Capital Campaigns: Problem-Solving During COVID-19

July 16, 2020

This blog was contributed by Aly Sterling of Aly Sterling Philanthropy. Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first made headlines, many nonprofit professionals paused gift asks and campaign tasks to direct efforts toward more immediate needs within their communities. Pandemic fundraising and operational costs took precedence over long-term campaigns.

At this point, we’re a few months into the crisis. While the fundraising landscape hasn’t returned to “normal” by any means, it looks like this period of uncertainty is sticking around for the foreseeable future.

Pausing all efforts to outlast the crisis is simply not feasible. Rather, the focus should be on creating a strategy to succeed despite the uncertainty— to bring your nonprofit to a better place in the next 6-12 months than where it is right now. With this in mind:

How do you proceed with a nonprofit capital campaign during a crisis?

Through this post, you’re going to problem-solve for your organization’s biggest effort. We’re going to explore the following capital campaign challenges created by COVID-19:

  • Choosing when to move forward.
  • Maintaining connections when social distancing.
  • Soliciting gifts during a crisis.
  • Discovering funding when gifts are paused.

Are you ready to problem-solve your organization’s biggest effort? Let’s get started.

Challenge: Choosing when to move forward.

Capital campaigns are a highly coordinated, timeline-centric effort. After all, the end goal is to raise a specific amount of money within a defined time frame to fund a project to completion.

These campaigns are often broken down into 6 phases, including the:

  1. Feasibility Phase: During this phase, a feasibility study is conducted by interviewing key stakeholders about your campaign.
  2. Pre-Campaign Planning: Using the information gathered during your feasibility study, you create a campaign strategy and generate a list of major gift prospects.
  3. Quiet Phase: This phase involves securing major donations and raising 50-70% of your campaign’s total gifts.
  4. Kickoff: Your campaign is launched to the general public, raising awareness of your upcoming project overall.
  5. Public Phase: Reaching out to your entire donor base, this is the point at which you secure the final gifts needed to reach your goal.
  6. Stewardship: After you’ve raised all needed gifts, you continue stewarding donors by providing updates on the project and acknowledging each supporter.

Each phase is essential to the success of your campaign, and it’s crucial to fully complete each step before proceeding to the next. For example, you shouldn’t move to the kickoff phase if you haven’t raised 50-70% of your total gifts during the quiet phase.

During normal operations, this choice would be fairly straightforward— once you’ve completed one phase, you move to the next. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely disrupted your campaign action plan.

So, how do you strategically choose to proceed to the next phase of your campaign during COVID-19?

Solution: Closely evaluate the status of your campaign and take the time needed to meet important milestones and prepare for next steps.

Each step of your campaign builds on the last. If you were in the feasibility or planning phase of your campaign when the pandemic began, consider extending that phase longer than originally planned and diving back into your research. There is a decent chance that any findings you originally based your strategy on have drastically changed. Dedicating extra time to research and planning will strengthen your campaign and give your donors time to recover economically before giving.

If you’re in a later phase, such as the quiet phase or kickoff phase, avoid rushing to the next step of your campaign simply to stay on track. If your goal permits, consider pushing back key dates— such as the campaign kickoff— to position your organization as optimally as possible to have a successful public phase. Your campaign timeline will likely need to change, so be prepared to set new milestones and benchmark dates accordingly.

Navigating these conversations can be a challenge, and this is one area where hiring a fundraising consultant can be a valuable investment. This team member can help you adjust your campaign timeline as needed for success. For more information, check out this guide to hiring a fundraising consultant.

Challenge: Maintaining connections when social distancing.

This challenge has two parts: Maintaining connections with your campaign’s staff and maintaining connections with supporters.

Let’s examine both.

Capital campaigns are a highly coordinated effort that involves many teams across your nonprofit’s staff completing a variety of tasks in each step. Transparency across teams and task management is crucial— something that can be more challenging when you’re not interacting with staff members in person. If one task or team falls behind, that can have a domino effect on the rest of your campaign.

Further, donor communication and stewardship are arguably more essential during a capital campaign than during any other nonprofit effort. These campaigns involve the enthusiastic participation of major donors, and this support is only secured through a strong stewardship and overall donor retention strategy.

Before the pandemic, we’d often suggest that both of these types of communication be held in-person, face-to-face. How do you maintain the same quality of communication when in-person meetings aren’t accessible?

Solution: Get creative with your communications.

While you may not be able to hold in-person strategy sessions, luncheons, or headquarters visits, that doesn’t mean you have to forego these valuable communication opportunities.

Instead, simply get creative with your venue! By this, we mean turning to video conferencing software and phone calls to continue holding these essential conversations.

For example, where campaign staff is concerned:

  • Schedule regular meetings and check-in calls via video conferencing software, sending out meeting notes via email after the fact.
  • Hold non-campaign-related meetings (such as coffee chats and lunches) to check in on staffers and keep morale high.

And then, where donor communications are concerned:

  • Hold educational group calls with key supporters, mimicking the educational luncheon via video conferencing software.
  • Conduct one-on-one meetings with major donors to continue building relationships.
  • Share virtual tours of your headquarters, giving a behind-the-scenes look into your operations.

These are just a few ways you can use technology to continue essential conversations while social distancing. Get creative, and you’ll be communicating effectively in no time!

Challenge: Soliciting gifts during a crisis.

Outside of the feasibility study and planning phases, the majority of a capital campaign involves soliciting gifts from supporters. Whether from major supporters during the quiet phase or the general public during the public phase, the ultimate goal of a capital campaign is to raise funds.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an undeniable economic downturn. Many nonprofit professionals have been apprehensive about asking supporters to donate during the crisis and have paused all asks as a response. This was understandable during the early months of the pandemic. However, with no end in sight, pausing gift asks for the duration of the crisis could have a big impact on the success of your campaign.

So, how do you continue soliciting capital campaign gifts during a public health and economic crisis?

Solution: Be genuine, empathetic, and kind.

The key to soliciting gifts during a pandemic, whether major donations or not, is to be empathetic, understanding, and kind.

Recognizing that your supporters are also living through a crisis and reflecting that understanding in your gift asks, is key. To effectively accomplish this, here are a few strategic tips to keep in mind:

  • Begin with a check-in with the donor. Treat them like you would your friends and family. Ask how they’re doing. Find out how they’ve been affected by the pandemic. Listen to their answers and only move forward with a gift conversation if the supporter is in a good place.
  • Ask the donor how you can best solicit them. Your donors want to support your organization, and because of that, they’re more likely to be forthcoming with information about the options and timing that work best for them.
  • Offer flexible gift options. For example, continue asking regular year-end donors if they’d be interested in making that gift now. Or, ask supporters to make gift pledges now, with the actual gift coming to your organization later in the year once they’re in a more comfortable financial position.
  • Ask about a follow-up. If the supporter isn’t ready to give at this time, ask them how you should proceed going forward. Would they like to be involved in another way? Can you ask them again later? It can’t hurt to ask!

Pausing capital campaign gift asks until COVID-19’s effects dissipate may not be feasible. Empathy and kindness will go a long way once you resume these conversations. Further, remember that your organization can talk with a fundraising consultant to navigate these conversations. Learn more about consulting in this Aly Sterling Philanthropy guide.

Challenge: Discovering funding when gifts are paused.

Even if you master the gift ask, there’s still a decent chance many of your supporters will be unable to give. You may reach out to prospects to no avail or even be contacted to put a previously secured major gift on pause.

These major gifts are crucial for the success of capital campaigns, making up 50-70% of the total funding of the project. Few (if any) campaigns are funded to completion on smaller gifts alone— that’s why building a strong foundation for major gifts is so crucial!

So, how do you successfully fundraise for a capital campaign when many of your major gifts fall through?

Solution: Look to new sources you may not have sought previously.

Consider turning to new funding sources outside of your existing donor base to achieve your capital campaign goals.

For example, donor-advised funds (DAFs) are a great way to secure funding right now. Donors contribute to the fund, which is often managed by a community foundation or large financial service firm, without specifying beneficiaries right away. They can choose at any time to make donations to causes that interest them from the fund. Learn more about DAFs through this Grants Plus guide.

The best way to learn if DAF dollars are available for your mission is to have a conversation with the people who manage the funds. Contact your local community foundation and investment firms (such as Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard) to learn about the funds they manage and how to solicit these donors. You may already have donors in your database who employ this strategy— be sure to update your records to reflect this info. With a DAF, these supporters can give to your organization without actually paying any more out of their pocket during the pandemic!

Further, consider incorporating grant funding into your campaign fundraising efforts. As we’ve seen, 755 grant-making organizations have committed to supporting nonprofits during this time— so there may be some beneficial opportunities available to your organization that weren’t before the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenging fundraising landscape for nonprofits everywhere, especially those that were in the midst of capital campaigns.

It appears this uncertain landscape is sticking around for the near future, so it’s time for your organization to strategize to come out on the other end of the crisis strong. With these solutions, you can problem-solve the biggest challenges confronting your capital campaign due to COVID-19. 

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