Special Report – The 21st Century Capital Campaign

FRM Masthead WebA Fund Raising Matters Special Report

The 21st Century Capital Campaign

Are the Rules Changing?


© 2003, Goettler Associates, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Fund-Raising Matters is a registered trademark.


Since we began developing the Goettler Series more than twenty years ago, the “state of the art in fund raising,” as we call it, has undergone some fairly dramatic changes – especially in the arena of capital campaigns. As a result, we must continually ask ourselves: Do the old rules still apply? Will the “time-tested principles and techniques” of the field work as well in the fund-raising environment of the twenty-first century as they have in the past?

With respect to capital campaigns, for example, we’re seeing at least four unmistakable trends:

1.  More campaigns seeking more money

In every community, at any given time, we certainly find more organizations conducting capital campaigns. We also find organizations coming back to the community more often, and seeking larger amounts of money. The very largest campaigns, of course, are not community campaigns, but national campaigns for leading universities – and during the economic boom of the 1990’s, many exceeded their nine- and ten-figure goals by a wide margin!

Highly visible donors and volunteer leaders – particularly in the corporate and foundation sectors – often find it impossible to respond to every legitimate request. To set priorities, reduce the pressure on the community’s philanthropic resources, and minimize the number of unsuccessful campaigns, some communities have tried (with varying degrees of success) to control the number and size of campaigns in progress at any given time.

Whether or not capital campaigns are somehow “regulated,” there will probably always be some which do not succeed. Those campaigns, in most cases, will fail not because the community’s philanthropic resources are inadequate to support them, but because the campaigns themselves are less than well-conceived, organized and implemented.

Generally speaking, however, every campaign attracts its own constituency. As long as it represents a worthwhile cause, has a strong case to present, and attracts respected leadership, a campaign has at least some chance of success, even in today’s crowded marketplace. The key factor is not the amount of competition for the philanthropic dollar, but how well that organization has planned and prepared for a major capital campaign.

2.  Increased personal wealth

While organizations are seeking larger amounts of money than ever before, it’s also true that personal wealth is far greater and far more widely distributed than ever before.

In the past, the conventional wisdom has been that at least 50 percent of the campaign goal must come from the top ten gifts. Today, we find that the figure must often be increased to 60 or 70 percent . This is not because of a lack of prospects at lower levels, but simply because the best way to attain a “stretch” goal is to secure larger commitments from those with the greatest capacity!

The professional’s challenge, of course, is to identify and gain access to such prospects – and that is easier for some organizations than for others. Many major universities, for example, have extensive prospect research capabilities. Health-care institutions, on the other hand, are now constrained by regulations intended to protect consumers.

As long as you’re able to gain access, there’s probably no reason not to set your sights high. In today’s economic environment, however, many of your best prospects are likely to be individuals, families, family-controlled foundations, and privately held businesses. Therefore, you must be prepared to initiate and build relationships with people, rather than institutions.

Many of these folks will want to become more involved with your organization, and have more to say about how their money is spent, than other types of donors (e.g., large, publicly held corporations) you may have relied on in the past. And those who have created “new wealth” may need to be patiently and artfully “educated” (probably by their peers, rather than professional fund-raisers) about the importance of philanthropy and their rightful role in the community.

3.  An increased role for professional staff

Due to the rapid expansion of the development profession, most capital campaigns today are directed, and often implemented, by the organization’s development staff. In addition to “training,” “supervising,” and supporting volunteers, paid staff are increasingly expected to personally cultivate and solicit top prospects. This is particularly true of universities and other large, multi-faceted institutions.

Initially, this approach was justified on the grounds that outstanding volunteers (those of campaign cabinet-caliber) were becoming harder and harder to enlist. There is certainly some truth to that claim; the small group of leaders who are most sought after can become exhausted by throwing themselves into one campaign after another. More recently, however, some professionals have begun to assert that they are actually more effective than volunteers (who tend to depart from the “script,” lose their nerve, etc.).

Some college and university presidents, and a few other charismatic CEO’s, have always been outstanding fund-raisers. We have yet to be persuaded, though, that the entire process should be not only managed, but also implemented by paid professionals. We continue to believe not only that volunteers are the essence of the American way of philanthropy – but also that the volunteer’s peer relationship with the prospect, and his or her own exemplary financial commitment, will almost always carry more weight, and produce better results, than the “selling skills” of the professional fund-raiser.

Furthermore, when important decisions must be made, we’ve found it essential to ensure that the volunteer’s point of view is represented. The volunteer, who has nothing to gain financially, can be counted on to put the interests of the community first. The professional, on the other hand, is under pressure to produce results, and naturally interested in advancing his or her career.

The role of the professional is analogous to that of an orchestra’s conductor. It is the conductor’s job to help both the individual musician and each section of the orchestra perform to their full potential – recognizing that in the end, the musicians must be relied upon to produce the desired result.

In fund raising, of course, it is often the team approach – combining the professional’s presentation skills and the volunteer’s influence – which is most effective.

4.  A different role for counsel

Another major consequence of the growth of the fund-raising profession is the changing role of counsel – now utilized most often as a part-time consultant, rather than an adjunct member of the staff.

As an organization continues to invest in building a full-time development staff of its own, leaders tend to grow increasingly confident (rightly or wrongly) that they have the “in-house” knowledge and expertise to manage a successful capital campaign. Counsel is then called upon to do those things, as it is widely acknowledged, that outside consultants are better equipped to do:

  • Conduct a thorough and objective planning or feasibility study.
  • Develop a realistic plan of campaign (and oversee its implementation).
  • Build a case for support that donors and volunteers (and not just staff) will find compelling.
  • Provide coaching, guidance and support for the development staff.

Frequently, counsel is also asked to play a prominent role in the early stages of the campaign – including the organization of the “family” campaign; the cultivation and solicitation of prospects for nucleus gifts; and the recruitment of the general chair and campaign steering committee. These are, after all, the crucial decisions and actions whose results will largely determine the outcome of the campaign.

By the time these tasks have been completed, of course, at least half of the campaign goal may have been committed, and the organization may be prepared to announce the campaign publicly. So the development staff can take over with a high degree of confidence in the final outcome, and gain experience at a lower level of risk.

As philanthropy enters a new century, the environment in which capital campaigns are conducted is certainly changing: The marketplace is more crowded. Activity is more intense, continuous, and complex. The financial stakes are higher. The roles of the key players – volunteers, professionals, and consultants – are shifting. And yet, the essentials – the ground rules by which successful campaigns are conducted – remain much the same. Certain conditions must be present; certain things must be done, and done properly, in order to succeed at this multi-faceted and challenging task.


The Seven Essential Elements of Success

Based on four decades of experience in the fund-raising business, our firm has found the following seven elements to be essential to a “winning campaign.” All are described in the latest volume of The Goettler Series:

1.   A solid organization

2.   A worthwhile project

3.   A compelling case for support

4.   Availability of sufficient financial resources

5.   Qualified and committed volunteer leadership

6.   Pacesetting leadership gifts

7.   A realistic and well-executed plan of campaign

As long as these elements are present, or at least within reach, your organization will have an excellent chance of avoiding the pitfalls—and carrying your campaign to a successful conclusion. If you haven’t already done so, check out “The Winning Campaign: The Essential Elements of Success.”

© 2003, Goettler Associates, Inc. All Rights Reserved.