Four Benchmarks that Predict a Successful Capital Campaign

What makes some capital campaigns wildly successful while others barely hit their goals?

The answer is more straightforward than you think.

Successful campaigns led by the Winkler Group over the firm’s 18-year history can be traced back to four fundamental elements—pillars—because they are as essential to a campaign as four walls are to a building. An organization that possesses the four pillars and meets all four benchmarks is far more likely to reach or exceed a campaign goal than a nonprofit that is missing one or more.

Key takeaways from this white paper:

  • Identify the four pillars of a successful campaign.
  • See case studies from real campaigns.
  • Use these benchmarks to score your readiness for a campaign.
  • Shore up weaknesses to improve your readiness.
  • Raise more money by strengthening your culture of philanthropy.

The four benchmarks of a successful campaign are the same regardless of the type of organization.
They apply to universities, health care systems, food banks, ministries, or art museums.  The size of the organization or institution doesn’t matter either. What’s behind a successful campaign transcends sector and budget category.

Now is an ideal time to launch a campaign

It may seem counterintuitive given the state of today’s economy, but organizations today are seeing bigger gifts—more transformational gifts—today than at any point in the Winkler Group’s history.

Despite fears of a recession, transformational giving is not slowing down. Nationwide, philanthropic giving in 2021 was higher than in 2020 and eight percent higher than in 2019 (Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2022).

During the pandemic, donors became highly aware of the importance of supporting health systems and hospitals and invested in their success. Donors continue to be inspired to act and ensure the future of their favorite causes.

Giving USA 2022, the seminal report on philanthropy, found growing support for health-related causes. Between 2020 and 2021, giving to health rose 7.7 percent in current dollars to $40.58 billion (2022).

It’s also important to recognize that giving always rebounds. The chart below shows just how resilient giving is. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, giving has only declined 10 times in the past 41 years. After the 2008 Great Recession, giving quickly skyrocketed to the record levels we’ve seen recently.

Pillar #1: A Big and Inspiring Vision

The key to a successful campaign is a vision that moves your organization or institution to the top of your donors’ priority list.

To do that, you must deliver a set of campaign priorities that excites them—one that inspires them to stretch and give sacrificially for the period of the campaign.

Inspirational priorities are not limited to capital projects; donors are increasingly interested in investing in outcomes. For academic institutions, this can mean endowment funding for programs that improve student success or grow enrollment.

Scholarships that build a diverse student body and provide more accessibility are as popular as ever.

In health systems, donors will always be interested in funding buildings and equipment that ensure advanced care. But today, we notice they also want to expand widespread access to quality healthcare among all populations.

Community-based organizations—forced to pivot during the pandemic—found new ways to advance their mission. Donors want to support efforts that scale successful initiatives and make permanent the lessons learned over the past 18 months. More than ever, we have seen that long-term sustainability is also important to donors. Donors to the campaigns we’ve led over the past two years have been more interested in endowments than in years past. They are more deliberate about the staffing and maintenance of new facilities, for example, not just the building itself.

Case Study: A beloved healthcare clinic in Tennessee had reached capacity.

They served thousands of people each year, particularly immigrants who found themselves in a foreign land. As the city grew, so did the demand for high-quality affordable care.

The answer: replicate the model in areas where it was most needed. Scale to meet demand by building satellite clinics in neighborhoods where its patients were clustered.

During their campaign study, the Winkler Group worked to share the organization’s bold vision with lead donors. The response was overwhelming as donors were inspired by what they heard. Donors had long recognized the effectiveness of the organization’s model. When given the opportunity to invest in its growth, they responded with generosity.     The clinic opened its first satellite location just before the pandemic began. The importance of the clinic’s model was highlighted throughout the fight against COVID, which has increased donor support and will make possible even more clinics designed to serve their communities’ most vulnerable populations.

Pillar #2: Do Your Donors Have Confidence in You?

If you were buying stock in a public company, you would want to know if the company was well-run. Major gift donors to a campaign are no different.

They must trust both the staff and the volunteer leadership of an organization to make good decisions. Today, trust in leadership is even more critical. Giving USA has charted a consolidation in giving since the 2008 Great Recession. Donors are giving larger gifts, but to fewer organizations. To be one of those organizations, your donors must feel comfortable that their money is wisely stewarded by solid decision-makers. Without this trust, it will be impossible to get donors to stretch beyond nominal gifts.

Case Study: A large boarding school in Texas raised 89 percent of its ambitious campaign goal by the first steering committee meeting and before the quiet phase even began.

One of the reasons for the school’s success was its leadership’s ability to inspire its families and develop relationships based in trust.

The head of school has an open-door policy for school families and donors. He knows what families are interested in supporting financially because he listens to them and welcomes dialogue. In turn, donors recognize his commitment to a strong partnership that includes both school and family. When it came time to conduct the campaign study, the Winkler Group cast the vision the head of school and school leadership had carefully cultivated with families over the prior years. The response was overwhelming. One donor called the development office after being interviewed for the study and exclaimed, “We have to do this, and we want to be the first gift to the campaign.”  He offered a seven-figure pledge that was twice what he originally intended to make.

Pillar #3: Do Your Donors Support the Vision Enough to Fund it?

Donors can have great confidence in an organization’s leadership and find the campaign’s priorities compelling, but if they’re not willing to invest their own funds, your campaign will not reach its goal.

In a campaign study, we spend weeks identifying the right people to interview—those who have the ability to impact the campaign’s bottom line by making a potential leadership gift. If these prospective donors are not fully in support of your priorities, an interview can uncover their objections. That information can be used to modify the final set of priorities in a way that enhances potential support.

Donors today want to be more engaged than ever before. If you do not involve them prior to the campaign—and give them a role in the decision-making process—expect only a nominal gift. Instead, share your plans with them. Ask for their genuine input. If you can match their passion with your vision, they will stretch their giving to make it a reality.

Case Study: One of the largest Anglican churches in the country launched a campaign to build a new sanctuary, new fellowship spaces, youth rooms, and community outreach areas.

Throughout the campaign, church leadership and volunteers focused on engaging parishioners on a personal level and sharing the church’s mission.

The Winkler Group worked with the church to develop a strategy of personal engagement; instead of leading the campaign from the pulpit and making the same appeal to everyone, church leaders met with church members individually. They had personal conversations about faith that inspired direct generosity and campaign gifts.

The result was a campaign that far exceeded its goal. Five families gave gifts of $1 million or more. Three years after the campaign ended and even after the new buildings opened, church members continued to give. Two additional 7-figure gifts were received. Pledge fulfillment rates topped 95 percent. The campaign raised more than funding. There is renewed energy on Sunday morning and throughout the week that is a direct result of the campaign’s inspiring vision to connect people to the power and presence of Christ.

Pillar #4: Are Your Donors Willing to Play a Role?

Relationships are the foundation of every major gift, especially during a campaign.

A successful campaign is led by a group of generous donors who also have substantial spheres of influence. These leadership volunteers, leading by example, encourage their friends and colleagues to join them in their substantial support of the campaign.

A campaign is a labor-intensive effort that requires more manpower than a typical shop can handle. Most development and advancement offices are already stretched thin accomplishing annual fundraising goals and cultivating major gift donors. In a campaign, volunteers come alongside staff and share in the heavy lifting, particularly by keeping the high volume of campaign solicitations on track. This allows staff to stay focused on their annual goals.

Case Study: During the pandemic, community-based organizations saw an outpouring of generosity from their communities.

One of our client partners, a large nonprofit that addresses poverty in Washington, D.C., attracted 24,000 new donors during the pandemic.

Over the past year, they have deliberately engaged these new donors, going beyond handwritten thank yous and calls from the CEO. Through special webinars and insider virtual tours, they have carefully cultivated their new major donors. As a result, their donor retention rates are 24 percent higher this year than in 2020. To take donor engagement a step further, the organization decided to launch a campaign study in advance of a capital campaign. Their chief development officer explains, “We have so many new donors. A campaign could not have come at a better time for us. We have momentum and this is a great way to have some in-depth conversations with prospective new leadership donors.”

Measure Your Campaign Readiness

The best way to measure your organization against the four benchmarks of a successful campaign is to conduct a campaign readiness study (also known as a feasibility or planning study).

Without a study, you run the risk of jumping into a campaign before you’re ready. You also risk leaving millions of dollars on the table by not engaging your investors before the campaign and asking for their feedback.

A campaign study will…

  • Determine stakeholder support
  • Uncover trust and confidence in leadership
  • Measure willingness to invest financially
  • Identify a strong volunteer leadership pool

In addition to these often-overlooked benefits, a robust study will help you make decisions grounded in fact—not feeling. You’ll receive direct feedback from your donors, including whether the campaign priorities inspire them and how much they are willing to invest. You’ll learn what messaging will best resonate in a campaign and strategies that will encourage your donors to stretch in their giving to the campaign.

For a large organization that fights homelessness, a campaign study proved to be an essential cultivation tool. Without it, the campaign might have been a non-starter.

The vision was to build seven stories of affordable housing in the middle of an upscale urban environment—an idea some of the long-term donors had trouble grasping. The concept of offering permanent housing seemed like mission creep to some donors who saw the organization primarily as a shelter.

We used the campaign study as the perfect opportunity to share and explain the organization’s compelling vision. It was also a way for us to determine hesitations about the project’s concept—obstacles to overcome with campaign messaging. The result?  The campaign raised 160 percent of its goal and energized the organization’s constituency around the concept of affordable housing as a way to end homelessness. It also attracted new donors to the campaign, including a new seven-figure leadership donor.

What if You Don’t Meet all Four Benchmarks?

You can still launch a successful campaign even if your organization doesn’t meet all four benchmarks.

There are effective remedies that any university, nonprofit, or organization can put into place to increase the likelihood of campaign success. You may, however, need to adjust your timeline and do some additional homework first.

If some of the priorities presented to donors do not resonate or fail to generate intended investment levels, listen to feedback from the study. Consider eliminating or changing the priorities to align with most donors’ interests. Keep donors apprised of your decisions so they know their opinions were heard.

When measuring benchmarks, we often see high levels of confidence in staff leadership but not in board leadership. It’s not because donors do not trust the board; instead, they don’t know board members or the governance process. A campaign is a great opportunity to increase a board’s visibility—and create a more transparent culture.

Mystery Solved

Just like good fundraising is based on time-honored fundamentals of relationship building and donor stewardship, there really are no mysteries surrounding what makes a campaign successful.

If you hear of a new method that promises campaign success without hard work and deliberate effort, be skeptical. A successful campaign is built on a strong foundation, not gimmicks or events.

Whether a campaign is imminent, or you are still in the planning process, keeping these four benchmarks top of mind will improve your overall fundraising efforts. Donors are dreamers and problem-solvers; if you can inspire them and show them how you turn their investment into impact, they will respond. Keeping them updated and engaged will build their confidence—and will grow their investment levels. When it comes time for a campaign, they will be ready to give and encourage others to follow their lead.

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