift chart or pyramid is used to estimate the number of gifts of various sizes needed to raise the desired funds. Lead gifts are sought from board members or trustees, prominent community members and donors with significant means.  They are normally well known to the organization and have an established relationship.

3. The Public Phase is announced when the campaign has successfully raised between 50% and 70% of goal through the quiet phase of soliciting close friends and associates.  The public phase is normally announced with a public event or gala, and media coverage and PR is invited.  Major gifts are normally sought at slightly lower levels than those obtained in the quiet phase.

Finally, gifts of all sizes are invited as the campaign wraps up, hopefully exceeding the goal, and allowing those of all means to feel they had a part and a stake in the outcome.  Frequently, a major celebration marks the successful conclusion of a campaign.

4. The Post-campaign analysis is an important aspect of any campaign.  Staff should analyze and report to determine where the organization was successful, and where they may have fallen short.  A properly run campaign should include good stewardship, recognition and communication plans. Well executed, this care will produce a net increase in fundraising on an annual basis.  Understanding who these new donors are and how they should be stewarded is tantamount.  Analysis will also provide the intelligence needed to lay the groundwork for the next campaign. 

And there will be a next campaign.

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