Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Lessons From A Capital Campaign

Apr 16, 2017

Recently I was part of a successful capital campaign. To say I learned a few things along the way would be an understatement. Without giving away details on the organization or betraying anyone’s confidences, I’d like to share a few of the many things I learned through the process.

Way back in 2013, I was asked to participate in the selection of a consultant who would help the organization determine the feasibility of a capital campaign. But before we even got to that step, a strategic planning process had taken place involving internal and external stakeholders, to listen to the values of our community, and to ensure our stated mission aligned with them. With a strategic plan in place you have the foundation for communicating your organization’s goals and a road map for achieving them.

So, strategic plan in hand, we developed a request for proposals from interested consultants. Before you protest and claim that you’re too small an organization to afford a consultant, in my experience, a good consultant is worth every penny. Not your friend who’s trying to break into the world of nonprofit management, but someone with the experience and technical know-how to undertake a feasibility study, develop a case for support, and coach you on soliciting donors. A good consultant remains steady through a campaign’s ups and downs, knows what the potential pitfalls might be, and, more importantly, knows how to maneuver over those bumps.

In order to set the financial goal of our campaign, the consultant interviewed many stakeholders and researched the giving capacity of potential donors. While talking about people’s financial assets makes most of us squirm, it’s helpful to have a clear sense of what is even possible rather than guessing. We had high hopes for how much we could raise, and our consultant suggested an amount that would require a lot of hard work, but one that she felt we could achieve. There’s an art and a science to setting a campaign goal: you definitely don’t want to set too high a goal from which you will ultimately need to retreat. Our consultant made sure our high hopes were based in reality.

At this point, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m using a lot of “we” and “us.” That’s because the head of the organization carefully and subtly cultivated my involvement. Having participated in the strategic planning process as a community member, I was later asked to join the consultant search committee, which further engaged me in the process. Before I knew it, I had agreed to co-chair the campaign. We then built a team of volunteers: people who understood the job, who believed in the project, and were willing to solicit donors. This strong core of volunteers was another critical component to the success of the campaign.

There are two basic phases of a capital campaign: the quiet phase and the public phase. It used to be that you raised funds quietly among your highest donors until you reached 50% of the goal and then publicized the campaign and completed it with a broad range of gifts. This is no longer standard practice. By the time we went public in late 2015, we had raised 85% of our goal. Obviously plenty of people knew about the campaign but we did not announce it publicly until we felt sure that we could achieve the goal. The excitement created by the announcement – and a really fun party that was open to the entire community – carried us across the finish line one year later.

A capital campaign is challenging: it demands a lot of time, it requires flexibility in working with many different personalities around the uncomfortable subject of money, and it can provide you with moments of triumph as often as moments of mild despair. But, done well, it affirms an organization’s value to the community; it energizes supporters; and it honors the many people who are part of the organization’s history. Make it fun, make it meaningful, and make sure everyone feels part of it!

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.  She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

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