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Q&A: Do capital campaigns make sense in a time of crisis?

By Andrea Kihlstedt & Amy Eisenstein
May 20, 2021

Nonprofits have overcome some serious challenges over the past year. The cancellation of events and the need to abruptly pivot their fundraising strategies and messaging have certainly been struggles, but, by and large, we’ve seen some amazing resilience across the sector.

However, as things begin returning to “normal” in many parts of the world, remember that we’re still living and working through a major crisis. Even as vaccines continue to roll out in the coming months, there’s a long road to full recovery in both economic and social terms.

For many organizations, the need for major fundraising initiatives has become abundantly clear over the course of the pandemic. However, looking back over the past year and to the road ahead, some organizations may still be asking themselves, “Does fundraising make sense right now? Will our donors be responsive to a campaign? Will they find it insensitive considering current circumstances?”

These are certainly valid questions that deserve careful consideration. After all, you depend on your donors to help grow your impact and drive your mission forward; their thoughts and opinions should weigh heavily in your plans.

At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we’ve also thought deeply about these questions over the past year. We’ve walked nonprofits of all sizes through the process of determining whether a capital campaign makes sense for them at this particular time. In many cases, they do.

We wanted to share a few common questions that we receive from nonprofits and offer our own thoughts. Remember, the ultimate feasibility of any fundraising campaign depends greatly on your organization’s unique base and circumstances, but here’s how we’ve generally been thinking about capital campaigns in times of crisis:

How has COVID-19 affected capital campaigns?

As expected, the pandemic’s impacts on nonprofits and their responses to those changes have varied dramatically between organizations.

For example, performing arts organizations needed to immediately pause their campaigns back in early 2020. Long-term uncertainty about whether, when, and how they could reopen made this a wise choice until the future became clearer.

However, other types of organizations have seen the need for their services skyrocket during the pandemic. For them, it now makes sense to move forward with their campaigns to build the capacity necessary to meet that increased need. Food banks are the perfect example—many have seen unprecedented surges in the need for their help but were  unprepared in terms of the storage, manpower, and other logistical considerations required to effectively serve their constituents.

From a financial standpoint, it now (generally) makes little sense to completely stop fundraising. Despite disruptions, the stock market has been strong, and many wealthy donors have found themselves spending much less than usual over the past year. This means many of your top prospects likely have more money to give to their favorite causes than they would in a more typical year.

Can capital campaigns be adapted to shorter-term needs?

Most people think of capital campaigns as massive, multi-year fundraising efforts. This is part of the reason that many nonprofits have completely shut out the idea of a capital campaign over the past year, let alone growing their development teams. But this is not the only definition of a capital campaign.

The capital campaign model can be adapted to the wide variety of circumstances that nonprofits currently face.

We urge nonprofits to break free from any restrictive, preconceived notions about what capital campaigns are. They don’t necessarily have to take three years or more, and they don’t always need to raise millions of dollars. There’s no reason why organizations can’t use the key principles of capital campaign fundraising to reach smaller goals over shorter periods of time.

For organizations in desperate need to grow their capacity in order to meet increased need in their communities, this flexibility is invaluable. In fact, at the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we’ve developed a special program specifically for this purpose—raising $100,000 or more in an eight-week period. It’s definitely do-able. The process simply needs to be distilled down to its essentials and adapted from there.

What are the core principles that should guide a small-scale capital campaign?

Here are the core principles that we focus on in our eight-week campaign model:

  1. Determine exactly what it is you need to raise money for.
  2. Figure out how much addressing that need will cost and develop a working goal for the campaign.
  3. Break that goal down to see how many gifts you’ll need at various levels (just like building a gift range chart for a more typical campaign).
  4. Identify the 20 people you can reach out to for the top three or four gift levels.
  5. Articulate a simple, clear, and compelling case for support that ties together your needs, your community, and the impact that increased capacity will have.
  6. Ask for the gifts, in-person or by Zoom as needed.

These are exactly the same core steps of a longer campaign’s planning and quiet phases, but they don’t have to take months or years. When they’re condensed down in this way and built into a tight schedule, you can generate extremely compelling energy and momentum in just a matter of weeks.

To learn more about how nonprofits are using the capital campaign model for diverse, shorter-term needs, check out our guide to capacity-building campaigns. These mini-campaigns have been especially helpful for nonprofits facing immediate and extraordinary needs during the pandemic. And we hope that they’ll continue to be a useful part of nonprofits’ arsenals going forward. 

Why are capital campaigns an effective form of crisis fundraising?

Capital campaigns (whether big or small) are all about impact.

In any capital campaign, you’re raising money for specific things that will increase your organization’s impact and ability to pursue your mission. In times of crisis, those needs become clearer and more compelling. This means the impact of gifts is thrown into very sharp relief and made easier to identify and highlight to donors.

It’s always important to emphasize impact in your nonprofit’s communications, campaign appeals, annual reports, and more. However, now is the time to lean even further into it. Donors should know that gifts made to a mini-capital campaign right now will have outsized impacts on your mission for years to come.

The tone and contexts of fundraising have certainly changed, but the essentials still apply—engage, ask, listen, and be communicative and transparent. Your donors want the opportunity to create a huge impact on your mission. You just have to tell them about it while sticking to these guiding principles.

What if it feels inappropriate to fundraise during a crisis?

This is a valid concern, and it’s been a common one over the past year. But all throughout 2020, we’ve seen that organizations that stop fundraising simply raise less money.

Fundraisers who feel asking for support is somehow unseemly during tough times might be missing the bigger picture or think that fundraising is just about bothering people for their money. We believe it’s more profound than that.

Fundraising gives people who have money the opportunity to use those funds to do good in the world. When times get bad, many donors are actively looking for new and larger ways to help, especially the organizations that they already love and believe in. The bottom line is that the right people, your capital campaign’s potential donors, become more generous in times of need, not less.

The pandemic and the events of 2020 have also shed light on numerous social, political, and economic issues that deserve attention. If your mission is now more urgent and relevant than ever, and you’re facing a genuine need for expanded capacity, you’re probably already on the minds of your donors. They won’t fault you for bringing up your mission and your needs in the conversation.

If the pandemic has exacerbated the need for your services, like education equity or expanding access to medical services, all the more reason to explain what you need in order to achieve these goals. We’ve seen this across sectors in 2020, for instance in surges of interest in unions and advocacy organizations that both relate directly to the past year’s challenges and also have adapted to the world of virtual organizing.

People are energized and awareyour mission needs to be part of the conversation (even if you do ultimately decide that now’s not the time for a major fundraising push).

How can you start using capital campaign principles for short-term needs?

Capital campaign thinking always starts with defining exactly what you want and need to raise money for. Sounds simple enough, but it takes a good deal of thought to figure it out and then distill it into a crystal-clear case for support.

Simply put, you’ll need to clearly define and articulate your need, and then build your unique campaign from there.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Fundraising