Capital Campaigns: Step by Step

Changing our world requires three things: faith, leadership, and money.

Learn how to plan and execute a multi-million dollar capital campaign.  Fund new construction, an endowment, or major program improvements.

Major gifts are the key to campaign success.

I manage capital campaigns for Catholic schools and churches. After 30+ years, I am still amazed that the vast majority of total dollars come from a very small number of donors. For example, here is how we raised $4.5M for renovation of a seminary dorm:

  • Number of records in database = 15,043
  • Number of donors who supported the annual fund or events within the last year = 2,843
  • Number of donors to the capital campaign = 159

Of the 159 campaign donors…

  • 6 donors contributed a total of $3,800,000
  • 19 donors contributed a total of $445,000

Ponder this for a moment. $4,245,000 came from the top 25 donors. That is 94% of the total. These are the people who are changing our world.


Every Catholic parish and school has million dollar prospects ‘sleeping’ in their contact lists.

Your apostolate is no exception.

Let’s find them. Let’s ask them.

Let’s do something bold.

The statistics above are not unusual. Most capital campaigns, whether it’s a goal of $500,000 or $1 Billion, play out the same way. As few as 10 – 40 donors are responsible for 80 – 95% of total dollars raised.

Successful capital campaigns focus 95% of their energy on major gifts.

Step 1: Develop a Major Gift Prospect List.

The first step in the Capital Campaign process is the development of a major gift prospect list.

What is considered a major gift prospect? That depends. For small schools and parishes, it might be gifts of $25,000 or more. For larger organizations, it will be prospective gifts of $50,000, $100,000 or more. In any event, your major gift prospect list represents a vetted list of your Catholic school or parish’s best prospects.

Most fundraising consultants will tell you that a Fundraising Feasibility Study is the first step in preparing for a capital campaign. That is true only if you have developed a major gift prospect list. These are the 40 – 50 constituents with the capacity to make the largest gifts. Only then can you proceed with a Feasibility Study.

Why? Because these few individuals have the ability to fund 95% of the entire project! These are the people needed for a successful campaign. You must know who they are so you can include them in the study.

Many firms tout web surveys, focus groups, etc. as part of the study. But this is outreach to the hundreds of potential donors who will make up the last 5% of revenue. In that light, these added services are essentially window dressing.

Again, major gift prospects are key to a valid study. The biggest mistake you can make is rushing into a Feasibility Study before you have researched and developed a major gift prospect list.

So how do you develop such a list?

Within your database of donors, you must first set up a coding system to identify potential major gift donors. This is the single most critical step in preparing for a capital campaign.

The Major Gift Prospect List is the heart of a data-driven capital campaign.

Without a vetted list, your feasibility study will be invalid and the campaign will flounder.

Questions about setting up your database to track prospects?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Now that you have a way to track major gift prospects in your database, you can begin to identify them.

Start with analyzing your current donors. Prior giving is the best indicator of future giving. It’s rare to receive a major gift of $50,000, $100,000 or $1,000,000 as the first gift. Rather, major gifts are usually preceded by smaller gifts to your annual fund, an auction event, etc. It is from the ranks of these donations that potential major donors are usually found.

Three search criteria will help you identify major gift prospects ‘sleeping’ in your database.

  1. Single largest gift or pledge
  2. Total lifetime giving
  3. Total number of gifts

Changing Our World

Saints like St. Francis Cabrini, St. Elizabeth Anne Seton and St. Katherine Drexel ministered at times of great need in our country.

They knew that changing our world required faith that God would raise up benefactors to support their ministry.

The process explained above will likely bring up familiar names. They are familiar because many are loyal donors. But don’t stop with the usual suspects. Others in your database have great wealth, but intermittent or modest giving. Searching on prior giving would fail to identify them as potential major gift donors.

You need to dig deeper.

There is likely other data in your database that will help you identify major gift potential. For example, schools often have information gleaned from reunions such as job titles and other employment data. Searching on CEO, CFO, Attorney, President and other titles can surface additional people with financial capacity.

Don’t have personal data? At the very least you likely have address and zip
code. In your efforts to find potential major gift donors, you may have to think like an investigator to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

A campaign isn’t over when you hit goal.

It’s over when you run out of major gift prospects.

So make sure you have identified every possibility.

Need Advice on Prospecting?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Some organizations use wealth screening services to identify potential major gift donors. Here’s how it works: you export your database, or a portion of it, and send it to a wealth screening vendor. The service typically costs several thousand dollars and takes anywhere from 3 – 6 weeks. They run your list of names and addresses through various public and proprietary databases and identify who ‘might’ be a major gift prospect.

For example, one vendor compiled a list of people who had made gifts to charities of $5,000 or more. When you submit your data to the vendor, they run your constituents against this list to see who among your constituents may have been a $5,000+ contributor to other charities. Similarly, there are lists of SEC insiders, plane and boat owners, individuals who sit on foundation boards, etc. The greater the number of wealth indicators like these, the more likely your constituent has significant wealth, which is what you need to know.

Sounds easy. But don’t get your hopes up just yet. Changing our world requires a little sweat equity. The data only tells you who might be a prospect. It doesn’t tell you who actually is. Once the data comes back, a human has to pick through as many as 20 – 30 data points for each individual before confirming that a constituent truly has wealth. Why? Because for any given data point, there can be a ‘false positive’ rate of as much as 40%.

Are wealth screening services worth the investment? They can be, but be prepared to put in significant time vetting individual records once the data is returned. For Catholic high schools, this vetting process can take as much as 3 – 8 weeks, depending upon the number of records.

What else would you like to know about wealth screening services?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Step 2: Draft your Case for Support

Changing Our World

The Catholic Church is the largest provider of education and social services in the world.

You walk in the footsteps of saints that for 2,000 years have been changing our world.

You have now identified your best potential major gift donors and coded them in your school or parish database.

Before beginning the Fundraising Feasibility Study you will need a written document typically called a Case for Support. This is not a fundraising brochure. That will come later.

Rather, the Case for Support briefly outlines the desired goals of the proposed campaign. I prefer to call it a Project Prospectus or Project Overview. It explains how much you would like to raise, how you plan to spend the money, and why the project is necessary.

The Case for Support is a written document that frames the conversation you will have with prospective donors in the fundraising feasibility study. Think of the Case for Support as a precursor to a campaign brochure. It’s a working document meant to be shaped by people’s input. As such, it doesn’t need to be an expensive printed document, but rather something you can create on your own if you have an eye for good graphics and the ability to tell your story.

The Case should answer four questions:

  1. What does your Catholic school or parish need?
  2. Why? What is the rationale for doing the project?
  3. What are the benefits of the project? What are the good things that will come from it? Or conversely, what are the ill effects if you don’t?
  4. Why now? What is the urgency driving the decision?

The Case ensures that the charity’s representatives and prospective donors share a common set of facts to shape the conversation. Through meetings with prospective donors, you will learn elements of the project that excite them, as well as any concerns they may have.

This reconnaissance will shape the campaign and its messaging.

You can do this. What else do you need to know to write a convincing Case?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Step 3: Conduct the Fundraising Feasibility Study

Fundraising consultants will tell you they have to be the ones to conduct the Feasibility Study visits with your top prospects to “ensure honest responses.” I fundamentally disagree. This widely accepted method was designed to aid the fundraiser and not you. Here’s the dynamic:

The fundraising firm claims they need to be the one to do the Feasibility Study visits to ensure objectivity from respondents. To further ensure objectivity, they promise interviewees that comments will be held in strict confidence.

Sounds reasonable at first glance. Let’s see how it plays out.

Assume one person said they loved the project; another said it was a ridiculous idea. One of them is capable of making a gift of $3,000,000, another is capable of making a gift of $25,000. Before setting a goal and launching the campaign, wouldn’t you, the client, like to know which one loved the project? Given the promises made by the consultant to interviewees, he can’t tell you.

What is the net effect of having a consultant privately conduct the Feasibility Study visits? At the end of the study, the consultant holds all the cards. If you proceed with a campaign, and want appropriate advice on how to approach each of your people, you will need to extend the consultant’s contract beyond the Feasibility Study to include the Capital Campaign. He has info you need. How convenient.

Consider this analogy: Imagine dating someone for years. The relationship is strong, and it’s time to talk about marriage. Would you send a third party to pop the question, “to ensure an honest answer?”

Would you send a third party to ask your beloved’s hand in marriage, “to ensure an objective, honest answer?”

It’s time to re-think the traditional fundraising feasibility study methodology.

Of course not. You can do this, and do it better, with proper training and guidance. Most of the people on your prospect list are typically friends who have supported you for years. At a critical time when your organization is about to do something big and bold, why send a stranger to visit with them? That never made sense to me.

You can do this. Need more info on how to conduct a feasibility study? Just ask.

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Step 4: Interpret the Feasibility Study data

With Board approval, make a decision on whether to proceed with a campaign. If so, determine the scope of the project and set an appropriate goal.

The #1 campaign mistake is setting a goal solely on desired amount, such as an architect’s expense estimate, without consideration of the income estimate provided by the Feasibility Study. Seasoned campaign professionals know the goal will be a balancing act between expense and income estimates.

By analogy, think of the decision to purchase a home for your family. You may desire that five bedroom Victorian on St. Charles Avenue, but can you afford it? Planned expenditures must be balanced against income estimates.

That holds true for non-profit organizations determining the scope of a project. The fundraising goal must be a reflection of how much you can raise, not how much you would like to spend. When income and expense projections align, you can launch the campaign confident of success.

Setting an attainable goal is a decision with lasting consequences. Consider carefully what is at stake if your campaign comes up short.

Finally, before proceeding with a campaign, be sure to get an on-the-record vote to do so from your Board. The motion should include the overall campaign goal and the projects to be funded. If more than one project is to be funded, the motion should include a ‘what if’ statement that lists project expenditures in priority order.

Need advice on setting a goal?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Step 5: Enlist Campaign Leadership

“Who is going to do the asking?” This is one of the questions often overlooked in planning a campaign.

Catholic school campaigns are sometimes driven entirely by the school president. They are the primary solicitor with support from development staff. In contrast, Catholic parish campaigns usually involve scores of volunteers.

In either case, campaigns usually involve a Campaign Leadership
Committee. This committee acts as a sounding board. Most members agree to help solicit. But not always. I’ve seen many successful campaigns where the President or Executive Director did all the soliciting themselves.

Catholic World View

Goodness of the Human Heart

If you have the courage to ask, you will find bold leadership willing to help.

Changing Our World

If a person cares about a cause, he tells his friends.

If he is concerned, he gives money.

If he is committed, he asks his friends to also give money.

In the last few years I’m leaning toward any method that makes use of volunteer engagement. Here’s why: the smartphone has radically changed personal solicitation. No one answers the phone or returns a text unless they know the person. Campaign volunteers are therefore a necessary ‘bridge’ to securing solicitation appointments.

Recall that 95% of total dollars raised will come from a small number of people. When brainstorming campaign leadership, be sure to include individuals who have access to your top prospects. A good place to search for campaign leadership is from among the major gift prospect list you created in Step 1. All things being equal, donors who are actively engaged in raising money will make a more committed gift themselves.

Bottom line: Changing our world requires people willing to ask. As you might expect, volunteers are naturally reluctant to solicit friends and associates. Most would rather ‘give’ than ‘get’. So be sure to provide volunteers alternative ways to help.

Step 6: Launch the campaign, beginning with solicitation of your best prospects first.

For decades it has been common practice to begin the campaign by soliciting top prospects first. That is still the case. Work the prospect list from the top down.

Here is the proper way to execute the major gifts phase of a capital campaign.

When you ask intelligently, all things are possible.

Step 7: Continue to focus on major gifts until you run out of prospects.

Campaign leadership and volunteers are usually OK securing the appointment, and may also tag along on the visit. But most find themselves too uncomfortable to actually do the asking.

So with the largest donors, asking will often be left to the primary administrator of the charity, whether that be a president, pastor or executive director. After all, top administrators are the ones responsible for the direction of the ministry. Anyone willing to consider a major investment will want to speak with the person at the helm.

So you need to understand how to present the Case for Support, what to say, and how to see the request from the donor’s perspective.

That’s why we developed a special tutorial on soliciting major gifts. You can do this. I can show you how to raise millions of dollars without spending a fortune on fundraising consultants.

Want to learn more about executing a successful campaign?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience