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The 4 Phases of a Modern Capital Campaign

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Published August 6, 2018 Reading Time: 9 minutes

The words “capital campaign” likely conjure up images of building construction, giant scissors, and oversized red ribbon. While capital campaigns are well known for raising large sums of money for initiatives like new buildings, they’re also commonly used to fund strategic projects or investments that have the power to change the game for your nonprofit and its beneficiaries.

Although plenty of literature describes how capital campaigns differ from traditional fundraising methods, at the end of the day, the process doesn’t need to be a radical departure from your ongoing development work and best practices. Below, we outline what a capital campaign is and how you can manage it in four phases using modern fundraising techniques.

What Is a Capital Campaign?

A capital campaign tends to be time-based but can span over several years. This is in part due to the fact that capital campaigns often seek to raise considerable sums of money—we’re talking millions of dollars. Why so large? Specific initiatives like large construction projects—think building a hospital, school, or even a new office space—are costly endeavors, and while they have the potential to make a huge impact, the expense isn’t something factored into your usual annual budget.

Because of the large fundraising goals and length of time it takes to raise this type of money, capital campaigns are managed in phases with a number of tools.

The following are key tools used to run a capital campaigns:

  • Fundraising software
  • Gift charts
  • Feasibility study
  • Consultants
  • Donor research software
  • Case for support

We’ll go into greater detail for each item in the phases below.

Phase 1: Campaign Prep Work

Assemble Your Capital Campaign Team

The first question you’ll need to answer before diving in is, who is on your campaign team? And, who is at the helm?

Possible participants can include a steering committee, your board of directors, a volunteer committee, full-time staff members, or a third-party consultant. In any case, identify the following:

  • Campaign owner—who is driving this campaign forward and is ultimately responsible?
  • Campaign contributors (or campaign committee)—who has a seat at the table?
  • People to be informed along the way—who needs regular updates but won’t be actively participating on action items?

After you have an idea of who is available to contribute to the campaign, be sure to outline exactly which individuals are responsible for each responsibility. Each individual task should have an owner to drive it forward. To provide clarity for all action items, use a framework like DACI to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

Establish a SMART Campaign Goal

SMART goals are specific, measurable, ambitious/attainable, relevant, and time-based. To determine your goals, outline the project’s costs. The funds you’re requesting should clearly map back to a specific plan or use.

Set a Budget

You’ll also want to set a campaign budget well ahead of kickoff. Do you plan to hire a consultant to help execute your capital campaign? Their contract fee would be included in this fundraising cost estimate, as well as tools like fundraising software or donor research software.

The best way to communicate about the campaign’s cost differs for each organization, but there are a few options you can explore.

Option 1

Be transparent about the cost of fundraising and include language in your campaign materials that informs donors 1) the cost of the campaign and 2) why it is just as important that their donation dollars help fund the resources needed to campaign for this new project, as it is to support its future impact as well. It would need to be clear in this case that gifts made to the organization are unrestricted, and that dollars could be used to fund either the project or its process.

Option 2

Work with your team to decide whether you’ll use existing budget, or run a separate fundraising effort outside of this capital campaign, to cover the cost of fundraising. This option allows your marketing materials and donor conversations to focus on the project itself.

Regardless of the option you choose, upfront communication is the most important element. It’s critical that donors clearly understand where their money goes once contributed. An excellent way to help connect prospective donors to your cause is to offer the option to donate to specific elements of your project; just make sure you’re clear and consistent in your communications.

Write Your Case for Support

According to Aly Sterling Philanthropy, a case for support document is a “persuasive document written to help donors understand how their investment in your organization will be used to make a difference.” While this document can be used in one-on-one interactions in phase two of your campaign, you can also use the language you build here in your online fundraising campaign design and email communications. It’s important to clearly convey what’s at stake, why your project is going to make a difference, and what impact an individual can have at different levels of contribution.

To learn more about how to build your case for support, check out the blog post below.

Read Next: How to Create a Strategic Fundraising Plan That You’ll Actually Stick To

Develop Your Campaign Branding and Marketing Materials

Effective marketing materials are essential for campaign success. To get started on this front, conduct a brainstorming exercise with your team or a few select members to determine key phrases and imagery that will be used to convey your campaign’s story.

Whenever you’re crafting a story, consider how to invite the reader/viewer to participate in an engaging way.

According to New York Times bestselling author of Building a Story Brand, Donald Miller, successful stories all follow a similar arc: “A character who wants something encounters a problem before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a guide steps into their lives, gives them a plan, and calls them to action. That action helps them avoid failure and ends in success.”

How can your organization (the helpful guide) position the donor as the hero/main character of the story who saves the day?

Make sure donors know what’s at stake. What problem is this campaign going to solve? Describe said problem as the villain of the story that the donor will overcome with the help of your organization’s plan. Call on them to make a contribution and weave these same principles throughout all of your marketing materials.

Conduct a Feasibility Study

A feasibility study is a great way to “gut-check” your campaign idea before moving too far forward. To conduct this study, interview your community members (DonorSearch recommends 20 to 40 members) to get a better sense of how successful your campaign can be. Is there interest and support for what you’re proposing? Does the language you’re using resonate? What would entice someone to be more involved? How much can your community members contribute? The feedback community members and past donors provide will inform phase two of your campaign and allow you to tweak the marketing materials you’ve made to date.

According to GrantSpace, feasibility studies can also act as a way to drum up excitement for the campaign. Position participation as a special opportunity and show your community members how much you honor their opinion.

If it turns out your campaign idea isn’t as feasible as you’d thought, consider what adjustments might be made to incorporate feedback, or if there is another point in time when this initiative would be more appropriate. Assign a date to check back in, and keep your materials and work-to-date at the ready for the future.

Design an Online Fundraising Campaign

A beautiful online fundraising campaign page will be your campaign’s focal point. The great news is that you can create an engaging, visually dynamic page without any coding with the use of the right fundraising software. On Classy, you can create a page in just minutes once you have your creative assets together.

Make sure you have a compelling headline, vivid imagery, captivating videos, and descriptive language that depict exactly how different levels of contribution to your campaign will positively impact the problem your project addresses.

The Anatomy of a Crowdfunding Campaign
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Phase 2: Scope Out and Secure Early Support

After you’ve set up your campaign team and materials, confirmed campaign feasibility, and made any necessary adjustments, you’re in a position to start “quiet” outreach.

Create a Gift Range Chart

In this second phase, you’ll identify a list of large gift prospects. To do this, it can be useful to create a gift range chart. A gift range chart is a simple way to identify how many prospects you need for each gift size in order to secure support and meet your goal. You can use an online gift chart calculator to set this up, or use your organization’s own historical data.

Identify Prospects

Once you know how many gifts you’ll require at each gift size to meet your goal, you can start to pinpoint exactly who you’ll be reaching out to for larger gifts. Just as in a campaign’s “soft launch” where you’d reach out to your most dedicated supporters to get the ball rolling, here, you want to approach existing contacts and strong leads that are likely to contribute large sums. Often referred to as the “quiet phase,” Aly Sterling recommends shooting to reach 50 to 70 percent of your campaign’s goal before moving to a public launch.

Using this approach, your organization can move your goal into “attainable territory.” This is powerful from a psychology perspective. The goal proximity effect indicates that donors are more attracted to getting involved the closer you are to hitting your goal because success feels imminent. They feel a stronger sense of contribution when they help you cross that finish line.

This quiet phase is a great point to leverage your board members’ fundraising efforts and contacts. After their networks have been tapped, a public launch can fill in any remaining fundraising gaps.

Outside of existing contacts and any potential leads from your board members, committee members, or current relationships, you can also use tools to identify potential leads. Donor research software like DonorSearch can provide online data and information like wealth screening to help you create a more targeted approach.

Consider Offering Incentives

As you approach large donors, you can offer incentives such as naming opportunities. If you’re building a school, you might dedicate individual rooms to donors of different sizes. At the physical site, their name could be displayed in honor of their contribution. Brainstorm creative ways to connect your project to enticing opportunities for donor recognition.

When you’ve reached 50 to 70 percent of your goal, you’re ready to push your campaign out to the world and start securing smaller donations. Your online fundraising campaign page, previously held close to the vest, is now ready for the limelight. In the next phase, your organization can empower your larger community to help you cross the finish line.

Phase 3: External Kickoff and Public Push

At this point in your campaign, you’ve rounded the corner. The finish line is in sight. It’s time to call upon your larger community to help get you there.

Now that your online fundraising campaign page shows juice in the campaign progress bar, you’re in a great position to start actively promoting your online campaign page through distribution channels such as social media, email, and potentially paid advertising.

Shout From the Rooftops…Often

Create an engagement plan ahead of time in order to map out an effective cadence. Use the marketing materials you developed in phase one to craft messaging that calls the donor to a clear action and invites them to be the hero of the story.

Be sure to use descriptive language in your messaging and emphasize your progress to the campaign’s goal and how close you are to achieving success. This allows for the goal proximity effect to kick in for your audience and excite them to participate in your campaign’s journey.

Read Next: Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Email Your Supporters Regularly

Elements like impact transparency and donation incentives are equally useful in this phase as they were in the previous. Clearly outline the power of different levels of contributions. Show that even a small contribution, or the act of sharing the campaign with their network, is capable of impact.

Create a Sense of Urgency

To help your campaign avoid any slumps or stalls, you can create milestones throughout your timeline that boost fundraising results along the way.

For example, you can use a larger gift secured in phase two to create a “matching day” in phase three. Let your smaller contributors know that for a limited period of time their gift can have twice the impact.

Phase 4: Campaign Wrap-Up

Congratulations! Your campaign is in its final phase. While it might seem like the most important work is behind you, what lies ahead impacts whether or not the donors you’ve engaged in this campaign will contribute to your organization in the future.

Thank Donors

Saying thanks doesn’t just close the loop for your donors, it acknowledges their participation in a way that makes them feel special and valuable to your cause.

Whether it’s an email, handwritten note, swag, or invitation to a special event, be sure to determine exactly how you plan to thank donors, and whether you have different “thank yous” in mind depending on their gift size.

Read Next: 15 Creative Ways to Thank Donors

Keep in Touch

Another way to close the loop on your campaign and continue your donor relationships is to invite them to see the impact they’ve created. If you developed a new program or building with their support, it can be as simple as an “unveiling” event where donors come witness the end result firsthand. If it will take some time to get to that final point, create email communications that provide regular updates to help donors continue to feel informed along the way.

Have donors from far and wide? Consider how platforms like Facebook Live or YouTube might serve to connect them with the campaign’s end results and your beneficiaries.

In addition to the communications and updates you send to donors post-campaign, offer other ways to stay in touch outside of this specific campaign’s updates. Donors should know how they can subscribe to your newsletter, learn about volunteer opportunities, or support your organization in other ways—such as your year round peer-to-peer fundraising program or recurring giving program.

Hold a Campaign Retrospective

Your very last step is to work as a group to gather key learnings from this experience. While each capital campaign is different, the process follows the course of many of your other fundraising efforts. Therefore, key learnings that occur within this campaign can likely be applied across your development team’s workflows.

Read Next: How to Hold a Campaign Retrospective


Whether you’re planning your first capital campaign or brushing up on how to refine your process, the experts at Classy can help you execute against your goals. Reach out to us below to learn how to quickly create a beautiful online epicenter for your fundraising efforts.

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