Six Principles of a Successful Capital Campaign


“A capital campaign is far more about community spiritual development than it is about raising money and therefore deserves the best possible leadership.” (Anthony Scott)

A number of critical concepts and practices must be understood and applied in order to achieve the completion of a successful capital campaign. Unfortunately, this knowledge rarely exists within a parish simply because parishes undertake a campaign only once each generation and the expert and professional knowledge required to be successful is a rare skill to find in a specific parishioner.


There are six principles in a capital campaign that must be understood and put into practice by every person involved in the fundraising, from the priest and the chair to every committee member. These are unique attributes of capital campaign fundraising, unlike festival or stewardship fundraising.

Principle #1: Sequential Solicitation

The general sequence by formula is “Top/Down and Inside/Out.” Top most donors first (this typically involves a quiet phase that includes research, cultivation, involvement, solicitation and negotiation.) Inside/Out refers to soliciting those most involved before going to the general parish.

Therefore, in capital campaigns the largest gifts are solicited and committed before the smaller gifts are solicited. The only exception to this rule is the solicitation of the identified leadership of the parish – parish council members, capital campaign committee members and the priest. They represent the values and energy core of the parish. An early announcement that 100% of the parish council and the capital campaign committee members have made their commitments is a confidence builder for the parish.

Some of these people may be major donor prospects and they should be treated as such, not rushing them to make a nominal commitment for the sake of achieving 100% participation. It would be enough for them to say, “I am committing a gift or a pledge to the campaign but I’m still considering how much and in what way I would do this.”


Principle #2: Volunteer Leadership and Involvement

The quality of campaign volunteers is a key element in determining the success of the campaign. Volunteers lead the campaign – especially in parishes where it is extremely rare to find a development officer on staff. Campaign chairs are the face of the campaign. A volunteer campaign steering committee presides over the campaign process and makes policy decisions. When recruiting members to the capital campaign committee be sure to seek top talent in the parish.

Volunteers work in conjunction with the priest, the campaign chair and the consultant to cultivate and assess the perceived giving potential of prospects and to solicit donors. They also often serve on possible sub-committees that attend to communications and special events. Campaign volunteers contribute generously to campaigns at a rate far higher than non-volunteers.

One oft-repeated mistake is to regard the consultant as the leader of the campaign. Though she or he may have advanced training, skills and experience, they will not be effective leaders. Why? Because they are unknown in the community, do not have a network of connections, they are only on site to problem-solve, teach, strategize, serve as an accountability mechanism and assist in the major gift process.


Principle #3: Reliance on Major Gifts

Campaigns rely on large gifts for their success. Successful campaigns, no matter what their size, experience a 90%/10% ratio of gift amounts to donors. This is to say that 90% of the funds come from approximately 10% of contributors. Without major gifts campaigns will not succeed.

Major gifts set new standards in giving, bring confidence to the general donor base that the campaign will be successful, generate excitement and create momentum when transitioning into the public phase of the campaign.

Prospective major donors must be invited to give at a level that indicates their deep commitment to the project. These gifts are often "stretch" gifts, and when made early in the campaign have the power to inspire others.

Sometimes, a person is disturbed by what they view as an over-reliance on big givers and would prefer a more “democratic” approach. This is sometimes called the “mathematic approach”. It goes something like this: “We have 200 families and need to raise $2,000,000 so let’s get every family to give $10,000 over five years.” It’s good math but not good fundraising. There is an uneven distribution of wealth, generosity and commitment to mission in the world and in the parish. There is also a limited amount of time and energy available to conduct the campaign. What is necessary is that giving follows the teaching our Lord –“…to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” (Luke 12:48)


Principle #4: Quality Over Quantity

The major gift process is highly complex and sophisticated. This is when a consultant with years of experience receiving major gifts makes a real difference in success or failure, though the ultimate decision regarding a gift belongs to the prospective major donor.

For the most part meaningful and sacrificial gifts will come from parishioners who have lengthy and deep involvement in parish life, though there are notable exceptions. In a capital campaign loyal stewardship givers often pledge many multiples more than they have given in the past. Meaningful gifts seldom come from uninvolved or new prospects, though a period of dedicated personal cultivation may yet produce this result.


Principle #5: Face-to-Face Soliciting

For most, this is high emotional “risk-taking”, which is why most people, including the priest, are uncomfortable with this process. Once again, this is where the professional knowledge of a consultant can be of great assistance by teaching this process and practicing it through major gift roles plays with committee members. The consultant will also have a better sense of when to ask, how much to ask for, how to negotiate, what to say, questions to ask, likely contingencies, proper setting, etc. The three people most involved at the major gift level are the priest, the campaign chairperson and the consultant.

However, general capital campaign committee members will also be expected to solicit, though on a lower monetary level. The feeling of high emotional “risk-taking” will still be present, however, which is why training is important.

Capital campaign gifts are often "negotiated" through multiple conversations involving the right people who can make the case, respond to the donor's feedback and complete the gift with enthusiasm and appreciation.


Principle #6: Multi-Year Pledges

Campaigns provide opportunities for people to make pledges over more than one year. The pledge period of a campaign is determined during the campaign planning process. Most campaigns define a pledge period of three or five years. It’s best to choose one or the other and not offer a range of years, though the donor sets the parameters – including those who want to make a one-time gift and those who want to “wait and see” each year what they will do. Offering options regarding the time span of the pledge complicates record-keeping and gives yet one more decision that prospective contributors need to make.

The multi-year span of giving should immediately signal to the priest and the capital campaign committee that soliciting and receiving the commitment is just the beginning of a continuing effort to report, communicate, involve and thank those who commit if the parish desires to see the commitment fully honored. Five years is a long time and life happens.

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