Is Now The Time To Begin A Capital Campaign?

Is <em> Now</em> The Time To Begin A Capital Campaign?

As a result of the recent economic downturn many nonprofits have decreased their development efforts; some think this is the safe and sensible approach. However, we propose a different way of thinking. In our view, this is the perfect time to initiate a major fundraising effort.

A capital campaign for a nonprofit organization is much more than a fundraising initiative for renovation or new construction, or for creating or expanding endowment. Starting a capital campaign offers an organization the opportunity to reflect on its mission, refocus its vision and recommit to the values that brought it to where it is today in advancing its purpose. It is a unique and exciting chance to challenge an organization, agency, hospital, museum or school to progress to the next level and to contribute to meeting the enormous challenges facing our communities. When times are tough and the need is greatest, it is incumbent on nonprofits to do what is required to weather the fallout from a diminished economy, continue to serve their communities and at the same time think strategically about their future role in helping to move our social sector forward.

Now is an ideal time to ignite your board and staff with the challenge of creating a multi-year strategic plan that will guide your work through and beyond the current economic difficulties. Thinking ahead rekindles dampened spirits by reconnecting trustees and staff with the hopes and dreams that inspired them to participate in the work of your organization in the first place.

The capital campaign begins with introspection; your board, staff and constituents take a comprehensive look at where your organization is positioned. You do this by glancing over your shoulder at your past, assessing the present and then scanning the horizon to locate your future. Your past gave life to your mission and raison d’etre. Your present indicates what you do and how well you do it. Your sense of the future is a predictor of the challenges that lay ahead and the place you will occupy in tomorrow’s world. Will you be a critical player in the initiative to end hunger in America? Will you nurture and educate the engineers who will eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels? Will you assure that our lives will be enriched by the comfort only the arts can provide?

Further, as part of that planning, reach out to the broader community to help with ideas, propose objectives and identify the resources that will be necessary for the next steps. If your purpose is serving the arts, for example, invite leaders in the field to share with your board how they work and what resources they need to produce state of the art experiences for their patrons. Invite former trustees and early donors to share the wisdom that guided your organization through previous periods of growth, restructuring or financial challenge. Invite users of your organization’s services to help establish priorities in terms of what they need most. Finally, bring all these groups together, perhaps in a town meeting format, to share what they have learned and to garner feedback.

In this way, you have expanded the circle of intimates who now have an interest, perhaps even a stake, in the success of the future they all contributed to imagining. Once you envision that spot on the horizon which will be occupied by your organization, you begin the process of gathering the blocks – the pieces your organization will need to assemble - to get to that place.

The future may look like a building, a new program, modern technological tools, higher level professionals, new strategic partnerships, or the cornerstone of your future – an endowment fund. To get there it will take strategic thinking and planning; collaboration on goals from all constituents; lots of resources (time and money) and a board of trustees that is willing to learn, mature and offer its collective best thinking. From big thinking comes bold planning. Bold planning requires meaningful investment. It is from these roots that your capital campaign will grow. To be properly positioned to undertake this campaign you will need to invest in the technologies required to raise money in today’s digital world: solid donor management software; website content that will enable your donors and prospects to visualize that spot on the horizon; social networks where the “buzz” will grow; and systems that will help you engage the partnerships that will be vital to achieve success.

Simply put, the steps are as follows:

Year 1 & 2:

  • Envision the future and consider opportunities: Challenging times present opportunities for new thinking and innovation. Where do you see your organization in five years? Ten years? With whom might you partner to achieve your goals? Engage the board, “friends of the organization” (former trustees, clients, etc.) and experts in the field to bring comprehensive thinking to construct your vision.
  • Plan thoughtfully with specific objectives: Careful and comprehensive planning will not only give you the road-map but will also be an opportunity to engage all constituents. Start with broad-based questions: What is going to happen here over what period of time? Who will be responsible for getting the job done? What resources will be required to accomplish what we envision, including a rough estimate of the amount of money you will have to raise?
  • Next, engage in formulating a comprehensive strategic plan that will ultimately address the specifics and goals you will need to define to get your entire constituency and new supporters on-board. Well done, such a plan will provide the persuasive language and descriptions that will form the basis of your campaign case study.


Year 3

  • Assess the chances for success: A professional assessment will help you identify the tools, staff and expertise you will need to undertake a capital campaign. It will also help you determine the best way to implement the campaign given your constituent population. Conversations with top prospects help make your goals realistic given the capability and propensity of those supporters to give. This is a concrete first step in engaging and cultivating support.
  • Spread the word: Begin with those closest to the organization and start to generate excitement. Through your due diligence you have determined that it is really going to happen. In this phase you not only cultivate your major donors but also your campaign workers and in-kind supporters: those better able to assist you with time and effort than with donations, and with sufficient interest in your mission that want to help.

Year 4 – 6

  • Launch and Conduct the Campaign: You are ready. Your thoughtful and strategic preparation will not only bode well for fundraising success but has built capacity within your organization that will be sustainable for the generation to come.
  • Celebrate your success!: There may be the need for fine-tuning along the way, but with the research and analysis you and your board have conducted, the advance planning during challenging financial times assures the probability of your success as the economy improves. You will be well poised to capitalize on donors’ desires to contribute to the greater good when they once again have discretionary income.

The fundamental elements of strategic growth realized through the dollars raised in a capital campaign apply to nonprofits across the board from the smallest agencies supplying a bowl of soup to the hungry and a blanket to the homeless to our largest educational institutions developing our leaders and great thinkers of tomorrow. The U.S. populace has called for change to address the social, environmental, medical, educational, political and economic demands of our citizenry. Historically the driver of change in the social sector, our nonprofits must continue to lead the way by thinking creatively and taking the risks to do what they do better, taking on more responsibility, and building alliances and partnerships to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots.

You may be encountering economic uncertainty right now, complete with disappointing fundraising appeals, skittish funders and increased demand for services and scholarship dollars. However, it is also an important time for organizations to envision the future. This indeed is the time to consider what role your organization plays in society, what you do best and what you will need to be a player in building a healthier, stronger, smarter, fairer, greener world for us all. Remember: In bad financial times, people have time and no money. In good financial times, people have money and no time. Capitalize now on the “time” and the imperative for change. In the not too distant future, social investors will be anxious to invest in those organizations which have planned strategically, in order to build a better world.

Yes, now is a great time to begin a capital campaign.

Ruthellen S. Rubin, CFRE is a member of the Faculty of the George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. She is the President of Ruthellen Rubin & Associates, providing consulting services geared to helping nonprofit organizations achieve sustainable, accountable and professional fund development initiatives: www.ruthellenrubin.com

Judith R. Fox, Ed.D, is the Executive Director of the Louis August Jonas Foundation. She enjoyed a distinguished career as an educational leader in Great Neck, Scarsdale and Armonk, New York as science chair, high school principal and school superintendent, respectively. In 2007 she retired from the world of education after six years as the head of Princeton Day School where she launched and led a $53 million comprehensive campaign.


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