Modern Higher Ed Capital Campaigns: 3 Considerations

For colleges and universities, capital campaigns are a source of transformational philanthropy. These large-scale fundraising projects significantly increase an institution’s capacity to serve students and expand operations sustainably.

They’re complicated initiatives, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to success. The exact set of strategies and decisions that work well for one school might not be the best fit for another.

However, there are plenty of best practices—both longstanding and emerging—that serve all organizations well as they undertake capital campaigns. Master these, and you’ll have the skillset and toolkit you need to succeed.

Suppose you’re planning—or are in the early stages of considering—a capital campaign for your higher education institution. What are some of the newer or often overlooked considerations to keep in mind? Let’s take a look.

Your Campaign Model

Historically, universities have innovated beyond the traditional capital campaign model, helping them tackle ambitious fundraising goals in increasingly flexible ways.

For context, a campaign’s model or structure dictates how its goal is defined and thus shapes the tactics that make up the campaign. The two main models to be aware of are:

  • Traditional capital campaigns. These are large campaigns with a limited or highly focused scope. They seek to raise money to cover a specific set of objectives—like a construction project, tech investments, and increased staff. They’re treated as separate fundraising pushes outside of other ongoing fundraising efforts, with solicited gifts going only towards the campaign’s focused goal.
  • Comprehensive capital campaigns. This model takes a broader view, is usually used for fundraising goals on the higher end of the spectrum, and is often favored by universities. All incoming funding over a specified period is counted toward the overarching campaign goal, resulting in a sweeping push for growth in several areas. This can include the capital investment project itself, endowment, annual fund, and more.

Some institutions also conduct mini-campaigns that operate on a smaller scale, raising funds for smaller, time-sensitive objectives. 

Why are higher ed institutions often drawn to the comprehensive model?

The traditional capital campaign model can bring challenges in a modern fundraising landscape. There is some risk (although often overblown) of a traditional capital campaign cannibalizing an organization’s annual fund, with donors only giving to the restricted campaign instead of making their normal annual gifts. 

The necessity of ultra-specific sets of objectives can also present challenges because, while large institutions with complex goals will be able to point to some concrete objectives, these won’t always cover the entirety of what an organization wants to accomplish with the campaign.

Comprehensive models, on the other hand, give larger institutions greater flexibility when approaching their fundraising goals. Focusing on the holistic picture of the campaign reduces the complexities that can come with treating it as a fully separate initiative. However, it’s important to note that you still need a robust case for support to guide your campaign and discussions with donors.

The comprehensive approach can also infuse a deeper sense of organization-wide energy and urgency—invaluable when pursuing ambitious fundraising goals. When everything contributes to the bigger picture of success, everyone can feel involved and invested.

Communication and Collaboration

Speaking of large, complex institutions, your college or university’s communication habits and infrastructures will be critically important during a capital campaign.

These campaigns (especially those using a comprehensive model) require all hands on deck. The siloing of updates, strategies, and insights between departments can hold back your progress without anyone even realizing it.

Development, alumni relations, faculty, athletics, administration, support staff: Everyone should understand your capital campaign and how their roles fit into its success. 

For example, the promotional team ramping up energy for the next football game should know how their own work can help reflect the campaign’s brand and show fans what you’re working towards. Your finance department should be aware of how to treat and report different campaign gifts as they come in, especially non-cash gifts with more complex steps like gifts of stock.

To achieve smooth collaboration, training and clear communication are essential. Take these steps to ensure everyone stays on the same page:

  • Provide weekly or monthly bulletins with campaign updates. 
  • Define reporting protocols for each team member to elevate their own campaign information, updates, and questions. 
  • Store and manage your campaign data in a centralized way that’s easily accessible to those who need it so that they can disperse insights to their own respective teams.

Working with fundraising experts with education-sector experience can be a smart way to identify and resolve communication issues and siloes before they become major hurdles for your campaign’s progress. The upfront investment of time and attention in addressing these kinds of logistical challenges can result in a smoother and more effective campaign.

Donor Engagement

Capital campaign fundraising starts with reviewing your organization’s prospects, conducting a wealth screening, further qualifying your potential donors, and then working down the prioritized list to build rapport, introduce the campaign, and ask for gifts.

But you should also look for ways to get your prospects involved in the campaign early and beyond the scope of simply giving a gift. After all, these are multi-year efforts. Just as it’s important to maintain energy and enthusiasm internally, you should also infuse your external community with a feeling of excitement and investment in your institution’s success.

Engaging your prospects and donors with your campaign not only increases the chances of successful solicitations but can also deepen your relationships over time. 

Consider these tried and true strategies:

  • Ask your top prospects, community partners, and notable alumni to participate in your campaign’s feasibility or planning study.
  • Recruit prospects to join campaign committees.
  • Provide prospects and partners with initial drafts of your case for support and ask for their thoughts and feedback.
  • See if prospects and donors will help to plan or host small events for the campaign.
  • Ask donors to help you strengthen your relationships with their employers to secure new sponsorships or special giving campaigns.

And don’t forget to make the most of your unique (and likely expansive) alumni network as a higher education institution. Maybe architecture and engineering alumni could lend a hand in reviewing your project blueprints. Communications and marketing alumni might take the lead on your public phase promotional strategies.

You need post-donation engagement plans in place as well. Don’t leave a donor in the dark after they’ve committed a gift; invite them to get involved in a new way, and develop a cadence for providing regular campaign updates and personal outreach.

With an energized community, supportive internal processes, and a flexible plan suited to your needs, your institution can pull off its most successful campaign yet. Keep learning more about the best practices and tools you’ll need, and develop your own tailored strategy from there.

AlumniFinder Team