The Capital Campaign Deal Breaker

Typically, conducting a capital campaign is reserved for larger projects that require a serious amount of time and investment. If you’ve done one, you know what I mean. Think building project or endowments. I’ve managed campaigns for as little as $500,000, but they are typically $1 million or more.

Most capital campaigns are preceded by what’s called a Feasibility Study. A campaign consultant or firm is hired to conduct a study to determine how much can be raised for a particular project.

Once a consultant is engaged to conduct a feasibility study, it’s usually a matter of “when” and “how much” not a matter of “yes” or “no”. I’ve never heard of a consultant, besides myself, recommending to an organization to forgo a campaign. I assume it happens, just not very often. Think job security.

Are You Ready?

There are, however, very good reasons not to go ahead with a capital campaign. How do you find out if you’re ready without spending thousands of dollars on a study?

You could search the Internet for a questionnaire or survey that will help you figure out whether you’re ready or not. Better yet, find an experienced consultant who can lead you through an afternoon planning session. That’d be much cheaper than a full-blown study and get some results pretty quickly.

If you’re wondering what general areas you should explore, here are a few suggestions. In order to conduct a successful capital campaign you have to have:

  1. Demonstrated and confirmed need,
  2. Influence and credibility in your community, however you define that,
  3. Project feasibility and fiscal responsibility,
  4. Demonstrated ability to attract and steward major gifts, and
  5. Capacity to manage a sustained campaign operation with dozens of volunteers.

Of course there are a lot of nuances and detail to each of these areas, and each one has been the topic of countless books, webinars, and conferences.

The Deal Breaker

But before you think that covers it, there’s a final question that, in my opinion, is a deal breaker. If you can’t answer this question with a resounding “YES!” you have no business embarking on a feasibility study, let alone a capital campaign, regardless of how ready you think you are.

Is your board of directors organized to provide solid and sustained leadership to your current fundraising efforts?

Without the full involvement of your board of directors in the planning and implementation of a capital campaign (at least for small and medium sized organizations) the risk of failure is pretty high. To say nothing of the huge checks they’ll be expected to write.

Isn’t it 2012?

This is a topic I’ve been talking and writing about for years. To be exact: 20 years. And frankly, I’m surprised that I’m still saying it. I’ve believed for years, and it’s recognized as a best practice by leading scholars and practitioners in our field, that it’s the board’s job to raise money. Period. End of sentence. Sure, the senior staff needs to be an integral part of the fundraising team and effort, but they aren’t the owners of the organization. That’s the board’s role.

In my experience, unless the board of directors is already actively engaged in giving (at a significant level) and getting large gifts, a capital campaign will not succeed. This is just one more reason that you must build a comprehensive strategic fundraising program that includes your board of directors. Better to first get them involved in a sustainable annual giving program, one where they can see results in a matter of weeks.

Bottom line

It’s the board’s responsibility to not only be concerned about and address these issues, but to be instrumental in creating the procedures and practices that ensure that the organization is moving forward month after month and year after year.

I know I’m making this way too simplistic and there are hundreds of other things to consider: getting ready for and running a successful capital campaign is challenging and complex. But if you don’t have a board of directors that is already taking full responsibility for creating and maintaining a culture of philanthropy, they’ll never engage enough to pull off a successful capital campaign.

Written by: Clay Myers-Bowman. December, 2012.

Clay Myers-Bowman is a fundraising consultant, award-winning producer, and writer. Need help trying to figure out what steps you should take to create and sustain a culture of philanthropy? Find out here.


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