“Let’s run a fundraising campaign!”

That’s a rallying cry at far too many nonprofit fundraising committees and boards. Why? Because campaigns mean money. But what exactly is a campaign? Why not just plan a fundraiser and be done with it?

Let’s explore some of the most frequently asked questions that will help you decide whether your organization needs, or is ready for, a fundraising campaign.

A campaign is just another word for a fundraiser, right?

Not quite—but it’s easy to get them confused. A good fundraiser is run like a campaign. And campaigns are certainly organized fundraising efforts. How do you tell them apart? Consider the following:

  • A fundraiser is a method of fundraising. Whether it’s an event, a grant proposal, or a peer-to-peer program, it’s method-focused.
  • On the other hand, a campaign pulls many methods together to meet a goal over a specific time frame.
planning fundraising campaign meeting

If you’re an animal shelter, for example, you might run the Paws for a Cause gala to meet your $100,000 goal towards medications for abandoned pets. That’s a fundraiser.

Or, you can take a campaign approach. You personally asked the top five people in your community for a gift of $10,000 and honored them at your gala, which raised another $40,000. Then you coordinated it with a direct response campaign based on postal and email appeals, which raised $7,500, and a peer-to-peer campaign for the final $2,500. While you raised the same amount as your gala, you engaged more people, thus reached more potential future donors, and met your community visibility goals. That’s what makes it a campaign!

So, a campaign is not a fundraising method?

Correct. A fundraiser is a single method, such as a special event or auction, direct mail campaign, or grant proposal, that focuses on a tactical goal. Campaigns are a variety of fundraising methods pulled together in an organized fashion to meet a broader, more strategic goal.

Can I use campaign concepts to run any fundraiser?

Certainly. In fact, the best fundraisers are run like mini-campaigns. For example, if you were to run a special event fundraiser, you’d be well-served to ask the people or companies who can buy the most tickets first. Getting gifts from the biggest donors first is a classic campaign method.

Campaigns are only used for big things, right?

Not necessarily. The earliest campaigns were definitely thought of as specific activities for major projects like buildings or land acquisition. Since they funded things that accountants call “capital,” they were dubbed “capital campaigns.”

Over time, however, it was clear that the needs of organizations were far more than just capital items, and that people who were not in the position to make major gifts still wanted to participate. Today, we call these comprehensive campaigns. These not only fund a broad variety of mission goals, but they engage everybody in the nonprofit’s constituency to help. And they can be for any-sized needs!

Can I use a campaign to start a fundraising program?

You could, but it’s not recommended. Think of it as learning how to walk before you try to run. A campaign is a run—and more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s important that you get good at basic fundraising methods before trying to pull off something more sophisticated, like a campaign.

thinking question planning

Don’t supporters get tired of campaigns?

Actually, no. Giving people breaks between campaigns is a mistake that comes from the earliest days of fundraising. There was an idea that constituencies needed to rest from intensive fundraising.

As it turns out, the people who really needed the break were the staff and the volunteers, not the donors. By creating gaps between campaigns, you give your donors a chance to focus on other priorities than your mission—and it can be harder to get them back on track with your organization.

Can campaigns increase a donor’s giving?

Yes! Campaigns are great ways to change a donor’s “philanthropic setpoint.” It turns out that once a person makes an initial gift of any amount, they tend to stay with that amount until something causes a change. Let’s say you graduate college and send $25 to your alma mater. Ten years later you still send $25, even though you could afford $100, and that $25 may only be worth $20 in spending today’s power.

Campaigns are a great way to change setpoints through the urgency of the need. Once somebody increases their gift in response to a campaign, you have a much better chance of them continuing at a higher level for their subsequent gifts.

Do campaigns need special infrastructure?

Campaigns are the ultimate test of fundraising infrastructure. For example, you’re going to need computer systems and fundraising software that is able to handle larger and more sophisticated gifts than you’ve had before. Staff and volunteers need to be well-versed in the reasons why people should give.

Campaigns offer a great opportunity to train staff and volunteers in specific fundraising methods. You’re likely to have more solicitations occur, so you need to have the resources to support them.

You might even consider bringing on an extra staff member to coordinate the campaign. But how should you train them? We recommend free and low-cost online training resources!

A fundraising campaign is also an excellent time to review or develop your giving policies. These types of documents outline exactly what kind of gifts you’ll accept, and at what level a gift requires leadership approval. For example, if somebody offered you land, would you take it, and under what conditions? What if somebody names your organization in an insurance policy? While that policy might have a face value of $1,000,000, if it’s written on a 25-year-old, is it really worth $1,000,000?

Separate from a gift acceptance policy, but certainly related, are campaign gift counting guidelines. This is where, for example, you outline the conditions under which you accept bequest intentions (wills) as part of your campaign.

Your gift counting guidelines could say that you will take the face amount named in a will for anybody over age 75, but you won’t accept pledged requests for anybody younger. What you count is up to you, and should get board approval to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Other policies to address during this time might include gift acknowledgment and donor recognition, gift-in-kind, fundraising ethics, and more. Then, once you have the advanced infrastructure in place, it can continue to support your additional fundraising efforts going forward.

What fundraising methods can I use in a campaign?

Any fundraising method is fine as long as it is coordinated with the other efforts that you’ll use. The idea of a campaign is to engage as many potential donors as possible. It’s always important to remember that not everybody will respond to the same kind of fundraising program. For example, some people won’t want to attend special events and would rather just write a check in the mail.

Further, national fundraising statistics tell us that the majority of significant gifts come from individuals rather than foundations or companies. So grant proposals should only be one of your strategies, while not forgetting individual, personal solicitations.

Who do I ask first?

Campaigns are much more successful if you follow the “top-down, inside-out,” rule. This means soliciting the biggest gifts first from the people who are closest to your organization. Think of it as having a pile of bowling balls and marbles next to a trash can. To get the most in, it’s best to start with the bowling balls and then fill them with the marbles.

Therefore, start with the people who can make the most significant gifts as well as the board and staff leaders of the organization. These are the people that your community will look to for leadership. After all, if the board is not all giving, and they are the closest people to the organization, why should anybody else? Similarly, people, companies, and foundations who can make bigger gifts will draw the attention of others to your need.

Should we announce our campaign goal to everyone, right from the start?

It’s best not to. Let’s say that immediately after a board meeting a nonprofit is proud to announce that it’s starting a campaign for a special project with press releases and a big “thermometer sign” on the lawn. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, like creating prospect lists and arranging appointments. Some people even hear of the campaign and send in their gift before they are even asked! But you have a problem.

goals announcement

To the public, there’s silence, because you haven’t done anything yet that will move that thermometer. Nobody touches it for months. Any of those people who made their gift? It wasn’t as much as they would have if you solicited them directly. You lost important momentum and risked your campaign’s success.

That’s why it’s a strategic best practice to begin soliciting gifts during a “quiet” phase of the campaign before announcing your overall fundraising goals to the public.

Why do kickoffs occur when the campaign is about halfway to its goal?

Campaigns can make or break the reputation of a nonprofit. A failed campaign sends a significant message to the community that the organization’s mission is not worthy of support. However, a successful campaign can start a snowball effect of greater and greater fundraising achievement.

To avoid embarrassment and come out with as strong a message as possible, most campaigns begin with a “silent” or “quiet” phase. A well-run campaign will seek gifts from the biggest donors adding up to at least 40%, and sometimes as much as 60%, of the overall goal.

The kickoff is the end of the silent phase—a coming-out party. With a significant number of major gifts in hand, the nonprofit is confident to announce its mission and fundraising goals. The “kickoff” rallies everyone for a final push, asking the broader community for support.

What do I need to do to prepare for a campaign?

Maybe the most important step in developing a campaign is to understand the needs of your organization. Most nonprofits begin a campaign by reassessing their mission and their strategic fundraising plan. Once agreed upon by the board, a new or revised campaign plan leads to updated program goals, which become specific fundraising goals for the campaign to achieve.

A lot of fundraising consultants offer “campaign feasibility studies.” Do I really need one?

Maybe. It really depends on how well you feel you know your constituency and whether they would respond to your needs with the amount you expect. The idea behind a feasibility study is for a third party to connect with key constituents and assess their interest in your mission and specific goals as well as their ability to help fund them.

survey conversation explain

Typically, feasibility studies are done anonymously so that the person being interviewed is more honest with their responses. This can also be a good way for boards and leadership staff to feel that they are on the right track in terms of monetary goals and mission-focused programs.

Feasibility studies can be expensive but may be a good investment, especially if they save an organization from overly ambitious plans that are not fundable. However, if you feel that you are close enough to your prospective donors that they will give you their honest opinions about the programs and their interest in support, you may not need an outside organization to assess whether you can meet a campaign goal.

volunteer team

Do I need volunteers?

Yes! A staff member is just one person, but a staff member with volunteers creates a whole team. Campaigns are big enough, important enough, and require enough work to at least merit their own committee, separate from the board and even the regular fundraising team.

The most sophisticated campaigns have committees based on constituencies, like a corporate gifts committee, and methods of fundraising, like a planned giving committee. Volunteers also increase the “buzz” in your community about your great plans, since the people around them are sure to know that they’re volunteering for your campaign.

Campaigns are the ultimate test of a nonprofit’s fundraising abilities. They’re not to be entered lightly. The best campaigns enhance staff, volunteers, systems, and visibility. For staff members, you can make your career, and for volunteers, they can build a positive reputation in the community.

But you have to be ready, and with some study and continued research beforehand, you will be. Good luck!

Author Bio: Matt Hugg

Matt HuggMatt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (https://nonprofit.courses), an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff, and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College, and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia, and several nonprofits.

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