Capital Campaigns – Part #1: What They Are

Sections of this topic

    This series of postings (don’t know yet how many will be in the series) is to help you understand and prepare for a capital campaign, so that, when you hire a staff campaign director or engage counsel, their time (and your money) will be used most effectively.

    To start, a definition: A Capital Campaign is an intense effort to acquire sufficient commitments to add up to a specific large sum, for a specific valid/urgent purpose.

    The word “Capital” refers to the money needed to erect/expand/renovate a building; it includes funding needed for the purchase/installation/overhaul of (major) equipment; and, has come to include funding to create/expand an endowment. (Endowment campaigns will be addressed in greater depth in a future posting.)

    The term “campaign” has its origin in a military context — although it’s rarely used that way today. It referred to the actual period of time that the troops were in the field, engaged with the enemy. It was/is a period of action/activity that, ideally, had been planned very carefully. In this context, it is the period of time in which most of the needed dollars are solicited/pledged.

    The “intensity” of the effort refers to having board members, staff and other volunteers commit the (additional) time and energy necessary to achieve the dollar goal in a specific (relatively short) timeframe. The typical campaign was designed to take 12 months – but it’s gotten a lot shorter. (More on that, later.)

    Typically, a capital campaign solicits pledges – significant dollar commitments to be paid over an extended period. Fifteen/twenty years ago, the period was five years, but considering the societal changes and people’s reluctance to commit to that long an obligation, three years is now typical.

    The “specific sum,” the goal of a campaign, is an amount that will allow the organization to pay for the (building/equipment) “project” that is outside its normal/ongoing budget requirements. This cannot be an arbitrarily chosen dollar figure voted on by a board or committee; it must be one that has been determined through a very careful/detailed process.

    “Valid” means that if the nonprofit organization was asked to justify why the project was needed, the NPO could clearly explain/demonstrate that a real need exists in the community and that the project would address that need.

    “Urgent” excludes any project for which the NPO could accumulate funding over an extended period of time without the need for a special fundraising effort. It would also exclude any project for which there is not a demonstrable need for the service(s) that will be made available because of the project.

    Have a comment or a question about starting or expanding your basic fundraising program, your major gifts fundraising program, or a capital campaign? Email me at With over 30 years of counseling in major gifts, capital campaigns, bequest programs, and the planning studies to precede these three, we’ll likely be able to answer your questions.