Five capital campaign mistakes and how to avoid them


If you’re like many of the nonprofits with which we partner at the Steier Group, it’s been several years – or possibly even several decades – since your last capital campaign. You may be wondering how to start a campaign in the first place. And certainly, you’re hoping to avoid any capital campaign mistakes that could derail your effort.

Even the most well-meaning nonprofit CEOs and development directors can make mistakes when it comes to capital campaigns. Many of these leaders conduct only a few campaigns over the course of their careers. Here are five of the most common capital campaign mistakes, and more importantly, how to avoid them:

Forgoing a feasibility study

“Why should we spend the time and money for a feasibility study if we already know we’re going to run a campaign?” This is a question I often receive from clients, and it’s a fair question. While it’s tempting to jump right into a campaign,conducting a study is the best way to set yourself up for success.

There’s a reason we call them campaign planning studies at the Steier Group – they help plan for a successful capital campaign.

During a study, you’ll hear from your community through personal interviews and a series of surveys. You’ll be able to gauge their support for the campaign and hear their views on your organization. This allows you to determine major gift prospects, prioritize your goals, identify campaign leaders and build awareness for the campaign.

By the time the study is complete, you’ll be ready to launch your campaign armed with a customized road map for success.

Waiting to begin a campaign

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Wait, didn’t you just tell me not to rush into a campaign?”

While that sentiment holds true, here I’m referring to the precious time between the end of the planning study and the start of a campaign. Based on our experience, it is best to begin a campaign immediately following a planning study. This allows you to maintain momentum and capitalize on awareness generated during the study.

According to our data, clients that begin a campaign less than two weeks after a planning study raise 17 percent more than those that delay the start of their campaign by more than two weeks.

That could be the difference between a campaign that meets your expectations and one that exceeds your expectations.

Setting unattainable goals

The late motivational author Norman Vincent Peale famously wrote: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” In fundraising, however, this old adage doesn’t always apply.

That’s because if a capital campaign fails to reach its publicly stated goal, it is viewed as a failure. This is why as part of each planning study, the Steier Group makes a projection of how much can be raised.

For example, imagine that the Steier Group projects you can raise $2.5 to $3 million through a campaign. You set your public goal as $3 million, then proceed to secure $3.1 million in gifts and pledges. This is viewed as a huge success and cause for celebration! However, if you had instead set your public goal at $5 million, you would have raised just 62 percent of your goal and the campaign would be viewed in a completely different light.

When you begin your campaign, it is important to set realistic, attainable goals. After all, everyone likes to be part of a winning team.

Setting tiered goals is often an approach that allows you to define success on your terms while also inviting donors to address all of your needs.

Not recruiting enough volunteers

Over the past 21 years, the Steier Group has had the honor of conducting more than 1,500 campaigns. The most successful campaigns have had one theme in common: positive, energetic leadership who took ownership of their effort. This excitement spills over to the volunteers and prospective donors.

The larger the volunteer team, the better. This allows your organization to personally ask as many potential donors to support your campaign as possible. Without a large enough volunteer team, you may end up being overly reliant on direct mail, email blasts, online giving, group solicitations or telephone requests. Data tells us that would be a mistake:

A 2009 study by Indiana University’s Lilly School for Philanthropy reported that donors gave an average of 42 percent more to religious organizations when asked by someone they knew. In 2017, the Steier Group conducted its own study, which found that donors gave 21 percent more of the requested amount when asked in person than by mail and 25 percent more of the requested amount when asked in person than when approached by telephone.

To avoid winding up with too small of a volunteer team, we identify potential volunteers during the planning study in an effort to recruit them for the campaign as soon as possible.

Neglecting to say “thank you” more than once

Upon receiving a gift or pledge during a capital campaign, a nonprofit should send a thank you letter within 24-48 hours. Then what?

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that can be made during a campaign is allowing your stewardship efforts to end there. If you do not continue to thank your donors and update them on the progress of your campaign and organization, they may feel forgotten or unappreciated. Make it a memorable giving experience for those who chose to support your effort.

We suggest remaining in a constant state of gratitude. Send a handwritten thank you note from time to time to communicate your appreciation and to let the donors know the impact their gifts made. Host a donor appreciation event – anything from donuts and coffee to a sit-down dinner.

If done correctly, our data shows that a capital campaign actually bolsters annual giving programs.

Since 1997, the Steier Group has helped clients avoid capital campaign mistakes like these while raising more than $2 billion. I encourage you to contact me if you have any questions regarding best practices and the professional services of the Steier Group.

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