I sat down for lunch with a generous donor. 

Her last gift was six figures.  She’d recently received a sizable settlement.  Her net worth had mushroomed.  We made small talk.  We ordered salads.  I mustered my wits and invited her to consider a capital gift 5 times bigger than her last to create a technology center for girls. 

Her face turned as white as a sheet. 

She peppered me with questions.  Who else had come in at the level?  Who was on our campaign cabinet?  Who was the chair?  Where were the other lead gifts from?  All excellent questions.  Only I didn’t have the answers. 

I was new to capital campaigns.  I “didn’t know what I didn’t know”.  I lost that gift but it’s still my favorite mistake.  Why?  It forever changed me as a fundraiser. 

A capital campaign is the biggest fundraising challenge a nonprofit can ever assume.  What are the most dangerous myths and mistakes people make when launching a capital campaign?

Myth: Believing you have enough donors without testing it. Truth bomb:  It doesn’t have to be this way!  There’s a simple cure here and it’s called a planning (or feasibility) study.  It’s a critical first stop to test the waters with your donors.  It tells you if your vision resonates with your donors AND if they’ll buy the price tag.  Fundraising is not mind reading!  Skip this important step and you’ll flounder.

Myth:  Corporations and foundations will fund it.  Sure they will…when you’ve almost hit your goal.  The majority of your funds will come from a very small and generous group of individual donors.  Campaigns start at the top with lead gifts.  The percent of US giving by foundations and corporations has been on a steady decline for the past 20 years.  80% of all giving in the US is by individuals and nowhere is this truer than capital campaigns where half the money can come from as few as 12 gifts. 

Myth:  Believing the board’s role is minimal.  Leadership is EVERYTHING in a campaign.  No other single factor will influence the degree of campaign success more than leadership. 

Myth:  Assuming because you feel ready your donors and volunteers are ready too.   Let’s face it, as the passionate leaders of your organization you’re always 5 steps ahead of everyone else but your donors and volunteers may not feel the same sense of urgency.   

Myth: Thinking it’s about the organization.  Hint: it’s about the donor.  It’s always about the donor.  It doesn’t matter how much you love the project or the case statement you crafted to sell it.  Donors give for their reasons, not yours. 

Myth: Believing that giving is rational.  It’s not.  It’s emotional.  Giving is a profoundly emotional experience.  We may rationalize our gift later, but we give for emotional reasons.  Jeff Brooks advises:  “Give your cat cat food.  Give your donors emotional information.”      

Myth: Wealth indicates generosity.  Wealth does not predict generosity.  Also, capacity does not equal interest.  

Myth: “We’ll just ask Oprah.”  Oprah is not a fundraising strategy.  If you don’t have access to Oprah and if Oprah is not passionate about your cause you can cross this off your to do list. 

Myth: “We don’t have to get help, we can do this on our own.” or “Sure we’ve never done this before but how hard can it be?”  Launching a capital camign is one of the most ambitious leaps your organization will ever make.  You can’t afford to fail.  It demands experience and expertise.  At bare minimum read several books on capital campaign.  Secondly, I would urge you to hire outside counsel to do your planning (feasibility) study.  That is the only way to reveal if the case is compelling and who/how it will be funded.  A planning study done without hiring outside counsel is a community assessment.

Wondering if you’re campaign ready?  I’ve got your back.  Take this simple quiz to rate your readiness! (Hyperlink: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2MZRSDK)

Stay classy!