Understanding Nonprofit Capital Campaigns: 4 Things To Know

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Fundraising is your nonprofit’s bread and butter. Whether you’re working to fill your annual fund, raise money for a specific program, or finish out the year strong with a holiday-themed fundraising push, you’re consistently designing and implementing fundraising campaigns to ensure you have the resources to deliver your mission. 

But there’s one kind of campaign that is rather unique—a capital campaign. These are large-scale projects that nonprofits conduct when they need to grow their capacity. For these reasons, they’re typically the biggest campaigns nonprofits take on and require the involvement of the organization’s entire community for an extended period of time, usually multiple years.

Proper capital campaign planning begins with having a thorough understanding of how capital campaigns work. That’s where this short guide comes in. In it, we’ll get you started by covering four things you should know about these types of campaigns. Let’s begin. 

1. Capital campaigns are major undertakings.

Capital campaigns aren’t your typical fundraising campaigns. 

For one, they require your nonprofit to be in a healthy position to reach an extremely ambitious financial goal. Second, they ask for total commitment from your community. Finally, they’re specifically designed to give your organization a major jolt to expand its capacity, helping you complete projects like: 

  • Expanding/building a facility 
  • Growing your staff and programming 
  • Building an endowment fund 
  • Purchasing real estate 
  • Purchasing special equipment 

Despite all the effort they require from your nonprofit, capital campaigns come with a wealth of benefits (in addition to the completed project at the heart of the campaign). These benefits include: 

  • An opportunity to strengthen your nonprofit’s internal infrastructure: You should only conduct a capital campaign when you’re ready. This means that if you’re preparing to launch a campaign, you’ll need to take a critical look at your internal operations, marketing and communications strategies, stewardship approaches, and tools at your disposal. For example, you may find you need a donor management system with more robust features. No matter the outcome of your assessment (more on this below), you’ll learn about your organization’s strengths and opportunities for improvement. 
  • A chance to fully engage with your community: These campaigns are all-hands-on-deck endeavors. Throughout the different phases of your campaign, you’ll be turning to your staff, stakeholders, donors, and volunteers for support. As you rally around a common goal to help further the mission you all care about deeply, you’ll forge stronger connections with each other.   
  • Increased public awareness of your cause and organization: When you take your large-scale project public during your campaign, you’ll have the chance to show the world all that you’re doing to accomplish your mission. This will not only help you to strengthen your current community but may also help you draw in support from people who are learning about your work and your organization for the first time. 

To reap all the benefits of a capital campaign, it will be imperative for your organization to get the planning phase of the campaign just right. Proper planning will ensure that you can reach your goals and cross the finish line with your project, even if your organization has never conducted a capital campaign before. 

2. You should conduct a feasibility study before launching a capital campaign.

Thorough capital campaign planning begins with a feasibility study, sometimes called a fundraising feasibility study or planning and feasibility study. A feasibility study is an assessment of your organization’s current capacity and readiness for starting a big project like a capital campaign.

Let’s take a look at the steps involved in completing a feasibility study: 

  • Identify your key supporters. You’ll begin the feasibility study process by conducting prospect research to identify the major supporters who can support your campaign. Once you’ve identified these individuals, you’ll need to spend time strengthening your relationships with them.
  • Develop a case for support. Also known as a case statement, a case for support is a persuasive document that lays out the purpose of your campaign and why your supporters should help you with it. You’ll use this document during the interview portion of your campaign, and then polish it to use in the public phase of your campaign as a guide for all your marketing efforts. 
  • Conduct interviews with stakeholders and complete data analysis. During these interviews, you should find out how your stakeholders feel about your proposed project, what they think about your case for support, and how they feel about your organization as a whole. You should also find out how they see themselves being involved in the campaign. Since these are your key supporters, their responses to your project will be indicative of the viability of your campaign. You’ll also evaluate your donor data and take a closer look at donor capacity in particular. 

Once you’ve completed your feasibility study, your results will typically point you toward one of two options: 

  1. Move forward with the capital campaign! 
  2. Hold off on conducting a capital campaign. 

If you find that your organization isn’t quite ready for a capital campaign, view it as an opportunity to use what you’ve learned during the study to make improvements to your internal processes, such as implementing sustainable financial practices or fine-tuning your donor stewardship process. Making positive changes will set you up for capital campaign success in the future. 

3. Capital campaigns have distinct phases.

Structure is key to capital campaign success, giving you a core focus and direction for each milestone in the campaign. 

Here are the sequential phases that capital campaigns are typically divided into: 

  1. Planning phase: During the planning phase, you’ll conduct your feasibility study, discuss your campaign plans with your board, conduct initial donor research, create a gift pyramid to guide your fundraising efforts, outline a general timeline for the campaign, create your case for support, and assemble your campaign team. There’s a lot to this phase, but getting it right can create a strong foundation for the rest of the campaign. 
  2. Quiet phase: In this phase, your team will focus on the research, cultivation, and solicitation needed to secure major gifts. While you’ll continue to seek major gifts throughout the whole campaign, this is where you’ll secure enough major gifts to make up 50-70% of your campaign goal. Also note that the term “quiet” doesn’t mean you’re keeping your campaign a secret; rather, you’re just not to the point yet where you’re seeking broad support from your entire donor pool. 
  3. Kick-off: At this point, you’re ready to announce your campaign and your finalized fundraising goal to your broader community. Many organizations like to mark this milestone by hosting some sort of exciting event. 
  4. Public phase: During the public phase, you’ll harness the momentum of the quiet phase and the campaign kick-off to secure gifts of all sizes that you need to reach your fundraising goal. This is where your capital campaign will start to feel more like a typical fundraising campaign, as you work on hosting fundraising events, marketing your campaign, and providing regular updates on your progress. 
  5. Completion and follow-up: During this phase, you’ll follow through on the promises you made during your campaign (such as completing the building project or setting up the endowment you raised money for), reporting on the final standing of the campaign, thanking donors for their contributions, and thanking your staff, stakeholders, and volunteers for their commitment to the project. 

As you look over these campaign phases, you might think to yourself, “This sounds more like a marathon than a sprint.” You’re right—such big endeavors won’t be completed overnight. But by understanding each phase, you can build your campaign timeline out so that you’re consistently reaching every milestone necessary to cross the finish line with your major project. 

4. A nonprofit fundraising consultant can be an important part of your campaign success.

The great thing about capital campaigns is that you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, it’s recommended that you work with a nonprofit consultant who has experience guiding multiple nonprofits through successful capital campaigns. They can provide you with the expert insights you need to fine-tune your campaign plan and accomplish your goal, all while maintaining strong relationships with your supporters. 

Let’s look at a few ways a consultant can be helpful during specific parts of your capital campaign: 

  • The feasibility study process: Especially during the interview portion of your study, you’ll want to rely on your consultant to ask your stakeholders about their perceptions of your campaign and your project. This will help you receive honest feedback on your plans. A consultant can also help you draft and adjust your case for support and evaluate the results of your study. 
  • Prospect research: A consultant can help you manage the prospect research process throughout your campaign. They’ll have the tools and time to help you find the best prospects and can help you strengthen your relationships with them and make meaningful asks.  
  • Planning and strategy: Your partner can assist you in developing realistic yet ambitious fundraising goals, outlining your campaign timeline, and fine-tuning your fundraising approaches. 

Additionally, a consultant can assist you during a capital campaign by providing training and coaching to your team, keeping the campaign on track, engaging your board in the campaign, and evaluating the success of the project.  

If you’re ready to partner with a consultant to ensure your capital campaign is successful, follow these hiring steps

  • Define what your organization needs from a consultant for your campaign to be successful. 
  • Develop a request for proposal (RFP). 
  • Begin your consultant search by doing your own research and asking for recommendations from colleagues. 
  • Meet with potential consultants you could see yourself working with and submit your RFPs. 
  • Review the consultants’ completed proposals and then select the right consultant for your nonprofit. 

Throughout the hiring process, look for a consultant who can serve as a true partner to your organization. Not only should they share your organization’s core values, but they should also be invested in and excited about your capital campaign project! 

Learning even the basics about nonprofit capital campaigns can feel like you’re drinking from a firehose. But by establishing some foundational knowledge about what capital campaigns look like and how to conduct one, you can prepare your nonprofit to seize future opportunities for large projects that can expand your capacity to serve your beneficiaries. 

Keep this guide handy, and when you start your own capital campaign journey, return to it to ensure you have your bases covered. You’ve got this!