Back in the 80’s the pop band Queen rhapsodied without peer, Bob Hawke famously quipped something about employers being bums when Australia won the America’s Cup, and capital campaigns meant roping in loads of volunteers to do the ask. Well Freddie Mercury is dead, Hawke has moved on, politically and personally, and Graeme Bradshaw reports that capital campaigns aren’t what they used to be either.

It was 25 years ago that I first became involved in capital fundraising – so what has changed since then in the techniques, targets and overall approach, and what does this mean for today’s campaigns?

My most immediate response is – the more things change the more they stay the same! The fundamental capital campaign model of the 1980’s remains, but does it need fine-tuning, or are more significant changes necessary?

First we need to agree on what constitutes a capital campaign. My simple view is that it is time limited, with specific dollar and project goals, demands gifts of capital for building works or major equipment items, and usually involves multi-year commitments from donors.

From experience corporate gifts are usually few, trusts and foundations are little interested (with a few exceptions) and committed long-term donors are undoubtedly your best prospects.

Proceeding without a professionally conducted feasibility study is fraught with danger, and engaging an experienced consultant to provide an objective and professional external opinion is essential and represents a sound investment.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered before deciding to launch into a campaign. The vital ones are:

Do you have a compelling case that appeals to the heart and to the head? Is there a sense of urgency about your needs? Do you have active and highly visible volunteer leaders? Do you have someone in mind to be your chairman Can you already identify five to ten top donors? Can you identify at least three times the number of donors you will need in each gift category?

One final question. Does your board enthusiastically support the campaign objectives, demonstrate a willingness to give generously, and are they committed to work towards the campaign’s success?

All too often campaigns go ahead even when the responses to a number of these questions are qualified ‘YESs’ or even resounding ‘NOs.’ In such circumstances the next question is very simply – are you ready for a capital campaign?

Have any of these questions changed in 25 years. I don’t think so. Unfortunately the answers sometimes have, especially with regards to volunteer leaders, who are now scarcer than hen’s teeth.

Volunteers on the Wane

It used to be the norm to recruit large teams of volunteers to be responsible for each tier of prospective donors in a campaign – but the manual needs rewriting.

If you can find 12-20 committed and influential leaders/volunteers for your campaign you’re doing well. And frequent or regular meetings of your entire campaign committee are a thing of the past. Essentially the campaign chair, CEO, development manager and campaign consultant are most often the primary task force and will secure most of the major gifts.

Bigger Gifts, But Longer to Get

A traditional gift chart usually showed the lead gift as 10% of the goal. Moving down the chart the gift size was halved while the number of gifts doubled. This approach was truly fundamental but today the lead gift is more likely to be 20% of the final tally. And back in 1980, 80% of campaign donations came from 20% of donors, now it’s closer to 90% from 10%.

The time taken to secure major gifts has also slowed. The average interval to woo a prospect fresh to your organisation and the moment of asking is around 15 months.

Prospect Research

Serious prospect research, identification and cultivation is now an established norm for most campaigns. Engaging outside professionals to assist with database screening to identify wealthy, philanthropic and well-connected individuals, particularly where it is a community-wide appeal, should be seriously considered.

Women Taking the Reigns

Perhaps one of the greatest changes of all is that many women are now influencing and making major gifts. In earlier years women were left off prospect lists and campaign committees because they “had no influence” and “husbands signed the cheques”!!

My sea change occurred with the appointment of Dame Beryl Beaurepaire as chairman of a capital campaign for the Australian War Memorial in 1992. Her enthusiasm, gusto, influence with individuals, and ability and willingness to ASK at the highest levels was a revelation. This trend has continued with more and more women participating in the asking and the giving.

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