Running a Campaign Today: What You Need to Know for Success

Running a Campaign Today: What You Need to Know for Success

August 08, 2019 by Lee A. Ernst

It might feel like you are always in campaign mode, either planning for your first campaign, your next campaign, or currently in the middle of one. You aren’t alone here!  As you think about your campaign, here are some recent trends we have noticed and best practices  we have seen in our 25 years working with clients across multiple nonprofit sectors.

Trends in Campaigns

For starters, many more campaigns are taking place today. We are seeing larger campaign goals and more megacampaigns fueled by megagifts from the top tier of donors.

Running a Campaign Today

With this has come a greater focus on the top of the gift pyramid and heavy reliance on lead donors with less participation from mid-level donors. The challenge for non-profit organizations is to also build in opportunities to engage mid-level and annual fund level donors. Organizations are recognizing that if this opportunity is missed it can be detrimental to their efforts to develop major and lead gift donor pipelines for future campaigns. Relying on the same lead gift donors repeatedly can quickly lead to donor fatigue in the environment of continuous campaigns we find ourselves in today.

Comprehensive campaigns are more prominent today, and we are seeing more campaigns also focusing on raising endowment funds. Donors are interested in supporting ongoing sustainability of organizations and want to understand how a campaign will impact an organization as a whole – what will the impact be and how will it affect the organization’s financial health?

There seems to be less focus on raising funds for new facilities. This doesn’t mean that new facilities are out of the question, but we tend to hear more donors say, “take care of what you have first before you consider something new.” They want to see the renovation or upgrading of current facilities first. Donors and prospects also want to see that the organization has made plans and taken into account how they will fund the expense of ongoing maintenance for new facilities.

Mini-campaigns or organized major gift efforts are also being used more frequently to secure funding for organizational improvements or programmatic launches. While this isn’t a new concept, it can serve to  give an  organization’s donors, volunteers, and staff a break between major campaigns. These fundraising efforts tend to be time-limited and more narrowly focused.

We are also seeing a greater focus on pre-campaign planning and organizations taking the time to thoroughly plan for campaigns with a longer ramp-up phase. This time allows organizations to ensure everyone is on board with your vision and funding priorities, begin advance cultivation of top donors and prospects, and prepare leadership, volunteers, and staff for the rigors of a campaign.


Getting Started. What can you expect in a campaign?

Understanding the various phases of a campaign and what the implications might be for your organization is important. Focusing your campaign volunteers and staff on the right prospects at the right time is critical. Don’t get ahead of yourself when the focus should be on the top of the pyramid or a special project that has an urgent timeline. For instance, when the organization is working to set the tone of the campaign and secure lead and major gifts, this is not the time to be focusing on the broad-based messages and strategies that will be utilized during a campaign’s public phase.

Phases of a Campaign:

  • Phase I: Planning and Testing
    Complete strategic planning, undertake a feasibility study and develop a preliminary case for support to test your aspirations with donors, approve a campaign approach, form a Campaign Committee, conduct identification, cultivation, and solicitation of early and lead gifts.
  • Phase II: Leadership Gifts
    Also known as the “Silent Phase,” this is when you focus on lead and major gifts, prepare your campaign and communications plans, refine your prospect management, refocus your major gift team, and strengthen your advancement services and stewardship processes.
  • Phase III: Transition to Public Phase
    As you transition to the public phase of the campaign, continue your focus on major gifts, refine your components and final goal, increase communications and marketing for the campaign, increased research on prospects, ensure advancement services is ready for the increased gift activity, and focus efforts on moving annual donors up the gift pyramid. As your campaign reaches its completion, there will be activity around fulfillment of donor recognition requirements and an eventual celebration of campaign success.
  • Phase IV: Public Phase
    Entering the public phase of the campaign naturally means an increase in campaign solicitations, even greater communications and marketing, along with events, a continued focus on major gifts and heavy gift receipting and acknowledgement for advancement services.

If done well, campaigns can do MORE than raise the funds needed to advance an aspirational plan. A successful campaign can also:

  • Build capacity
  • Unify stakeholders around a common vision
  • Raise funds needed to advance an aspirational plan with a clear set of priorities
  • Increase awareness of organization in the community
  • Provide people the opportunity to experience the joy of generous giving


6 Tips to Ensure Campaign Success

  1. Articulate Leadership’s Vision  – Translate the vision and strategic plan into organizational priorities and articulate the impact of philanthropy on achieving the vision.
  2. Establish a Strategic Campaign Structure  – Ensure a lead gift(s) of at least 10-15% of the campaign goal and other gifts comprising 60% or more of the total goal are secured before announcing the campaign publicly.
  3. Build the Middle of the Gift Pyramid  – Prospects between the lead gifts and annual fund can often be overlooked. These gifts are essential for a campaign and staff should cultivate relationships here.
  4. Incorporate Planned Giving  – Planned gifts are increasingly playing a larger role in campaigns. Planned gifts make up to 30% or more of campaign totals nationally, according to the New York Planned Giving Consortium. Nearly half (46%) of respondents in the 2015 Nonprofit Research Collaborative Campaign Survey reported an increased planned giving effort during their campaign.
  5. Engage Women and Couples  – Research shows that women are the primary philanthropic decision makers in households. Female headed households are MORE LIKELY TO GIVE and GIVE MORE than men incomparable households except for the widow/widower category, according to research conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.
  6. Conduct a Post Campaign Evaluation  – Take stock of the campaign’s successes and challenges by compiling and analyzing giving data, seeking feedback from staff, volunteers, and donors and discussing lessons learned with volunteer leadership. This will set the stage for your next campaign.

For more information on the keys to campaign success today, listen to the entire JGA webinar and also download “Required Reading for Running a Capital Campaign,” our joint publication with the Chronicle of Philanthropy.