Capital Campaigns: Five Ideas Worth Sharing
Money was a mystery at my alma mater, where I became head in 2017. I quickly learned the message from the school’s finance office: Avoid spending money wherever possible, because there is never enough. But, surprisingly, each year the school raised more than half a million dollars through auctions and community service days—to help close the gap in the annual operating budget between tuition revenue and expenses. Top donors began to tell me that they had become weary of giving each year just for operations.
As I started to ask questions about school finances, I found puzzling financial reports and soon discovered a serious operating deficit, one that had accumulated over several years. By 2018, all reserves had been depleted. The finance director, who had served the school for 12 years, agreed to resign after substandard accounting practices came to light.
The board and I decided to be transparent about the deficit and how we planned to address it. I created a transformational action plan for the first year of the newly approved three-year strategic plan, laying out the necessary financial changes. We made decisions to reduce faculty and staff positions, reworked compensation, and changed our tuition structure. We made serious cuts in operations and reorganized our administrative support. We sold some land and closed a satellite preschool campus. Asking for more money from our donors may seem counterintuitive, but one year after publicly announcing the deficit, we launched a comprehensive capital campaign, an initiative that hadn’t been done at the school in 17 years.
Members of the school community got on board with the capital campaign because we framed it around the students. The “why” of the renovation fund was to provide improved learning spaces for students. Raising money for tuition meant that more students had access to attend the school. We used the story of our financial recovery plans to prove that we were serious about stewarding resources. And people were eager to see something that would be visible and not used up operationally every year. We were able to meet our goal of $3.9 million dollars.
We learned a lot along the way. Here are five ideas for comprehensive campaigns helped our school get back on track.
Get help. As a new head at a small school, I was the sole development staff person. The school had good relationships with the top 15 annual donors, and they often saw a need, such as new carpet in the elementary school, and would cover the cost on their own initiative. Still, other relationships had slid, and we needed a part-time development director to give donors their full attention. We hired a newly retired pastor who knew the community, had national-level leadership and fundraising experience, was an alumni parent and grandparent, and loved the school so much that sharing stories of our mission moved him to tears.
We also got help from a process consultant. After some resistance about spending money on a consultant and having a third-party come in and understand our unique community, the board came around. The process consultant spent time with me, our leadership team, our board, and with donors to listen to our vision, and together we co-created our plans for the capital campaign. In many ways, our consultant was a coach, and we did the work.
Through feasibility work with the process consultant we determined that we needed better donor data and to rekindle stronger ties with donors. To do that, we invested in a school-specific donor database that an administrative assistant would manage and update. We also looked to the campaign committee, which met as needed and included 6 parents and alumni between the ages of 35 and 45.
Focus on students. We started to connect fundraising to student impact. Our two major annual fundraisers go directly to the education of our students rather than filling an operational gap. Forward in Faith became the comprehensive capital campaign that included our Fair Balance Fund (annual fund) the renovation fund, and Secure the Future, which raised cash reserves through, endowments, estates that had been bequeathed to the school, and 10% of all contributions to any fund. Reframing how we thought about the annual fund eliminated financial aid and allowed families to pay an individual rate based on their income and resources through the Fair Balance Tuition Fund.
In the capital campaign, the portion that would go toward renovations was the largest, so our process consultant helped us make a case to donors about how the students would benefit. We imagined areas on campus that needed updating, including a new HVAC system, renovated classrooms, a large multipurpose area for the middle school, a safer parking lot and new restrooms near the Performing Arts Center, and used photos to help donors visualize, connect, and ultimately give to the campaign.
When it came to endowments and cash reserves, we aimed to keep the focus on students, too. So, we did not make direct asks for this category but instead put aside 10% of all funds raised for the Fair Balance Tuition Fund and for the renovation fund toward Secure the Future. This category of our campaign allowed us to tell the story of the school’s recent financial challenges and how we addressed that by setting aside cash reserves. Donors supported the school for having made hard and necessary changes. Because of Secure the Future, the school had cash reserves to use as needed in response to the pandemic.
Do not wait for a perfect time. In the past 17 years, the school had ramped up with building plans but each time, they got put on hold. Donors and board members were tired of the ebbs and flows, and committed supporters tired of significant annual giving that was used up each year. We began talking with major donors about Forward in Faith in the very same year that the board apologized to the corporation for not being aware of the financial situation of the school. The campaign continued during all of 2020 with shifts to an online auction and a modified community service day. Contributions rolled in with more than 160 households participating. The largest single donation was $700,000.
Emphasize ownership. The school’s students, alumni, parents, grandparents, teachers, and community members feel a deep sense of ownership in our school. To build a sense of community ownership, we avoid using “we” and “our” when referring to the school or the students. We use the name of the school instead of pronouns. We don’t want the possibility that community members feel that “our school” excludes them. When they donate, they are not “helping the school” as if they gave to the Red Cross. In the school’s sense of community ownership, community members are the school. When donors give, they are investing and building up something that is already theirs.
Believe in abundance. The school’s approach to fundraising had always seen the cup as half full. Fundraising letters from the archives begged the constituency to “fill the gap,” “help us meet the budget,” “without you we cannot...,” or references to “shortfalls.” Launching the campaign felt like stepping off a cliff, but we kept our eyes on the mission for the students. This was the right plan at the right time, many community members have said. Giving is an opportunity for people to experience the joy of generosity by supporting something they believe in. We learned to be unapologetic about inviting people to give. We learned to focus on the students and the plan, instead of on a need.