(If you haven’t read Heidi Thomson-Daly’s article on The Feasibility Study it’s a great pre-read to this article. She talks about why it’s a critical step for campaign success and the 3 possible outcomes of a study).

You’ve just completed your campaign feasibility study and the results are positive! Congratulations! Your organization received the “green light“ to move forward with a campaign, and this means your donors understand the big need in the community, they are aligned with your vision to meet that need, and they are willing to help provide the philanthropic resources to do so. This news can be both thrilling and somewhat daunting. The really big work, of planning and executing your campaign, is about to begin, and the next few months of intensive planning are critical to your success.

Reaching the Summit Requires Planning!

When I think about a major campaign, I like to use the metaphor of climbing a mountain. Imagine that your board and staff are a team of climbers and you’re planning to climb Mt. Rainier. Your goal is to reach the summit (i.e. raise $20 Million for a new building). All of the work you do in advance of the climb is critical to your success. You’ll need a clear map to find your path up the mountain. You’ll need experienced guides to lead you on the way up. You’ll need the right climbing gear for each stage of the climb. And, you’ll need good training to make sure everyone has the endurance, skill, and stamina to make it to the top. All of this advanced preparation is necessary to ensure that you have the best chance of reaching the summit, on time. So, before you leave base camp and embark up the mountain, here’s what you’ll need to do to plan for a successful, rewarding, and inspiring climb, where you can all celebrate at the top.

1. Finalize Your Project, Financial Plan, Philanthropic Goal, and Timeline

With the information you received from your feasibility study, you now have a sense of the philanthropic appetite in the community for your project. The results of the study will shape the project scope, as well as the campaign goal. You’ll need to update your Case for Support, based on feedback you received from donors in the study. As part of that process, you’ll refine the total project cost, the financial plan for the project, the philanthropic support needed to achieve the vision, and the timeline for doing so. For example, a $25 million capital project might require raising $20 million in philanthropy, taking out a loan for $3 million, and using reserves of $2 million. Donors want to understand the big picture and where they fit into achieving the vision.

2. Outline Campaign Phases & Core Strategies in a Comprehensive Plan

Most campaigns have 3 main phases: Nucleus, Quiet, and Public. Each phase requires different engagement and solicitation strategies, as well as careful planning and execution. You’ll need to develop a written campaign plan that will serve as your roadmap for this very important endeavor. The campaign plan outlines the timeline and strategy for each phase, donor engagement strategies for each constituent group, criteria for campaign cabinet membership, solicitation strategies for different levels of the gift pyramid, campaign policies, naming opportunities, and benchmarks for success. The plan also highlights the importance of sequencing certain activities to ensure that the most important things are happening first.

3. Create Leadership Gift & Major Gift Solicitation Strategies

Developing a strategy for securing the top gifts must happen early in the campaign. Often times, some people who participated in your feasibility study are candidates for leadership gifts, so approaching those people first, if they’re ready, is a strong move. In the vast majority of campaigns, 80-90% of the money comes from 20% of the donor community. These percentages are different for each organization, but the reality is that large gifts are necessary to set the tone and the pace for a successful campaign. Leadership gifts build momentum and inspire other donors to give.

4. Get Your Internal House In Order

As part of your feasibility study, you likely had an assessment of your internal fundraising systems and processes, as well as your staff capacity. Staffing up for a campaign is critical. The annual fundraising, (for operations, programs, scholarships, etc), will still be happening, at the same time you are raising money for the capital campaign (or endowment campaign, or whatever the special focus is). You’ll need to make sure that you have a staffing structure that can support the increased workload required during the campaign years. In addition, you’ll need to refine your internal systems and procedures, so you can track and manage the increased donor activity that comes with a campaign. This includes things like: database clean up, developing campaign gift acceptance policies, creating a moves management system, etc.

5. Conduct Prospect Research on Top Prospects

Identifying the most promising major gift prospects is a top priority for a successful campaign. Prospect research plays an important role here. If you conducted prospect research as part of your feasibility study, then you may not need to do this again, depending on the time lapse between your study and the start of your campaign. If you did not conduct prospect research as part of your study, then I highly recommend doing so as part of your planning process before you begin cultivating and soliciting for your campaign. Prospect research will help you identify and qualify the most viable prospects, ensuring that you are prioritizing those who have the greatest capacity and likelihood of giving a major gift in the early phases of the campaign. It’s truly one of the most important things to invest in when embarking on a campaign.

6. Recruit Campaign Leadership

Strong volunteer leadership is a core component of campaign success. Your volunteer leadership provides credibility, influence, and momentum to the campaign. Hopefully the feasibility study revealed who, among your circle of supporters, is willing to serve on your campaign cabinet. How you go about identifying, recruiting, and supporting your campaign leadership will have a big impact in the early phase of your campaign. As part of this process, you’ll need to clarify the leadership structure, as well as roles and responsibilities for the following campaign leaders:

  • Campaign Chair or Co-Chairs
  • Campaign Committee
  • Board of Directors
  • Staff Leadership

7. Provide Training & Support for Campaign Leaders & Staff

Your volunteer leaders, board members, and staff members will all have different levels of experience, comfort, courage, and enthusiasm for donor engagement and solicitation. Some will be eager to fundraise, having done so successfully for other causes they love. Others will be hesitant and anxious, but willing to learn. Either way, it’s vital to provide them with ongoing, dynamic and actionable training that gives them the tools, techniques, and practice to be successful. They will need encouragement and celebration along the way. Staff will need this too, as campaigns can cause everyone to feel fatigued at time. Plan ahead for this, and think about how you will boost momentum and energize the team at various intervals in the campaign. When volunteers feel inspired and well-supported, they are will open up and leverage their networks in powerful ways.

8. Create Campaign Materials

Every campaign needs a suite of collateral to promote the campaign to prospective donor audiences (major donors, corporations, legacy donors, alumni, former clients, etc). Your campaign materials must tell a compelling story about the urgency of the community need, how your organization is uniquely positioned to meet that need, and why the campaign and donor partnership is so important to advancing the mission at this particular time.

Examples of campaign materials include:

  • Written Case for Support
  • Campaign Video
  • Campaign Website
  • Campaign Pledge Forms
  • Campaign Newsletter

9. Develop Campaign Stewardship & Gift Recognition Guidelines

A campaign is a special occasion to redefine what gratitude means for your organization. Regardless of how you have done donor stewardship in the past, a campaign gives you a fresh opportunity to think about how you want to value donors in meaningful ways at all levels.

It is especially important to establish minimum gift amounts for any naming opportunities, in advance of the campaign. A comprehensive stewardship plan should be included in your Campaign Plan.

10. Campaign Budget

Running a campaign is not “business as usual.” It requires not only an increase in time and effort, but also an increase in financial investment in the development program itself. As part of your planning process, you’ll need to outline the cost of operationalizing the campaign effort. These internal investments will not only contribute to campaign success, but will have long-term benefits to a sustainable fundraising program.

A campaign budget often includes the following:

  • Staff Costs
  • Board & Staff Trainings
  • Campaign Counsel
  • Prospect Research
  • Donor Engagement Strategies
  • Campaign Materials/ Video/Donor Collateral
  • Communications, Messaging, Mailings
  • Special Events (cultivation, stewardship)
  • Donor Recognition (Walls, Art Installations, Pavers, Naming Plaques, etc)

11. Develop Ways to Track Progress & Measure Success

Finally, one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your campaign stays on track, is to create ways to monitor your progress and measure your success on a regular basis. You need to do this, so that you can course correct, and adjust your strategy along the way. I’m talking about tracking things beyond just money raised. The revenue is easy to see. However the non-revenue benchmarks are just as important and often are the early indicators that something isn’t going as planned. I recommend that you implement the following tracking mechanisms are part of your campaign planning process.

  • Monthly Development Dashboard (with KPIs: Key Performance Indicators)
  • Quarterly Benchmarks
    • # of qualified prospects at each gift level
    • # of donor engagement visits
    • # of solicitations made
    • # of gifts closed
    • # of people attending key cultivation/engagement events
    • # of Board Members meeting with donors

Depending on the size of your organization, you may choose to share just the quarterly benchmarks with the Board and use the KPIs with the staff. The key thing is to have a way of monitoring your progress so that you can stay on track with your campaign goals and timeline.


As you can see, there is a lot of intentionality in doing campaign planning well. Just like climbing Mt. Rainier, it would be risky to embark up the mountain without adequate planning and preparation. If you take the time to plan your route, assemble the right team, prepare your gear, and train for endurance, you will have the best chance of reaching your goal and celebrating at the summit! So, go forth, make that plan, and start climbing the mountain!

The view from the top is worth every step!