Capital Campaigns: Your Ultimate Guide

Featured Beginner, Major Gifts

By Jeremy Reis

Capital campaigns can be the lifeline for any organization, business, charity, or school to raise the necessary funding for expansion, renovation, or new construction. These campaigns can help turn grandiose visions into a reality, but they don’t come without their fair share of trials and tribulations. If you’re planning on embarking on a capital campaign but are unsure of where to start, then you’re in the right place.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll outline everything you need to know about capital campaigns, from their importance to the steps required to run a successful campaign. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced fundraiser, our guide has everything you need to overcome any challenge and reach your funding goals. So, let’s dive in!

Complete Guide to Capital Campaigns

What is a Capital Campaign?

A capital campaign is a strategic fundraising initiative designed to raise a significant amount of money over a specific period, usually to fund a major project or expansion. These campaigns involve soliciting major gifts from wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations, along with smaller donations from a wider group of supporters. Organizations often conduct feasibility studies and develop comprehensive fundraising plans to guide their capital campaigns. These campaigns can last several years and require significant resources from staff and volunteers to execute successfully.

Nonprofit organizations, schools, hospitals, churches and other places of worship are often the main beneficiaries of capital campaigns. These projects vary depending on the organization and its needs, but can consist of building construction, renovations, or purchasing expensive equipment. Capital campaigns represent an opportunity for organizations to achieve major, long-term goals that would be impossible to accomplish through annual fundraising efforts alone. Capital campaigns play a crucial role in the nonprofit sector by providing funding for a wide range of programs and services.

Successful capital campaigns involve a combination of fundraising and public awareness efforts, with organizations utilizing social media, crowdfunding, and strategic partnerships to engage with potential donors. Crowdfunding has become a popular tool for organizations to raise money from a large number of donors simultaneously. Partnering with corporations can also provide access to a larger pool of prospective donors and can potentially result in significant donations.

Capital campaigns play a critical role in securing the financial resources necessary for organizations to undertake significant projects and achieve long-term goals. Such campaigns can bring meaning to fundraising initiatives beyond meeting an organization’s immediate needs and generate significant positive impacts for communities in the long run. Success in capital campaigns requires careful planning, a clear message, and diligent follow-up with donors.

What Organizations Use Capital Campaigns?

Capital campaigns are incredibly useful tools for various types of organizations, especially those in the nonprofit sector. They are intensive fundraising efforts designed to raise a significant sum of money within a specific time period. This money is usually used to fund large-scale projects such as construction or renovation of buildings, acquisition of new equipment, or creating an endowment.

Let’s discuss some types of organizations that typically use capital campaigns:

  1. Educational Institutions: Universities, colleges, and schools often launch capital campaigns to raise funds for new buildings, research centers, technology upgrades, or scholarships. For example, a university might run a capital campaign to construct a new library or a state-of-the-art laboratory.
  2. Healthcare Organizations: Hospitals, health centers, and research institutions also utilize capital campaigns. They might need funds for new medical equipment, research projects, patient care facilities, or community health programs. Capital campaigns can help a hospital fund a new wing or a clinic purchase much-needed diagnostic machines.
  3. Cultural Institutions: Museums, libraries, theaters, and performing arts organizations use capital campaigns to fund new exhibits, restore or expand facilities, or establish endowments that ensure their long-term sustainability. A theater might use a capital campaign to renovate its auditorium or a museum to acquire a significant new collection.
  4. Religious Institutions: Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship use capital campaigns to fund building projects, renovations, or community outreach programs. For example, a church might need a new roof, or a religious community might want to build a new community center.
  5. Social Service Organizations: These organizations, which include shelters, food banks, and agencies serving specific populations (like children, the elderly, or people experiencing homelessness), often use capital campaigns to expand their services. This could involve building a new facility, upgrading existing ones, or buying new vehicles for transportation.
  6. Conservation and Environmental Groups: These organizations may use capital campaigns to acquire land for preservation, fund large-scale restoration projects, or build educational centers.
  7. Public Broadcasting Services: Public radio and television stations often rely on capital campaigns for upgrading equipment, expanding services, or funding specific programming.

Each of these organizations uses capital campaigns in a unique way to meet their goals, but the fundamental strategy remains the same: identify a significant need, set a clear financial goal, and then engage potential donors in a concerted, time-limited effort to meet that goal. The success of a capital campaign often hinges on careful planning, compelling storytelling, and strategic donor engagement.

Benefits of Capital Campaigns

Click for download

Capital campaigns, ambitious fundraising endeavors aimed at meeting significant financial goals within a fixed time frame, are a crucial tool in the financial management of nonprofit organizations, churches, and universities. While these campaigns are often associated with large-scale projects—such as constructing a building or acquiring important equipment—the benefits extend far beyond the immediate financial gain. In this section, we’ll explore the many advantages that can be reaped from running a capital campaign.

1. Donor Base Expansion

One of the primary benefits of a capital campaign is the opportunity it offers to expand an organization’s donor base. Capital campaigns require an organization to reach out to a broad range of potential contributors, from individuals to corporate entities, foundations, and government agencies. This outreach often results in engaging new donors who may become long-term supporters. Moreover, capital campaigns often inspire existing donors to increase their giving levels, further bolstering the organization’s resources.

2. Enhanced Public Awareness

Capital campaigns are high-profile endeavors that often garner substantial attention. This increased visibility can significantly raise public awareness about the organization and its mission. Whether it’s a university aiming to construct a new research facility or a church planning a community outreach center, the publicity surrounding the campaign can engage and educate the public about the organization’s work, leading to a more informed and supportive community.

3. New Marketing Opportunities

Alongside raising funds, capital campaigns provide prominent marketing opportunities. They offer a focal point around which an organization can create a compelling narrative. Storytelling—explaining why the campaign matters, who it will impact, and how it will change lives—is an essential part of any capital campaign. This storytelling not only motivates donors but also serves as powerful marketing material, enhancing the organization’s overall brand image and visibility.

4. Donor Cultivation and Relationship Building

Capital campaigns are not just about money; they are also about relationships. These campaigns offer a unique opportunity for an organization to cultivate deeper relationships with its donors. Regular updates on the campaign’s progress, special events, and personalized acknowledgments of gifts are all ways to engage donors and make them feel valued and involved. This can lead to increased loyalty and long-term support.

5. Building Organizational Capacity

While the primary goal of a capital campaign is to raise funds for a specific purpose, the process itself can strengthen the organization in other ways. The planning and execution of a capital campaign can help improve an organization’s fundraising strategies, donor management systems, and internal collaboration. It can also provide valuable experience and skills to staff members, which can be applied to future initiatives.

6. Encouraging Larger Gifts

Capital campaigns can inspire donors to give more generously than they might otherwise. The substantial nature of the campaign’s goal, combined with a sense of urgency and a clear vision of what the funds will achieve, can motivate donors to make larger gifts than they would typically consider.

Capital campaigns offer a multitude of benefits for nonprofit organizations, churches, and universities. While they represent a significant undertaking, the rewards—increased funds, expanded donor base, heightened public awareness, marketing opportunities, stronger relationships, and organizational growth—can be transformative. By planning and executing a well-thought-out capital campaign, these organizations can not only meet their immediate financial goals but also lay a stronger foundation for their future growth and impact.

Examples of Capital Campaigns

Capital campaigns are intricate undertakings that demand careful planning, strategic execution, and dedicated follow-through. As nonprofits, universities, schools, churches, and museums embark on these ambitious fundraising journeys, there are numerous success stories they can draw inspiration from. In this section, we will delve into broad examples of the types of capital campaigns, several specific examples of successful capital campaigns, exploring their goals, target audiences, outcomes, and unique strategies.

Nonprofit Organizations

  1. Fundraising for a new community center to provide programs and services for disadvantaged youth.
  2. Creating an endowment to provide long-term funding for the organization’s operations and programs.
  3. Funding a fleet of vehicles to provide mobile healthcare or food distribution to underserved communities.


  1. Fundraising for the construction of a new research facility to advance scientific discovery.
  2. Establishing scholarships or fellowships to support students with financial needs.
  3. Building a new student center to enhance campus life and provide space for student activities.

Religious Institutions

  1. Constructing or renovating worship spaces to accommodate a growing congregation.
  2. Building a community outreach center to provide social services to the local community.
  3. Creating an endowment to support the institution’s ministries and operations.

Private Schools

  1. Raising funds for a state-of-the-art athletic facility to enhance the school’s sports programs.
  2. Establishing a scholarship fund to provide financial aid to students.
  3. Upgrading technology infrastructure to support digital learning.

Healthcare Organizations

  1. Constructing a new wing in a hospital to provide specialized healthcare services.
  2. Raising funds for advanced medical equipment to improve patient care.
  3. Creating a research fund to facilitate groundbreaking research in a specific area of medicine.

Cultural Institutions

  1. Fundraising for a new building, new exhibit or gallery in a museum.
  2. Renovating a historic building or site to preserve cultural heritage.
  3. Establishing an endowment to support the institution’s operations and programming.

Each of these examples represents a significant investment that would have a substantial impact on the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Through a capital campaign, these organizations can rally the support of donors and make these ambitious projects a reality.

1. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

In 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture concluded its capital campaign, which had an ambitious goal of raising $270 million. The campaign attracted donations from numerous corporations, foundations, and more than 100,000 individuals. The museum successfully combined traditional fundraising techniques with innovative strategies, such as online crowdfunding, to reach a wider audience. Despite the challenge of raising awareness and funds for a museum that was yet to be built, the campaign managed to raise over $315 million, exceeding its initial goal.

2. Stanford University’s “Stanford Challenge”

From 2006 to 2011, Stanford University undertook “The Stanford Challenge,” aiming to raise $4.3 billion for multidisciplinary research programs and undergraduate education. The university’s approach was to focus on a network of established alumni, parents, and friends. This campaign was distinguished by its emphasis on tackling global problems through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Despite launching just before the financial crisis, the campaign ultimately raised a staggering $6.2 billion, marking it as one of the most successful university fundraising efforts in history.

3. Harlem Children’s Zone’s “Invest in Futures” Campaign

The Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization for poverty-stricken children and families in Harlem, New York, launched its “Invest in Futures” campaign with a goal of raising $100 million. The organization targeted a broad range of donors, from individuals to large corporations. The campaign focused on the compelling mission of breaking the cycle of generational poverty, using impactful storytelling to highlight the lives changed by their work. The campaign surpassed its goal, raising $130 million, which was used to fund educational and health programs.

4. “The Campaign for the Cathedral” by St. John the Divine

St. John the Divine in New York City faced a significant challenge in the early 2000s when a fire severely damaged part of the cathedral. In response, they launched “The Campaign for the Cathedral,” which aimed to raise funds for restoration. They engaged their community with an inspiring message of resilience and rebirth, eventually raising $41.5 million and restoring the cathedral to its former glory. This campaign underscores the importance of an emotive narrative in rallying support during challenging times.

5. Habitat for Humanity’s “Home is the Key”

Habitat for Humanity’s national campaign, “Home is the Key,” aimed to raise funds to unlock futures and change lives so families can achieve the strength, stability, and self-reliance they need to build better lives. The campaign effectively utilized corporate partnerships with organizations like Nissan and Chico’s FAS, Inc., along with individual donations, to surpass their fundraising goals. This example highlights the power of partnerships in achieving fundraising objectives.

6. Archdiocese of New York: Renew + Rebuild

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York raised over $200 million in pledges in the initial phase of the Renew + Rebuild capital campaign, with funds allocated for both local parishes and wider archdiocesan needs. The campaign targeted parishioners across the archdiocese, with individual parishes setting their fundraising goals.

A defining element of this campaign was its grassroots appeal, with pastors playing a key role in local fundraising efforts. Overcoming the challenge of a diverse and dispersed target audience, the campaign successfully fostered a sense of shared mission and community among donors.

These examples highlight the immense potential of capital campaigns. Successful campaigns are built on a clear vision, strategic marketing, targeted outreach, and a strong emphasis on the impact of donors’ contributions.

For organizations considering a capital campaign, these case studies offer several recommendations. First, align the campaign with your organization’s mission and communicate this effectively to potential donors. Second, identify and target a broad range of potential donors, using varied outreach strategies. Third, consider creative and innovative approaches to engage donors and increase visibility. Finally, anticipate potential challenges and have a plan to navigate them.

By learning from these successful campaigns, organizations can maximize their potential to reach their fundraising goals and make a lasting impact through their work.

Steps of a Capital Campaign

A capital campaign, a critical instrument leveraged by nonprofit organizations, universities, religious institutions, and art museums, among others, is a targeted fundraising endeavor designed to raise funds for a specific, often large-scale, project. It may be directed toward new constructions, renovations, endowments, or even the acquisition of long-term assets. Successful capital campaigns follow a carefully structured process, generally consisting of the following steps:

  1. Pre-Campaign Planning: Before the actual campaign begins, thorough groundwork must be laid. This involves an internal evaluation of your organization’s capacity for a capital campaign, which includes assessing the feasibility of your fundraising goal, your organization’s resources and support base, and your readiness to take on such an ambitious project. The output of this stage is a detailed campaign plan, which outlines the purpose, objectives, timeline, and strategies for the campaign. A compelling case statement articulating the need for the campaign is also developed at this stage.
  2. Feasibility Study: A feasibility study is a critical step that provides an external perspective on the potential success of the campaign. Typically conducted by an independent consultant, this study involves interviews with key stakeholders, prospective donors, and community leaders to gauge their perception, support level, and potential financial contribution to the proposed campaign. The study helps to fine-tune the campaign plan and fundraising goal, while also identifying prospective major gift donors.
  3. Quiet Phase: Once your campaign plan and fundraising goal have been refined, the quiet or leadership phase of the campaign begins. In this phase, you seek large gifts from a small number of major donors, usually aiming to secure 50-70% of your total fundraising goal. These major donors could be board members, close supporters, or wealthy individuals who have a passion for your cause. As it is a “quiet” phase, the campaign is not yet public knowledge.
  4. Public Phase: Once you’ve secured a substantial portion of your goal, the campaign goes public. This is when you engage the broader community, sharing the purpose and progress of your campaign, and soliciting smaller gifts from a larger number of donors. The public phase is usually launched with a special event or announcement and often involves various promotional activities, media outreach, developing the gift range chart, and community events.
  5. Stewardship: Once the campaign goal has been achieved, it’s important to maintain the relationships nurtured during the campaign. This is the stewardship phase, where you acknowledge and thank all donors, providing them with updates on how their gifts are being utilized and the impact they are creating. Stewardship activities help ensure your donors feel valued and remain engaged, potentially paving the way for future giving.
  6. Post-Campaign Evaluation: The final step involves a thorough review of the campaign. This includes evaluating what worked well and what could be improved, determining whether the funds raised are being used as intended, and documenting lessons learned for future campaigns.

Capital campaigns are an involved process, requiring thoughtful preparation, strategic execution, and continuous engagement and evaluation. However, when implemented effectively, they have the potential to significantly enhance the capacity of your organization to fulfill its mission, making the effort worthwhile.

How Do You Run a Successful Capital Campaign?

The success of a capital campaign is often critical to a nonprofit’s mission fulfillment. Several specific steps can help you increase the likelihood of your campaigns funding success. Understanding the capital campaign best practices will help nonprofit leaders like yourself develop a winning fundraising strategy to meet your organization’s needs. Here’s how you can run a successful one.

Establish a Clear Objective

Your campaign must have a clear, compelling purpose that resonates with potential donors. This objective should be directly tied to your organization’s mission and long-term strategic plan. Whether it’s building a new facility or launching a significant program, ensure that the goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Create a Campaign Strategy

A comprehensive strategy is vital to guiding your efforts. This plan should include the capital campaign’s goal, timeline, target audience, fundraising methods, and messaging. A feasibility study may be beneficial to understand your organization’s fundraising capacity and potential donor interest.

Assemble a Strong Campaign Team

Running a successful capital campaign often requires more than your regular fundraising staff. This endeavor usually calls for a dedicated campaign team consisting of board members, volunteers, and possibly even professional campaign consultants. This team will be responsible for campaign management, prospective donor identification, solicitations, and follow-ups.

Cultivate Major Donors

Major donors often contribute a significant portion of capital campaign funds. Identify potential major donors from your existing donor base and cultivate relationships with them. Personalize your approach based on their interests and involvement with your organization. Major gift solicitations should be made face-to-face when possible, and always by a person who has a relationship with the donor.

Communicate Consistently and Clearly

Effective communication is key to maintaining momentum throughout your capital campaign. Keep your supporters updated on the campaign’s progress and make sure your messages are consistent across all channels. Celebrate milestones and acknowledge donor contributions, creating a sense of community and shared achievement.

Plan for Follow-Up and Stewardship

Successful capital campaigns don’t end when the goal is met. A well-thought-out stewardship plan will help maintain relationships with your donors, opening the door for future giving. Thank your donors sincerely and promptly, and report on how their donations are being used to fulfill the campaign’s objectives.

Evaluate and Learn

Lastly, ensure that there is a plan to evaluate your campaign’s success once it concludes. This evaluation should go beyond whether the financial goal was met. Analyze what worked and what didn’t, and use this information to inform future fundraising efforts.

Running a successful capital campaign is a complex, demanding process, but with clear objectives, a strong team, strategic planning, and effective communication, your organization can not only meet its fundraising goals but also strengthen its relationship with its donor base. Remember, every capital campaign is a learning opportunity that brings your organization one step closer to mastering the art of fundraising.

Do I Need to Hire a Capital Campaign Consultant?

Undertaking a capital campaign is a significant endeavor for any nonprofit organization, museum, university, church, or other institution. It involves considerable planning, execution, and follow-through to achieve success. One question that often arises is, “Do I need to hire a capital campaign consultant?” There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but the following considerations can help you make an informed decision.

Understanding the Role of a Capital Campaign Consultant

Before delving into whether you should hire a consultant, it’s crucial to understand what a capital campaign consultant does. Consultants are fundraising experts who help guide and manage capital campaigns. Their roles often involve strategic planning, feasibility studies, donor cultivation and solicitation strategies, campaign marketing, and post-campaign evaluation. They also bring a wealth of experience, having worked on various campaigns across different organizations, and can provide invaluable insights and proven strategies.

Evaluating Your Organization’s Internal Resources

Before deciding to hire a consultant, assess your organization’s internal resources. Do you have experienced staff who have successfully managed capital campaigns before? Do your staff have the time and ability to handle the additional workload of a campaign without sacrificing the organization’s day-to-day operations? If the answer to these questions is ‘no,’ a consultant might be the best way forward.

Determining the Size and Scope of Your Campaign

The size and complexity of your campaign can also influence your decision. Large-scale capital campaigns, such as those aiming to raise tens or hundreds of millions, typically benefit from a consultant’s expertise. If your campaign involves a complex donor base or requires significant marketing or public relations efforts, a consultant can provide valuable guidance and support.

Considering the Cost-Benefit Analysis

Engaging a capital campaign consultant does come with a cost. However, it’s essential to weigh this against the potential benefits. A consultant could help you raise more funds than you might have achieved on your own, offsetting their fees. They can also save your organization time and reduce the risk of costly mistakes.

Reflecting on Past Campaigns

Past performance can be a reliable predictor of future needs. If your organization has successfully run capital campaigns in the past without a consultant, you might feel confident about handling the next one internally. Conversely, if past campaigns fell short or were highly stressful for your team, a consultant might bring the necessary expertise and relief.

Hiring a Consultant Doesn’t Mean Abdicating Responsibility

One crucial point to remember is that hiring a consultant doesn’t mean your organization is off the hook. Your team will still need to be heavily involved in the campaign. The consultant’s role is to guide and support your efforts, not to take over completely.

Whether to hire a capital campaign consultant depends on your organization’s resources, the scope of your campaign, your financial capacity, and past experiences. A consultant can bring expertise and experience that can increase your chances of success and reduce stress for your team. However, hiring a consultant is a significant decision and must align with your organization’s unique needs and circumstances. Whichever path you choose, careful planning, diligent execution, and thoughtful stewardship of donors will be vital to your capital campaign’s success.


Get Your Free Course!