The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Capital Campaign for Your Nonprofit

Have you been tasked with leading a capital campaign for your nonprofit? If so, there’s a good chance you’re feeling overwhelmed. A capital campaign is a focused fundraising effort intended to raise money for a specific project or initiative, such as the construction of a new facility or the development of a new program, typically with a price tag in the millions. Your organization’s future may be riding on the success of the campaign, and you may be under a lot of pressure to get it right.  

Now is the time to take a deep breath. You’ve got this. You just need a solid capital campaign plan, and in this post, I’m going to walk you through how to create one, step-by-step.

You’ll learn how to:

  1. Establish goals
  2. Recruit a capital campaign team
  3. Involve your board
  4. Assess feasibility
  5. Develop key materials
  6. Fine-tune your budget
  7. Create a capital campaign calendar

1. Establish Goals for Your Capital Campaign Plan

Your first step in planning a capital campaign should be ensuring that you actually need to have a capital campaign. Yes, you read that right. While capital campaigns can be a highly effective way to raise a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, they should be launched infrequently and thoughtfully. A capital campaign only makes sense when you need to raise money for a specific, long-term, and costly project or initiative. A capital campaign should not be used to fund general operating expenses, overall growth, or even a specific short-term initiative, and positioning a fundraising effort as a capital campaign when it should really be something else will only serve to erode the attention and trust of your donors. 

While capital campaigns can be a highly effective way to raise a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, they should be launched infrequently and thoughtfully. Click To Tweet

After you’ve established that a capital campaign is indeed the ideal approach for your organization, it’s time to set concrete goals for what you need to accomplish. Begin with the total cost of the project or initiative that the campaign is intended to fund. Then, add the budget you’ll need to execute the capital campaign itself. We suggest using a figure of between 10 and 15 percent of the total cost of the capital campaign project to set your budget (based on this data). Next, subtract any existing reserves or cash on hand your organization is able to contribute to the capital campaign without disrupting its existing operations. The number that’s left over is what you’ll need to raise to see the project to fruition. Here’s a simplified example of the equation you’ll need to use:

Example capital campaign project: building a new community crisis center

Estimated cost of capital campaign project: $15.5M

+ Capital campaign execution budget (10% of project cost): $1.5M

– Amount we can contribute from reserves: $5M


Additional amount required to fully fund capital campaign: $12M

Next, you’ll need to see if that number is actually attainable by considering your organization’s past fundraising performance and assessing potential gift ranges. Looking at past giving behaviors, create a gift range chart and estimate how many donors you’d need at each range to achieve the goal. While donors can absolutely be expected to give more money during a capital campaign, don’t get overly optimistic here. To ensure a conservative estimate, it may make sense to ballpark that 75% of your donors will give an average of 25% more than their last gift during your capital campaign. 

Here’s a sample gift range chart estimating how the example organization above could reach their campaign goal:

Gift Amount Number of Donors Total
$250,000.00 5 $1,250,000.00
$200,000.00 10 $2,000,000.00
$175,000.00 10 $1,750,000.00
$150,000.00 10 $1,500,000.00
$100,000.00 20 $2,000,000.00
$50,000.00 25 $1,250,000.00
$25,000.00 40 $1,000,000.00
$10,000.00 50 $500,000.00
$5,000.00 55 $275,000.00
$2,500.00 150 $375,000.00
$500.00 300 $150,000.00
$100.00 600 $60,000.00
GRAND TOTAL $12,110,000.00

This example organization would probably be safe sticking with the goal they initially set (to fund the entire remaining cost of the project) as long as they’re not placing more than 75 percent of their existing donor base across these tiers, or estimating that those donors will give more than an additional 25 percent more than they have recently. But what should you do if you find that your estimates don’t come close to the amount needed to fund your entire project? If this happens, you can either break your campaign down into phases, setting a first phase goal that can be achieved through your giving chart estimates, and then create forecasts for future phases, or go back to the drawing board and consider whether the initiative you want to raise for actually makes sense at this stage in your organization’s lifecycle.

After you’ve established your goals, document them in the first section of your capital campaign plan. They’ll guide every other aspect of the plan and the campaign.

2. Recruit a Capital Campaign Team

A capital campaign is a significant lift, and requires a well-resourced team to be successful. Consider recruiting people into the following roles for your capital campaign team:

    • Campaign lead. The campaign lead will oversee every element of the capital campaign and be ultimately responsible for the campaign’s success. This person will delegate to other members of the capital campaign team and have ultimate decisionmaking power. If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance this person is you.
    • Campaign data manager. The campaign data manager will pull and analyze all relevant data required to run the campaign, from past gift files to solicitation records. They’ll also typically manage systems and track campaign performance.
    • Campaign committee. The campaign committee will include a small group of staff (and sometimes board members) who work together to plan and execute the campaign.
    • Campaign taskforce. The campaign taskforce is a way to include external stakeholders, such as donors, community members and program participants in the planning of your campaign. You can tap them at key points during the planning and execution process for feedback and insights into how they perceive your campaign.

Your campaign lead and data manager will need to spend a majority of their time on the capital campaign once planning picks up and execution begins. The campaign committee should meet at least bi-weekly, and the taskforce can meet as much or as little as is useful and possible – most organizations find that tapping them for insights 2-3 times during the planning process works well.

When building your capital campaign team, you’ll also want to consider whether to hire a capital campaign strategist or consultancy to support your efforts. A capital campaign strategist or consultancy can take a leading role, in partnership with the campaign lead, in planning and optimizing your campaign. They can provide a valuable outside perspective, and because they likely work on capital campaigns for many other organizations, they can bring knowledge of best practices and potential stumbling blocks that will help your capital campaign achieve greater success.

Once you’ve established your team, document their roles in your capital campaign plan so you’re 100 percent clear on who is doing what.

3. Involve your board

In order to run a successful capital campaign, you’ll need both full buy-in and a commitment to active participation from your board. Once you have initial goals set and a campaign team built, meet with your board to pitch the capital campaign. Then, involve them in a workshop where you’ll guide them to develop their own goals for their contribution to the campaign. While you may know exactly how much you need board members to contribute and raise, providing the opportunity for them to set these goals themselves will go a long way in fostering a sense of shared ownership. 

Here again, document the goals board members have set for themselves in your capital campaign plan. Document both how much they’re committing to contributing, and how much they’re committing to raising from others.

4. Assess Feasibility

A formal feasibility study isn’t a requirement for every capital campaign, but before you embark on a major fundraising effort, you’ll definitely want to do your due diligence to ensure your goals are achievable. This can be an especially valuable area to tap a capital campaign strategist or consultancy, because they’ll bring outside perspectives and objectivity that encourages transparent feedback from donors and supporters. Whether you’re using a strategist or consultant, or assessing feasibility yourself, spend some time interviewing or focus grouping with donors to gain a better understanding of how they perceive your project and their willingness to give toward your goal. These interviews and focus groups will not only help you refine your goal and the positioning of your project; they may also help you identify major gifts prospects who are likely to make early donations in the quiet phase of your campaign, or encourage others to give. After you’ve finished assessing the feasibility of your campaign, note any key observations in your capital campaign plan, and if needed, make adjustments to your goals and gift chart.

5. Develop Your Materials

Once you’re fully convinced of the feasibility of your campaign, it’s time to get to work on developing key campaign materials. This will likely include, at minimum:

  • A Case for Support
  • A Campaign One-Pager
  • Campaign Gift Charts and Goal Trackers
  • Digital assets such as a campaign landing page and social posts
  • Thank you letters
  • Example written and verbal communication talking points

Of all the items on that list above, the Case for Support is the most important, and should be treated as the centerpiece of your capital campaign. If you’re not sure where to start with your Case for Support, you’re in luck, because we have a detailed blog post on the topic here. While you might not create all these materials off the bat, make sure you outline your intentions for each one in your capital campaign plan and set a timeline for their creation.

6. Fine-Tune Your Budget

We already mentioned that your capital campaign budget should be between 10 and 15 percent of your total campaign goal. But what goes into that budget? A capital campaign can be expensive, and it’s important to plan ahead for all the related expenses to ensure you don’t exceed that 10-15 percent benchmark. Build a detailed budget with all your anticipated campaign costs, and be sure to include:

  • Campaign strategist/consultancy fees
  • Materials creation
  • Materials production
  • Other communications tactics
  • Donor stewardship and recognition
  • Events (if any)

Include your budget in your capital campaign plan, and continue to update it as the campaign goes on.

7. Create a Capital Campaign Plan Calendar

The next important step in your capital campaign planning process is to decide exactly what needs to happen, when. 

Most capital campaigns begin with a quiet phase, where members of the campaign committee and board talk to donors who are likely to be early advocates and secure initial leading gifts. Most organizations aim to raise at least 50 percent of their goal during this quiet phase, so it’s important not to overlook it in your planning. Assess who you’ll reach out to and how, what sorts of messaging and materials you’ll use to make the case for an early gift, and how you’ll continue to nurture donors who don’t give right away toward the decision to do so. 

Then, turn your attention to the public phase of the campaign. When will it begin and what tactics will you use to motivate donors to give toward your goal? This is when you’ll need to activate more “mass” communication methods, such as direct mail, social media, email, and in some cases, even paid advertising. Of course, direct outreach via phone and in-person engagement will continue to be important in this phase as well.

Map out specific activities for both the quiet and public phase of your campaign in a campaign calendar, noting exactly who is responsible for what, and then drop that calendar into your capital campaign plan.

Now, with all the sections you’ve added, your capital campaign plan can serve as a roadmap for your campaign’s success, and if you follow it, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goal.

So there you have it, capital campaign planning, simplified.

Best of luck planning your campaign and working toward your organization’s important goals. If we can be of any help with your capital campaign, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Ready to learn more? Here’s How to Create a Case for Support For Your Nonprofit:


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