Looking to launch a successful campaign? Consider these tips…

AASCU Consulting
Dec 22, 2021 · 6 min read

James C. Schroeder, Consultant, AASCU Consulting

When an institution is considering how to initiate or enhance programs, expand or remodel infrastructure, provide more student services, or do any activity that will require increased revenue it will often include a fundraising campaign. While this is not always a straightforward or easy task, it can be successfully executed when it is comprehensively planned with attention to many important details. General and well known “facts” will help understand and shape the planning and execution of a campaign.

There is tremendous competition for philanthropic support from many sectors of our economy, education, health care, social services, arts, etc. Fortunately, there a variety of sources of support including alumni, friends, philanthropists, community leaders, foundations, businesses, and corporations. Therefore, the case for support must be compelling and resonate with these donor groups. Also, it must be clear how a successful campaign will have the desired impact and accomplish the agreed upon goals and purposes of the campaign.

The distribution of wealth in our economy and society, in part, accounts for the fact that many campaigns achieve at least 80% of their financial goal from 20% of the donors. More recently, it is common that those numbers are 90% and 10% respectively. Therefore, shaping fundraising strategies for different donor groups or interests is required. Institutional flexibility may be necessary when a donor uses the opportunity to make a gift that is only related to the purposes of the campaign but still within the mission of the institution.

Institutional readiness, thoughtful planning, and strategic execution are essential to any successful campaign.

Readiness takes the form of attitude and infrastructure. Ideally there is consensus among the institution’s governing board, foundation board, academic and management leadership around the necessity and purposes of a campaign. There should be ongoing efforts to imbue a “culture of philanthropy” throughout the institution. That is everyone in the institution, not just the development office, has an opportunity and responsibility to impact the success of fundraising and a campaign. Examples include public statements, marketing, accounting, gift receipting, donor reports, legal gift agreements and estate planning, alumni association programs, performing and visual arts, athletics, adult education. Virtually anything that the institution does can include a reference to the value of philanthropic support. It becomes a part of the institution’s brand.

It is important that the development infrastructure is in place, fully functioning and working at capacity. The purpose of the development program is to provide the leadership and staff to achieve the fundraising goals for the institution’s priorities efficiently and effectively. To carry out a successful campaign key components include effective leadership; enough well trained and successful fundraisers/planned giving officers; experienced support in events, marketing staff; and adequate support systems, CRM, prospect wealth screening, accounting, stewardship, and social media. If any of the above infrastructure components are missing or weak the campaign’s success may be compromised.

The planning phase of the campaign is designed to articulate the desired outcomes to be achieved and the steps necessary to be successful. The development program frequently provides the leadership in this process and may engage professional outside counsel. This also includes a strong partnership with the institutional leadership, key board members, donor prospects and valued friends. This becomes the profile of the campaign committee. This committee will consider the purposes of the campaign, its timeline, goals, and strategies. It will propose and agree on a campaign plan, and it will review progress and propose adjustments as necessary. The committee will be another important “face” of the campaign and add its counsel and gravitas to the undertaking.

The initial and guiding piece of the plan is the purpose of the campaign. For example, the purpose can be as focused as support for “scholarships” or as broad as support for the “undergraduate student experience”. It can be targeted for “upgrading the library” or as general as “enhancing teaching and learning spaces”. It is often the case that a campaign tends to be more inclusive and achieve multiple outcomes. More targeted fundraising initiatives tend to be smaller, stand-alone fundraising efforts that may not rise to the level of a full comprehensive campaign. Regardless of the scope and purpose of the campaign the case for support must be clearly stated and compelling.

This is also the time when the campaign committee begins to screen prospective donors for their interest in the case for support and their capacity to make leadership gifts. They are identified by virtue of their interest in and engagement with the institution over a period. This can also be based on their giving history, service on volunteer boards or committees, known interest in the purpose of the campaign, or personal relationships with the institution’s leadership including academic, teaching and research faculties.

At this stage of the planning process a feasibility study is both useful and essential. This will test the assumptions of the case for support, and level of financial interest from those identified as leadership gift donors. These may be known to the institutional and development leadership, but a personal and specific engagement must be made to confirm any assumptions. More commonly, these interviews are the task of objective third parties, including campaign counsel, which is often more comfortable for the donor. The results of these interviews not only inform its purpose and size but also allows the campaign committee to make important adjustments in the campaign plan. The campaign total financial goal and a reasonable timeline for its completion are also established by the campaign committee at this time in the planning.

A gift chart and giving pyramid are important tools to create at this early stage of the planning process. It estimates the number and size of gifts required to successfully achieve the campaign’s goal. It results in a pyramid-like picture of number of gifts on the horizonal axis and the size of gifts on vertical axis. Each gift range level is populated with donor prospects based on giving history, capacity, relationship to the institution and interest in campaign priorities. More importantly, it predicts the strategic allocation of resources necessary to identify, qualify, solicit, and steward donors at each level throughout the campaign. The degree of personalization of the fundraising increases from the least well-known prospects to the best-known prospects and donors.

The campaign requires a specific campaign budget in addition to the existing development budget. This increase is targeted for fundraisers and support staff, increased travel and entertainment expenses, events, marketing, materials including video, and professional campaign counsel. These additional expenses may be included in the final campaign goal.

An estimated timeline with benchmarked dates for accomplishing steps or stages of the campaign is necessary to gauge progress and set deadlines for specific tasks and outcomes. For example, a logical rollout of activities would include a quiet phase during which staff and systems are in place, lead donors are identified and contacted, information and materials in place and communicated to lead donors, and gifts are being secured. This may be the first one/half of the timeline. Ideally approximately 40% to 50% of the goal has been secured during this period. The second half of the timeline becomes more public with a kickoff celebration and information is shared more broadly to donor groups. Gifts at all levels are personally and more generically solicited and are expected to occur in larger numbers but at smaller levels. The predetermined date for the conclusion of the campaign should be observed and decisions made to either declare victory or continue for some limited time and purpose.

For the purposes of this piece, we have focused on the basics for considering, planning, and carrying out any campaign. It is dynamic and has many interconnected components. It becomes its own ecosystem and takes on a life of its own. It can be expected to accomplish the goals of strengthening the institution and enhancing the confidence in what is possible.

Dr. James C. Schroeder has extensive experience in all stages of successful capital campaigns in large, complex, multi-campus/multi-site universities and healthcare organizations. He has had primary responsibility for the conception, organization, and execution of the day-to-day operations of advancement programs and has a history of effective and successful working relationships with faculty, physicians, administrators, boards, volunteers, and alumni. Dr. Schroeder has worked at or assisted regional comprehensive institutions, private institutions, and Big Ten and Ivy League institutions.

For more information on how AASCU Consulting can help your institution, go to aascuconsulting.org

AC Insights

AASCU Consulting on Strategy, Leadership Effectiveness, and Capacity Building. aascuconsulting.org