August 20, 2019

The Recipe for a Successful Capital Campaign

Tom Linfield

Capital campaigns are both daunting and invigorating. They can take years from planning, to campaign, to construction, to grand opening and require a lot of time, energy, and resources. They involve a million details, from feasibility studies to naming opportunities to carpet samples. And they can be an emotional rollercoaster for staff and board members. 

Yet campaigns are also transformative. They change the way nonprofits look at themselves and how they are perceived in the community. They bring out the best from staff and volunteers. They change the way an agency looks, operates, serves, plans, dreams. 

A third of Madison Community Foundation’s annual Community Impact grantmaking goes towards capital investments, helping nonprofits evolve and take that audacious leap. As a result, we see a lot of capital campaigns for organizations both large and small. In my experience, three ingredients are key to a successful campaign: vision, teamwork, and chutzpah.

Nothing succeeds like an inspiring vision. A campaign is meant to challenge your agency and your donors to increase your impact. Can you serve more people? Introduce new programs? Build your capacity and sustainability? Provide a community gem? Endow provision of a key program in perpetuity? This is your agency’s chance to plant a flag. Can you be audacious and ambitious? What is your plan to change the world (or your small corner)?

Building a team not only including staff, but also the board and a campaign committee, is vital. These are the people who will nourish your vision, and provide energy, ideas, and connections. A strong committee will share the workload, introduce new supporters and donors, and give of their own time, talent, and treasure. Think of the campaign as a community barn-raising – hundreds of hands coming together for a collaborative effort, guided by a singular opportunity. Part of the excitement is helping your community grow. Current donors will provide the foundation and grow with you. New donors will join you on your journey. 

I recently used the word chutzpah in a grantsmanship workshop and got a blank stare. Then I compounded my error by offering moxie as a partial definition (a word defined as courage, daring, or determination). Another blank stare. Chutzpah is a wonderful Yiddish word, often defined as impudence or gall, but it means much more. It means to have the audacity and fortitude (and nerve) to try something surprising and impressive and gutsy. It’s a great word, and it’s at the root of any major leap into the future.  Once you have a vision and a solid team to pursue it, you must have the chutzpah to share that vision, to sit across from others and paint a picture of the future and ask them to be part of the attempt.

This year saw a variety of daring capital campaigns reach, and often surpass, their goals:

  • The Vera Court Community Center completed a $3 million campaign that drastically increased the size of their center and breadth of programming.
Operation Fresh Start photo by Beth Skogen
  • Operation Fresh Start raised an impressive $4.5 million and built, with their students, a brand new building. They are now on track to double the number of young people they serve within the next three years.
  • Belleville Public Library celebrated their 140th year in existence by raising the funds to build their new, $3.3 million facility, offering more quiet space, group study space, teen space, meeting room space, and community gathering space, all outfitted with new resources and technology.

Each of these campaigns was fueled by hundreds of donations and many hours of community listening and outreach. And each helped the organization increased its size, capacity, and impact.

What a Successful Campaign Doesn't Require
Note that I haven’t listed vast resources, a huge development staff, or even coziness with major donors as vital capital campaign assets. These two major projects, in the final leg of their campaigns, have surprised and delighted donors with their integrity and resourcefulness. Neither organization has any paid staff, development or otherwise. These are volunteer efforts, pure and simple, driven by people with a dream.

  • The Women Artists Forward Fund is raising $450,000 to endow two annual $10,000 awards for women artists – one seasoned artist and one emerging. They have gathered a small group of powerful supporters who have helped them raise $360,000 so far, and they plan to award their first two grants this fall.  This funding will help Madison’s vibrant art scene grow and will be the first artist award of its kind in the region.
Circus Space photo by Tona Williams
  • The Madison Circus Space has raised $805,000 of its $1 million goal to create a dedicated circus and movement arts space that will feature performances and classes in aerial dance, silks,  juggling, hooping, German Wheel, acro-yoga and much more (think Cirque de Soleil). This is the type of unique, joyous arts space that makes Madison what it is: A place to learn, to express yourself, and to challenge yourself by sailing confidently through the air.

And perhaps that’s what a capital campaign is – daring to learn something new, to sail through the air, not knowing exactly where you’ll land or how the journey will change you, but confident that you'll find yourself somewhere new.