Ace Your First Fundraising Campaign

Having worked at a variety of independent schools and now in my work as a consultant, I have been involved with schools engaged in or preparing for major fundraising campaigns. Schools launch capital campaigns for a variety of reasons: to raise money for new buildings, to renovate existing facilities, or to launch new programs. Often a campaign will include money for the endowment; sometimes schools launch campaigns specifically to raise money for endowment. (The interest on endowment funds can help cover financial aid, faculty salaries, or costs not covered by tuition.)

Launching a campaign is different than annual fundraising. Campaigns can last anywhere from three to six years, or even longer, raising money that can transform a campus and grow the reputation of a school. Campaign fundraising requires extensive planning, strategic decision-making, research, teamwork, and focused effort. It’s a major undertaking that involve the entire school community—from the board of trustees and other volunteer groups to administrators, alumni, parents, grandparents, and faculty members. A successful effort requires a shared understanding of the goals, process, and timeline for the campaign. If you’re thinking about or getting ready to plan a major campaign, here’s a guide to the basic and critical elements that you’ll need to consider.

The planning study. Campaigns typically begin with a 10- to 12-week planning or “feasibility” study.  This helps determine an appropriate goal for the campaign, ensures focus on the right priorities and messaging, and identifies any potential obstacles, such as alumni frustration with a particular policy or lingering discontent about something that happened in the past.

A planning study is typically conducted with the help of an outside firm. Consultants will meet with top prospects to discuss a number of topics, from their feelings about the institution and the campaign, to their views on giving and philanthropy, to the estimated size of their gift. Donors appreciate having an opportunity to speak in confidence to someone who can then share the findings in aggregate form with the board and the staff.

When done right, a study will also help build early support for the campaign. Every discussion with a potential donor should be viewed as a relationship-building and cultivation opportunity. It’s not just about interviewing a donor; it’s about helping the donor to see the value of supporting the campaign.

Wealth screening. During a planning study, it’s a good idea to conduct a wealth screening of the school’s entire donor database. A wealth screening draws on publicly available information to assess the financial capacity in the school community. This helps to determine an appropriate goal for the campaign. A good wealth screening led by qualified data analytics professionals will also point the way toward alumni, parents, grandparents, and others who would be able to give to the campaign so that the school can solicit the right prospects and ask for the right gifts.

The quiet and public phases. After the planning study is finished and the board votes to move forward with a campaign, the quiet phase usually begins. This is the period when volunteers and school leaders meet individually with major prospects and solicit the biggest gifts of the campaign. It’s called a quiet phase because most of the asks at this point are made privately, in person at a donor’s home or place of work. The quiet phase should generally last until 60-70% of the overall goal is reached; however, the ideal timing depends on various factors, including the size of the campaign, information discovered during the planning study, and any key school milestones on the horizon.

Campaigns often go public on a school anniversary or other milestone—though it’s not essential—and this is when the excitement really starts to build. In preparation for the campaign going public, get all the glossy campaigns materials printed/produced and make sure the website has all the right information for potential donors.

Standard vs. comprehensive campaigns. A standard campaign raises dollars separate from the annual fund. Donors will continue to receive a yearly ask for the annual fund even after they have pledged to the campaign. A comprehensive campaign combines the annual fund and campaign into one goal. Donors are asked to make a single pledge, say over five years, that includes their annual and campaign giving.

The cost of raising money. Campaign fundraising is typically much more cost effective than annual fundraising because it raises more money. But all fundraising requires an investment of resources. Schools generally plan to spend 10-20 cents per dollar they seek to raise in a campaign, but the actual cost can end up being higher (or lower) depending on a school’s fundraising history, the campaign goal, unanticipated large gifts, or other factors. Financial investment is required to train and manage campaign cabinet volunteers, conduct prospect research, prepare donor visit briefings, establish and implement proper policies and procedures, and keep the campaign on track.

Consultants. Many schools hire outside consulting firms to ensure their campaigns are a success. This is because campaigns are time intensive. Consulting firms can help gather information about major prospects, analyze donor capacity, draft gift agreements, and train volunteers. They also bring an objective perspective, knowledge of best practices, and a disciplined focus to a campaign. Flexibility and full partnership are paramount and critical to a successful relationship, so tread carefully with firms that offer a one-size-fits-all model as well as firms that provide only high-level guidance. Small, boutique firms can be less expensive than bigger ones, but not often as likely to have the same types of resources as larger firms. Those resources can make a huge difference down the road.

Preparation +boldness = results. Schools are often reluctant to ask for big gifts, which is understandable—no school wants to alienate or offend its alumni. But fundraising only works when you ask for money. In my work, we sometimes have to encourage clients to “add a zero” to the amount they ask for. This can truly pay off. One school was about to ask a wealthy alum for $5 million. Based on our research, we knew this was too small an ask; data showed that the donor had both the capacity and affinity to give much more. We counseled the school to ask for $50 million and they did. The net result? A transformational, $40 million gift. 

Campaigns are marathons, not sprints. And they never really end—once you finish one, the next one is right around the corner. But they are exciting opportunities for schools to build and strengthen their communities. By providing a common goal for everyone to rally around, a fundraising campaign can unify the school community in powerful ways.
David Allyn
David Allyn

David Allyn is vice president at Graham-Pelton, a global fundraising and management consulting firm for leading independent schools. He is a former trustee of NAIS.


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