The Top Priority for a Capital Campaign: Planning

Written by Ruston Pierce
President of Consulting / Affinity Recruiting

One of the biggest buzz words in private education currently is sustainability.  It’s starting to get a little overused, but it absolutely should be a priority for every school.  There’s one obstacle that I continue to see across the country keeping schools from achieving sustainability.  This obstacle also directly affects a school’s ability to execute a capital campaign.  To be honest, this obstacle has been an issue for me personally in over 20 years of school administration.  The obstacle is simply planning. 

Planning is diverse.  It represents many areas of your school.  It’s not simple, and it requires time and thoughtfulness.  If many schools took the time to plan well, they might realize they actually are not ready to begin a capital campaign.  By jumping into a campaign without a thorough plan, they are destined to either not achieve their goals or possibly even fail.  This can be very detrimental as it erodes trust with donors and hurts the overall credibility of the administration and Board. 

Planning with Vision 

Does your school have a vision?  Has the vision been fully fleshed out with a strategic plan and cost analysis?  This is the most important step in determining if you need to start a capital campaign.  Schools have a habit of reacting to feelings or emotions around “needing” a new building or campus upgrade, but in reality, the need may not actually be there.  What if you build a new building but didn’t do an analysis to see if your enrollment or possible enrollment growth would even require it?  The Board and administration must be engaged in ongoing strategic planning conversations to ensure they are on the same page regarding the future of the school and what dynamics will need to be in place for that future to happen.  

Planning Tactically 

This is the boring part most people overlook because it’s not fun.  However, if the process-driven areas of your school are not working properly (or completely ignored) you will struggle to execute a capital campaign.  Some administrators and Boards will look at a single Advancement/Development officer and expect them to execute a campaign.  It’s not possible.  School budgets can be tight, but the advancement office should be a priority in the budget process.  The school needs legitimate donor management software.  Someone must keep that software updated and reconciled.  This is a very important driver in the success of a campaign.   

The person keeping this updated cannot be the person who is running the campaign.  There isn’t enough time in the day to do both.  Fundraising training will be needed for multiple constituents at your school.  The advancement/development person can’t be the only person making an ask.  However, most people struggle with the idea of asking for money, even for an organization they love.  Clear training will need to be provided.  Part of that training should include how the volunteers will engage with the advancement office to ensure the software is updated with all their conversations with donors.  The tactical steps internally behind any campaign are crucial to the overall success of the campaign.  These steps must be nurtured and embraced by all constituents involved.   

Planning Relationally 

If your school administration and Board members are not actively building relationships with donors and potential donors, you are not ready to start a capital campaign.  No matter the size of your campaign, donors will want to feel connected to your school.  It’s possible you will get some transactional gifts from people who just feel led to give, but these gifts will not be sustainable, and they will most likely not help you achieve your giving goals.  We build relationships with donors because we want to bring them into the mission of our school.  They need to feel like their giving helps transform lives and they need to see how that happens.  If you are a Christian school, donors need to see how you are creating Kingdom impact with their gifts.  Donors who feel connected to the school move from transactional to transformational in their giving.  They want to support the mission and not some event or item.  This does not happen overnight.  This happens through ongoing, consistent relationship building.   

Planning to Communicate 

Schools have a wide range of audiences.  You have current families, alumni, grandparents, and staff.  Within your current families, there may be as many as four different audiences with different communication styles.  This makes communicating effectively really difficult.  Many schools can’t afford a true marketing person or department, or they can afford one person and that person is very overloaded.   

Before you embark on a capital campaign, you must clearly spell out a long-term communication plan.  You must have a plan for who your different audiences are and how you will communicate with them.  From print to digital to social, there should be a plan in place for how each communication vehicle will be used.  What creative alternative vehicles do you have at your disposal that can really showcase how progressive your school is in communicating while making sure the primary message is always enforced?  A communication plan is a very important step because without it some group in your constituency will eventually feel left out of the process.   

Every school should create a marketing budget for a capital campaign separate from the actual campaign raise.  That money could be used to engage a marketing firm to help, or if you have a constituent marketing professional who is willing to donate their time, that money can be used for marketing collateral.  However, without a proactive budget in place your campaign will struggle to communicate effectively. 

Planning for Gifts 

There are many types of gifts our schools can receive.  Before beginning a campaign, your school should ensure it is ready to receive all of them.  When dealing with individual donors we want to steer them to setting up a recurring gift rather than a one-time gift.  Through recurring giving we can plan and trend our giving budgets well.  Recurring giving also ensures an opportunity to build a long-term relationship with our donor.  If we are going to encourage recurring giving, then we need a donor giving platform on our school website that is user-friendly and simple for any donor to use.  If you have not invested in a giving platform for your website, I would encourage you to get that set up as soon as possible, whether you are starting a campaign or not. 

Does your school have a stock policy?  If not, encourage your board to get a stock policy in place so you can receive gifts of stock and know how to communicate to the donor what will happen with that gift.  Most schools have a policy where they will immediately sell the stock and provide the donor with a gift receipt for the sales amount.  This gives the school immediate cash flow and keeps anyone from having to manage a stock portfolio.  This is the most common practice with this type of gift.   

In my experience, grant writing can be effective in a capital campaign if you are connecting with a large foundation who likes to be a “closer” for a campaign.  I don’t encourage schools to spend a lot of time grant writing for smaller grants because the return on investment isn’t very high.  You could be spending that time building relationships with people who are already connected to your school. However, if you can build a relationship with a large foundation or a family foundation who are interested in being a part of the vision of your school, then that is obviously a granting relationship you should pursue.  Like any other constituent, these foundations want a relationship, usually a long-term relationship.  They want to see how they can provide support that will continue to grow results through your school. 

Do you have a policy regarding endowment?  How versed are you in estate planning?  Sustainability is important to some donors, and they will want to see that you recognize that as well through some type of endowment or estate planning option within your campaign.  Groups like Fortify Foundation can be a great resource as you try to navigate what this could look like for your school.  Most schools do not have the capacity or knowledge to do this well.  It is always best to engage someone who deals in these areas every day because this is where true sustainability happens.   

Planning with God 

If you are a Christian school, I would encourage you to bathe your campaign in prayer.  As you vision cast and think through what the future of your school holds, take the time to seek God’s Will for your school.  Understand that He owns it all, and He will bring the appropriate people at the appropriate time to bless and use the work of your school.  You don’t have to ask for support for your school with a perspective of fear or uncertainty.  You can joyfully build relationships with people because you already know that God is fully in control, and He will work all things for His good.  I believe we are Matthew 13 seed sowers.  Sometimes we will succeed and sometimes not, but if we are doing it in His name, He will use it for His glory and His perfect plan.