Is there a capital campaign in your future? The opportunity to shape the future of your organization can be a blessing. At the same time, one misstep can set plans back years, or lead to disagreements that can create division. If you are planning a campaign, it is important to get it right.

After more than 30 years of capital campaign consulting, we at DB&A, have observed four common mistakes that keep popping up like weeds in a vegetable garden. Thankfully, these mistakes are also easily avoidable, with education and intentionality.

Capital Campaign Mistake #1: Expecting Uniform Gifts

The first mistake we see people make in campaigns is expecting uniform gifts. If their goal is a million dollars, they say, “Let’s get a thousand donors to give $1,000 each.” This strategy is extremely impractical and never works. It’s instinctual to spread the dollar amount equally among all donors. I think this comes down to a desire for fairness and equality. However, there are two major problems with this fundraising plan.

First, the uniform dollar amount you pick likely will not match the gift amount to the donor’s capacity and inclination. You might have a donor who is really interested in the project, but only has the capacity for a $100 gift. Because they can’t give $1,000, they don’t give at all. Alternatively, you have an interested donor who has the capacity for a $150,000 gift, but you’ve short-changed yourself by only asking for $1,000. When fundraising, you need to focus on BOTH the donor’s interest and capacity. The second problem is the impracticality of asking so many people for a gift. It’s less work to cultivate and solicit one donor to give $100,000 than to find a hundred people to give $1,000 each. But there is a better model: The Donor Pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid many “regular donors” make small gifts. At the top, only a handful of “lead” donors who give substantial gifts. What is interesting is that donor giving is actually an inverse pyramid. The top 10-15 donors typically give over 50% of the campaign goal while the bottom 300-400 donors give the rest. The pyramid is then translated into a “Table of Gifts Needed” to arrange how many top, middle, and regular gifts you need to reach the goal.

Capital Campaign Mistake #2: Skipping the Feasibility Study

The second mistake people commonly make is to skip the campaign feasibility study. “Ready! Fire! Aim!” is their strategy. Without the feasibility study, also known as a pre-campaign planning or readiness study, fundraisers are often navigating the campaign landscape in the dark.

The feasibility study is a scouting mission to discover how to successfully approach your campaign. Feasibility studies are conducted by an experienced capital campaign consultant and include confidential interviews with key prospective donors and community leaders about your campaign. The results of a thorough feasibility study will provide your campaign team with valuable insights on:

1. Casehow does the case resonate with your constituency? What weaknesses in the case might need to be managed?
2. CapacityWho are your best prospective major donors? What is the best way to approach them? Are there other campaigns or projects that they are involved with that might impact your campaign?
3. LeadershipWho in your constituency is best positioned to provide campaign leadership?
4. ReadinessDo you have the internal resources that will be needed in order to complete your campaign successfully?
5. StrategyHow should Case, Capacity, Leadership, and Internal Resources be positioned to successfully complete the campaign?

Don’t navigate your campaign in the dark! Invest the time and energy so you know what you are aiming at. Feasibility studies will help give you the critical intelligence necessary to make wise decisions, ultimately leading to a smashing success.

Capital Campaign Mistake #3: “Going Public” Too Soon

The third mistake people make is prematurely “going public” — essentially announcing their campaign to the community before they are ready. Many donors looking at the totality of a fundraising goal will likely think, “How is my $5,000 going to make a difference toward the $5 million needed?” To those of modest means, the goal can seem unreachable.To those of exceptional means, your organization will appear naive. Either way, your donors’ enthusiasm is going to be as cold as that thermometer.

So, when do you go public? After a successful “quiet” or “leadership giving” phase.

There are three major goals to a quiet phase:

1. Establish a campaign steering committee comprised of well-connected, well-organized, committed volunteers (identified in the campaign planning study recommendations).
2. Quietly raise half to three-quarters of the campaign goal from leadership and closely-held gifts (board members, staff, and key volunteers).
3. Establish a public phase campaign plan you have confidence will succeed.

When you have accomplished the quiet phase goals AND you know where the rest of the funds will come from, it is time to “kick off” the public phase. Like it sounds, the kickoff begins a flurry of fundraising activities. This is the time to “shout it from the rooftops”, challenging as many people as possible to give, across all segments of your constituency, to come together for one final push to get your campaign across the finish line.

Asking the community to rally together to raise the final amount needed to push your campaign across the goal line is both exciting and compelling. That thermometer is going to look a lot more inspiring. People will look at how close the goal is and start collecting their pennies. That “big push” psychology will carry your campaign to the end. However, be careful that you don’t go public too early in your campaign. The energy of the “big push” has a short lifespan!

Capital Campaign Mistake #4: Not Specifically Asking for Major Gifts

Knowing who your prospective lead and major donors are is not good enough, you actually have to go ask them for their gift. One of our clients had a donor who, after a long cultivation period, responded to a gift proposal by saying she wanted to “keep it on the back burner for now.” Given positive cues over many months from the donor, this response came as a total surprise to the campaign team. All indications were the donor was ready. So we tried a different tactic. I joined the solicitor team to debrief with the donor. I was able to ask some probing questions that opened the donor to a new line of thinking. With the donor’s objections addressed, the campaign chair asked again. This time the donor’s answer resulted in the campaign’s second largest gift.

Top-tier gifts are critically important. However, these gifts rarely come easy. It takes great care to get to know prospective donors, craft the right approach including who is to make that approach, and then execute the strategy (ask the donor!).

Clark Dickerson, Founder of Dickerson, Bakker & Associates frequently reminds others that you “have to let the process breathe.” Thus the best campaign fundraising adheres to the Goldilocks principle. Your ask can’t be too hard or too soft, it needs to be “just right.”

Whether you are looking to raise money for expansion, renovation, debt reduction, or any other purpose, a successful capital campaign can help your organization take a substantial leap forward in the fulfillment of its future vision. Truth is, a capital campaign is probably one of the most complex initiatives that your organization will undertake. With so much at stake, most wisely choose to retain a capital campaign consulting firm to help avoid these types of mistakes and to guide their capital campaign through to a successful completion.