“Help us figure out how much money can we raise. And we’ll decide on the scope of our project.”

Consultants in the capital campaign business often get that request from nonprofits. Before deciding on a project, they want to know how much money they can raise. To be fair, it makes some sense.

Perhaps when you were a kid, you saved your change in a piggy bank. When the bank was full, you broke it open, counted your money, and went to the store to spend it. But when it comes to capital campaign fundraising, that approach is badly flawed!

Some years ago, I heard my old friend Jerry Panas tell the following story that explains why you can’t start with the money:

Michael, a college president, had been building a close relationship with Joe, a wealthy man in the community for years. Joe had given many gifts to the college. Michael considered him a friend.

When Michael’s college started a campaign, he went to Joe and asked for a million-dollar gift to the College’s Future Visions Campaign. He was surprised and disappointed to receive only $100,000.

But his disappointment turned into disbelief when, a few days later, he read in the local paper that his friend Joe had just made a gift of $1,000,000 to a local arts organization. The president mustered his courage and met with Joe. He said, “Joe, I saw in the paper that you gave a large gift to the arts organization. And you gave a relatively small gift to our campaign. What did I do wrong?”

Without hesitating, Joe answered, “That little organization had a million-dollar idea! You just wanted money for your campaign.”

Joe learned the hard way that people give to ideas, not to campaigns. They give generous major gifts because they are inspired by the organization to invest their money in something that will have an impact.

Setting a campaign goal is not done in the abstract. Campaign goals are set for specific ideas or visions. The amount of money you can raise depends in large part on how compelling your idea or vision or project is.

It takes courageous leaders to set bold, shared visions. And particularly now, in the wake of COVID-19 and market instability, leaders are tempted to scale back and be more conservative. But big ideas raise more money. And the scarcity mindset seldom works well for capital campaigns.

Thinking from Abundance

An optimistic mindset is helpful for your campaign in many ways, but the most important time to have one is right in the very beginning when you are shaping your campaign goals.

Planning a campaign is one of the wonderful and rare times when you can think from abundance rather than scarcity. You can use that opportunity to do some “blue sky” thinking.

Ask yourself this question: If money were no object, what would your organization look like at the next level of growth? And what would it take to get it there?

A word of warning. I’m not suggesting that you plan for unreasonable or unachievable growth. You have to be able to realistically envision that if it had the resources, your organization really could ramp up in the way you suggest.

But barring that caution, you should begin planning your campaign by imagining the difference your organization could make if you had the resources you needed to move to the next level of impact. That’ll help you come up with a million-dollar idea like the one that inspired the donor to give to that arts organization rather than the college.

Think Big then Scale Back If Necessary

Capital campaigns are designed with several opportunities to adjust the campaign goal before sharing that goal with the community.

You begin with a big vision and a set of campaign objectives. That will lead you to a “working goal” for your campaign. You will test that goal by talking to your largest prospective donors through a feasibility study and, depending on what you find during those conversations, you can shift the goal up or down.

Then again, after you’ve actually secured gifts from your largest donors and your board during what’s called the “Quiet Phase” of your campaign, you’ll have a chance to revise the goal again.

Find the Courage to Think Big

Don’t let the current situation undermine your courage or your development goals. Begin your planning for a capital campaign by imagining how much more good your organization could do if it had the resources to move to the next level of operation.

Big ideas spark generous gifts. If you are leading an organization, it’s your job to have the courage to think big.

Capital Campaign Readiness Assessment

Is your organization ready for a capital campaign? This simple assessment tool will help you find out. You’ll assess six key areas of your organization. Take this free assessment now and find out if you’re truly ready for a campaign.

About the Authors

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders running successful campaigns. The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.