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Capital campaigns: The people factor

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By Ret Boney

Historically, capital campaigns have been fueled by large gifts from corporations and foundations, but more and more, individuals are taking over that role.

And as the current elder statesmen of the volunteer fundraising world hang up their hats, a different and less-experienced generation of leaders is waiting to be tapped.

All that means a renewed focus on people is in order, experts say.

“Getting people involved is the key to the future of philanthropy,” says Whitney Jones, president of Whitney Jones Inc., a fundraising consulting firm based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As the business world consolidates and corporate headquarters disappear, Jones says, there is an increasing reliance on individuals for major gifts.

And the old rule of thumb, that corporations, foundations and individuals each account for a third of capital-campaign giving, is shifting, says Jones, who has seen six in 10 dollars of some recent campaigns coming from individuals.

That requires a shift in focus and strategy, he says.

“To get $100,000 from a corporation or foundation, there are guidelines,” he says.  “But to get an individual to give that, you have to get to know them, establish trust and understand their interests.  It will become increasingly personalized, much the way the corporate world is depersonalized.”

Senior Services Inc., a nonprofit that has been providing meals and community-based services to seniors in Winston-Salem, N.C. for more than three decades, saw just that in its recent $7 million capital campaign.

To serve the current need and prepare for the coming wave of aging Baby Boomers, the group needed new facilities that would allow it to ramp up services and accommodate growth over the next 20 to 30 years.

“This campaign was more broad-based for us, we had more supporters,” says Richard Gottlieb, president and CEO of the group.  “We had less corporate and foundation support and more individual support.”

Some are also seeing greater reliance on a smaller number of gifts.

“Gifts are getting larger at the top and the number of gifts is shrinking,” says Dave Sternberg, the associate director of The Fund Raising School at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Couple that with continued growth in the size of campaign goals, he says, and donors at the top will be solicited for larger and larger gifts, which could lead to donor fatigue.

Whitney Jones sees the same trend.

While it used to be that 80 percent of capital-campaign funds were raised from 20 percent of donors, he says, it’s now closer to 90 percent of funds raised from 10 percent of donors.

Jones also estimates that 50 percent of nonprofits in existence today were not around two decades ago, meaning more capital campaigns and more competition for dollars.

All of which necessitates a renewed focus on what individuals need and want in order to make a major gift.

“You’ve got to involve the individual because they are frequently giving from the heart,” says Jones.  “They are also more likely to give significantly if they have a say in how their gift will have an impact.  So there’s a dialogue that has to take place, and a negotiation.”

Much of that increased work will need to come from volunteer leadership, which Gottlieb of Senior Services says is critical to a successful effort.

“You can have an urgent need and a good organization, but without strong volunteers, it’s not going to be successful,” he says, attributing the bulk of his campaign’s success to the leadership team.

Yet the experienced volunteer leaders, the traditional “go-to” members of the community, are nearing retirement and less likely to be involved in every campaign in a community, and they want people to take their place.

“There’s a whole generation of people in their 60s and 70s who have participated in community activities who have yet to be replaced by people in their 40s and 50s,” says Jones.

Robert Swanson, president of Hartsook Companies, a fundraising consulting firm in Wichita, attributes part of that to “civic drain.”

“Instead of staying around, you’re seeing more and more people finding second homes and living other places part of the year,” he says.  “More often we’re spending time helping people create campaign leadership as opposed to just recruiting the civic leader who has done it before.”

And those younger potential leaders are different, says Sternberg of The Fund Raising School, and fundraisers in general “don’t do a very good job of recruiting younger volunteers.”

“Younger Boomers and Xers don’t want to go to a series of meetings and talk, talk, talk,” he says.  “They want to come in in a task-force nature,” he says. “I think it’s how we engage them.”

And the traditional model of the “go-to” volunteer who participates in multiple campaigns may not work for the newcomers.

“With any capital campaign today, there will be several people who will really connect and get involved, but may not turn around and get involved in every campaign,” says Jones.  “Bringing people in is a never-ending process.”

While the focus on people, both donors and volunteer leaders, will need to intensify in the coming years, the tried and true principles of soliciting large gifts haven’t changed.

“If you’re doing good fundraising – cultivation, solicitation and stewardship – you’ll be fine,” says Sternberg of The Fund Raising School.  “You’ll be able to react to whatever the trends are.  The principles and techniques are solid.”

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