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October 18, 2023

Top 5 Capital Campaign Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Guest Blog Writer

Capital campaigns are complicated, and they come with a lot of misconceptions. 

What are Capital Campaigns?

"Capital campaigns are intense fundraising efforts designed to raise a specific amount of money within a defined time period to build an organization’s assets and capacity. They typically raise much more than an organization has ever raised in a single campaign."

Since they occur infrequently, once a decade or so, planning and running a capital campaign is most likely a brand new endeavor for most (if not all) of a nonprofit’s team. Seeing them conducted in the community, hearing about them from peers, maybe donating to or getting involved with another nonprofit’s campaign—these can all give us the impression that there’s no one particular way of doing them.

Approaching Capital Campaigns Effectively

All the bad habits flying around can easily lead nonprofits astray. While there are plenty of ways to make your campaign your own, there are also core best practices that exist for a reason. Neglecting them can open you up to a variety of risks that sap your campaign’s energy and effectiveness.

What are the most common challenges and pitfalls you’ll encounter as you embark on a capital campaign? How can you set up your team to succeed? Let’s take a look.

Mistake #1: Setting a Vague Fundraising Goal

Let’s say your organization is approaching its 25th anniversary. Your board wants to celebrate the occasion with a special campaign that has a nice round goal of $25 million. You’re not sure yet exactly what you’ll do with the funds, but you think the fun factor will get the community excited to help you inaugurate a new era.

Or maybe your organization does have to grow. You’re bursting at the seams, but you’re unsure of exactly how much you should or could raise. Rather than honing in on specific objectives, you set a hazy goal of “at least” or “around” $10 million to see what you can raise. Then, you figure, you’ll decide what to spend the money on.

Why it’s a Mistake

Setting vague goals for your campaign, both in terms of purpose and amount, is a big mistake. Goals need to be concrete and specific to maintain energy and enthusiasm.

In the first example, your campaign’s energy will fizzle fast. You can’t ask for a major gift if you can’t point to the actual projects and improvements it will fund. In the second example, the haziness of the goal will lead to logistical chaos and a vague campaign plan—how will you know how many prospects you need or when to call the campaign finished?

What to do Instead

Set a capital campaign goal that is ambitious (a meaningful amount greater than anything you’ve raised before) but rooted in data (realistic based on your needs, your community of donors, and their giving capacities). 

Start by developing a specific list of objectives for the campaign—the reasons you’re planning one in the first place. Tally up their costs as precisely as you can, and add a buffer for unexpected costs and the overhead of the campaign itself. Then, build your working goal from there. You’ll test your working goal against donor input later (more on this process below).

Mistake #2: Starting With a Brochure

You’ve defined your specific objectives and established an ambitious working goal for your campaign—great! 

Your team is excited to move forward, so you invest in a glossy brochure explaining the campaign and the project it will fund. You take care to use tailored language that makes a persuasive pitch to potential donors but you skimp a little on details in lieu of exciting visuals.

Why it’s a Mistake

With your brochure in hand, you sit down for a conversation with your first prospective donor for the campaign. Things go smoothly until they ask a question about specifics, and you get lost trying to make your pitch, flipping around the brochure and ultimately leaving the donor with more questions than answers. The brochure distracts the donor and gets in the way of having a real conversation!

What to do Instead

Starting your campaign with a brochure is like building a house before laying the foundation. 

Your conversations with donors will come in all shapes and sizes over the course of the campaign, and prospects will all have different questions. Instead of cornering yourself into a brochure, you first need a thorough understanding of the core messages that will underpin your campaign:

  • What’s the challenge you’re looking to solve?
  • What’s the specific solution you’re proposing?
  • Why is your organization in the position to make this change using funds from a successful campaign?
  • What will it cost to accomplish your solution?
  • Why does it matter for the community?
  • How can donors help push the campaign forward?

Answer these questions in a campaign case for support long before you put ink to paper for a brochure. This is most often a simple 2-3 page Word document. This central set of messages will help you create all the campaign materials you’ll need later, including brochures, videos, and more. This will also ensure the rest of your materials fully align with the campaign’s key themes, details, and arguments.

Mistake #3: Not Involving Key Donors Early

You prepare materials based on a case for support to use in your first sit-down with a prospective major donor for the campaign, and you jump right in to ask for a big gift. 

This will be the first that your donor has heard about the campaign, so you’re excited to surprise them with news about such a game-changing project for your mission.

Why it’s a Mistake

If you ask for a big gift during your first meeting with your potential lead donor, it may easily go off the rails. The donor may push back—why is the goal so high? Is this really necessary right now? Can’t you go slower and make smaller investments over time? The donor hasn’t been properly prepared. 

Stepping away from the early excitement of the campaign, these questions are entirely foreseeable. The donor hasn’t yet been given the fuller context for the campaign or been involved with any of the planning process. 

But plunging a donor right into the full scale of your plans isn’t the right approach. You’ve missed the opportunity to introduce your goal and objectives, get input on your plans, gauge impressions, and make adjustments. There’s no reason why your campaign has to be a secret from those whose gifts and involvement will be integral to its success! 

What to do Instead

Involve those all-important donors early in the campaign planning if you can rather than waiting to talk to them until you are ready to ask for their gift. 

Conduct a feasibility study before moving forward with a working goal. This series of interviews with prospects and stakeholders will gather their thoughts on your initial plans and how they might be improved to boost your chances of success. 

For the best results, take a hands-on approach to your feasibility study rather than outsourcing it to a consultant. The direct insights you gather this way will be the most beneficial for both planning and relationship-building purposes—helping prospects feel immediately involved in the campaign, not just in terms of being asked to give but also actively shaping its course.

Mistake #4: Falling for the 'Even Increments' Pitfall

Okay, so you’ve laid out an ambitious but achievable goal, developed a solid case for support, and tested your plans with key stakeholders. You’re ready to dive into fundraising and are working with your development team to construct a solicitation plan.

Someone suggests asking donors for even increments (for example, asking 200 donors for $5,000 gifts in order to reach a goal of $1 million). It sounds reasonable and makes sense on paper since you’re confident you have that many donors who could potentially give that much. This plan also makes everyone feel a lot less anxious about the campaign since it won’t require any scary-big asks.

Why it’s a Mistake

Let’s say you move forward with your even increments plan—fast forward two years. Even though you’ve collected a good number of donations so far, you can’t shake the feeling that progress has been slow. It feels like the campaign will never end, and when you add up the numbers, you’re only halfway to your goal. Energy is draining, and your list of prospects is running thin. 

This is a nightmare scenario! Capital campaigns require much more strategic approaches, despite how elegant and appealing the even increments approach might seem at first glance. Spreading your focus and energy so broadly without making a sizable dent in your goal will wear down any team and sap your enthusiasm for the project.

What to do Instead

Capital campaigns work because they traditionally follow a strategic, top-down order of solicitations. This actually makes them among the most cost-effective campaigns you can run despite their high goals.

First, accept that some gifts to the campaign will need to be much bigger than others. You should start by securing a lead gift (ideally around 20% or more of your total goal) and work your way down through a pyramid of gift tiers—each descending tier includes more prospects giving gifts of decreasing value.

Nonprofits lay out this strategy using a gift range chart or gift pyramid. This approach works because it’s efficient and safeguards your progress. Learn more about how to construct one using the tips and templates in the Capital Campaign Pro guide to gift pyramids.

Mistake #5: Trying to do Capital Campaigns Alone

You’ve followed all the best practices to get your campaign off the ground. Everything is moving along nicely, and you’re making steady progress down your gift range chart. A clear path to success is in view.

But then something goes wrong. A few key prospects fall through, sponsors aren’t appearing, your campaign data is becoming disorganized and ineffective, a fundraiser departs your organization and leaves you suddenly understaffed—anything could happen during such a long campaign.  

The board isn’t interested in spending any more money on campaign overhead aside from what was already allocated at the start of the year. Now you’re on your own.

Why it’s a Mistake

Your team looks for answers but has no playbook, and the campaign risks losing momentum at a critical juncture. You try to come up with a solution, but your campaign’s atmosphere of confidence is replaced by anxiety. 

The energy feels different now, and, depending on the scale of the unexpected issue you face, you worry that the campaign might get seriously delayed or derailed. This snowball effect can have wide impacts, harming productivity, morale, and the impression you give donors at a time when your campaign should be moving forward to its final phases.

What to do Instead

First, understand that running into new issues and setbacks is common. Capital campaigns are huge projects with many moving pieces. They’re likely unfamiliar territory for your team. 

And remember, campaigns bring a rush of new work and complexities that your organization in its current state is unequipped to handle. Remember, this is why you’re conducting a campaign in the first place). Most nonprofits need to grow their fundraising and/or logistics staff to pull off a campaign. Expect it and plan for it—don’t let these new expenses become surprises that jeopardize your progress. 

Some form of external guidance is also recommended for any organization conducting a campaign. By their very nature, these projects are new undertakings or at a bigger scale than anything you’ve done before. Consider hiring a campaign consultant or advisor early in the planning process. They can give you resources, best practices, and (most importantly) confidence to draw from whenever you hit a new challenge.

Moving Ahead With Your Capital Campaign

Capital campaigns come with a lot of challenges and misconceptions, but their positive potential to transform your nonprofit’s mission far outweighs them. 

By understanding the common pitfalls and the strategies and flexible approaches you can use to avoid them, you’ll be equipped to plan and conduct a capital campaign that’s not only successful but uniquely your own.

About the Authors

Andrea Kihlstedt | CEO & Co-Founder | Capital Campaign Pro
Amy Eisenstein | CEO & Co-Founder | Capital Campaign Pro

Andrea is the author of Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, now in its 4th edition. She authored How to Raise $1 Million (or More) in 10 Bite Sized Steps, in addition to other books. Andrea has been leading successful capital campaigns for more than 30 years.

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE is CEO and Co-Founder of Capital Campaign Pro. Her published books include: Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops, Raising More with Less, and 50 A$ks in 50 Weeks.  She became a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in 2004 and received the ACFRE in 2013.