Seize the Moment

Businessman in suit looking at his watch, thinking about how to seize the day in a capital campaign. Custom Development Solutions

When is the best time for an organization to begin a capital campaign? The truth is, it’s best to seize the moment and begin now! Read on to learn why, and be sure to check out Your Capital Campaign Timeline for even more on this topic.

When Will You Be Ready?

Most of our work at Custom Development Solutions revolves around the planning and resident direction of capital campaigns, which is a very intensive hands-on service. Frequently, the first step I take with a potential client is to sit and listen to them describe their organization, from their history and origins to their goals, objectives, and vision for the future. These potential clients’ stories are often similar. They need the funds that a capital campaign would bring, but they are not quite “ready” to undertake such a monumental task. They will be ready in several months, or maybe in a year. Unfortunately, if you touch base with most of these organizations in a year, they are still not ready for the big step. They are, as we say, “always getting ready to get ready.”

Where Does this Excuse Come From?

These are, mind you, very industrious and keenly intelligent people. For many years, they have attended fundraising seminars and conferences. These nonprofit administrators are working hard to learn as much as they can about the right way to fundraise. Unfortunately, they are getting some misinformation.

Fantasy vs. Real Life

Nonprofit executives who have never had a campaign experience are shown a snapshot of the ideal scenario when in fact, back at home, their real world situation is very different. This is the biggest problem. They are taught using the model from places like Harvard, Stanford, The Smithsonian, and The Metropolitan Opera. In short, these organizations can marshal the resources without working up a sweat. This is due to their history of educating and cultivating constituents for large gifts.

The fundamental fundraising principles used by these powerful organizations hold true in any well-run major gifts campaign, based upon a classical fundraising model. The problem arises when the instructor leaves out the most important point: “This is an example of the best case scenario. Most of you will not have a fairy tale situation when you return to your office. Do not let that distract you from your work. Labor on for your reward!”

As you might expect, these nonprofit executives are told that they need strong, well-connected board members who are anxious to offer leadership through sacrificial giving and by soliciting their many influential friends on behalf of the agency. They are told, “You need 100% participation and board members should be giving the very largest gifts you expect to receive.” The reality may be a lackluster board, with more well-intentioned people than wealthy tycoons. Often, these folks have little or no giving history, because it was not asked or expected of them in the past.

Corporations vs. Individuals

The executive often remarks that they have a number of board seats available, and are going to recruit some influential corporate types before starting their campaign. The problem here is that the money invariably does not come from corporations. Most money comes from individuals who learn to care about your mission and begin to adopt it as their own.

By precipitously adding half a dozen board members in the months leading up to a campaign, you weaken your position. Can you imagine asking them for $25,000, $50,000 or even a $100,000 gift to your campaign, on the heels of their being recruited for your board? Any potential board member worth having in your organization will ask you what your expectations are of their involvement. Not to tell them honestly would be a serious breach of trust. Getting into a conversation about a gift at that point, before you are properly prepared to solicit such a contribution, can open a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed graciously.

Lead Gifts Aren’t Everything

Another fallacy that many nonprofit executives learn is that you must have a million dollar gift. Or, you must have a donor who is willing to give between 20 and 40 percent of the goal. Lead gifts are important, but they are not the single key to your success. The key is to maintain the appropriate ratio of leadership gifts and major gifts to your prospect pool. In most major gift campaigns, about 80% of the money comes from 20% of the prospects.

What is the Solution?

Run your capital campaign now. Ask these potential board members to help in a significant way both through their own generous gift and by leveraging their personal relationships. See who performs admirably, and to those enthusiastic, generous and indefatigable people go the invitations to join the stronger board for the “new and improved” organization. If they are going to help, this is the proving ground. If they are not going to be helpful, it is better to know now, when your investment of time and energy is minimal. What better way to see who performs, than to see who helps you with the most difficult task of all: your capital campaign.


A capital campaign is one of the most polarizing experiences in the life of any organization. Your real supporters will stand up and deliver, and the pretenders will scatter. People who have something to give will become energized; folks who were there simply to network and socialize will disappear quickly. Invite the “givers” onto the board—the “takers” will be long gone by that time.

Sooner rather than later, you have to seize the moment and dive into the active phase of a campaign. For most organizations, there will never be a perfect time when you have every piece of the puzzle. Do not let that dissuade you. There are plenty of small to mid-size nonprofits that run hugely successful campaigns.

You should not expect your campaign to be a cure-all that will catapult your organization into the development stratosphere. Expect it to be the next step in the strategic growth of your mission, and a logical phase in the maturing of your development program. As they say, there is no time like the present. Win or lose, every person has an opportunity to do their personal best. Grow from each experience, and remember—have some fun while you’re at it!


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