Four Benchmarks that Predict a Successful Capital Campaign for Your University or Independent School

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 institution that possesses the four pillars and meets all four benchmarks is far more likely to reach or exceed a campaign goal than a school that is missing one or more.

Key takeaways from this whitepaper:

  • Identify the four pillars of a successful campaign.
  • See case studies from real campaigns.
  • Learn benchmarks to score your readiness for a campaign.
  • Shore up weaknesses to improve your institution’s 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 institution. They apply to independent schools, universities, and colleges of all sizes. What’s behind a successful campaign transcends sector and budget category.

Today's Campaign Environment

Before starting, it’s worth asking: with talk of an impending recession, is now really a good 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 2022 was higher than in 2021 and giving rebounded quickly following the pandemic as donors had a desire to move forward.

In the wake of the pandemic, donors became highly aware of the importance of supporting the institutions they care about and had a desire to leave a legacy.

It’s also important to recognize that giving always bounces back. The Giving USA 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 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. We’ve seen a strong uptick in the popularity of 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.

The pandemic also changed the trajectory of many institutions with higher enrollments, a shift in student needs, and a demand for support for teachers and staff. Donors see these problems and are ready to help institutions advance their missions to better serve their students and do so sustainably for years to come.

An independent school in Tennessee experienced so much growth following the pandemic, the strategic plan was no longer relevant. After completing a new strategic plan, the school had goals of campus master plan that would transform the school into a center for hospitality, with added safety, security, and community.

During their campaign study, the Winkler Group worked to share the school’s bold vision with lead donors. The response was overwhelming as donors were inspired by what they heard. School leadership realized there was pent up enthusiasm for a campaign and identified priorities that would excite and drive donors to give sacrificially. The priorities included a new arts center, a campus quad, a campus welcome center, and a reclaimed gym space.

The school has now opened all the spaces listed in the priorities above to serve their students, the larger community, and established themselves as a regional center for Christian thought leadership.

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 donors to a campaign are no different.

They must trust both the staff and the volunteer leadership of an institution and school to make good decisions. Today, trust in leadership is even more critical. 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.

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 institution’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.

The faith-based university believed in making blanket asks. The Winkler Group worked with leadership to develop a new strategy of personal engagement. By involving the president and vice president of advancement in cultivation efforts and solicitations, they were able to establish relationships with donors and foster support in the vision.

Through these personal interviews and touchpoints, the university successfully communicated its vision and strategic plan. This resulted in 86 percent of interviewees saying they would likely support the campaign financially. As a result, the university raised more money than at any other time in university’s long history.

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.

Measure Your Campaign Readiness

The best way to measure your institution 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 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.

A large university contacted us after their campaign stalled. Within minutes of the call, it was apparent they had never conducted a study.

The university president and cabinet had determined the priorities without input from key alumni or donors. A flashy case for support was developed—also without widespread input. There had been no cultivation, no attempt to listen to or consider the donors’ philanthropic priorities. Instead, blanket asks were made to large groups of leadership donors.

We conducted a mid-campaign assessment to determine a path to get the campaign back on track. During interviews with prospective donors, we identified multiple seven-figure gifts from donors who decided to give only after they felt engaged and heard. The campaign slowly gained momentum but never fully recovered from its rocky start.

We use campaign studies as the perfect opportunity to share and explain a school or institution’s compelling vision. It is also a way for us to determine hesitations about the project’s concept—obstacles to overcome with campaign messaging. The result? A campaign grounded in a study will take a shorter amount of time to finish and it will raise more money.

What if You Don’t Meet all Four Benchmarks?

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

There are effective remedies that any independent school, university, or college 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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