Ten new strategies for successful capital campaigns

Trends shift the focus to large donations and corporate partnerships

As billion-dollar campaigns grow in popularity, colleges are revamping their capital campaign strategies, with a renewed focus on major donors and corporate partnerships. Harriet Meyers takes a look at some of the tactics behind the trend in University Business.

More colleges are choosing to include capital fundraising in comprehensive giving campaigns, but the change in strategy means colleges need to adjust where and how they look for donors. Oregon State University (OSU) recently raised $1 billion dollars through its first comprehensive campaign one year ahead of schedule. To accomplish the feat, the university focused on major donors: more than 1,000 people gave over $100,000, including 177 who gave $1 million or more.

Kevin Heaney, vice president of the OSU Foundation, says the "single most important factor contributing to [OSU's] success is our maniacal focus on clearly identified and major gift fundraising priorities tied directly to the university’s strategic plan."

Colleges face enormous pressure to improve their facilities to remain competitive, yet funding is increasingly scarce. Meyers outlines some of the latest strategies institutions are using to meet the development challenge:

1. Make the most of lead gifts. When a capital need is identified, work with advancement to connect with major donors early. After initial funding has been secured though outright philanthropy—rather than differed giving—go public with the campaign. According to a 2013 study by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), more than one third of capital campaigns raised at least 41% of their goal in the "quiet" phase of a campaign.

2. Pair volunteers with professionals. While it is not unusual for volunteers to open doors to potential donors, pairing them in a structured way with major gifts officers can be extremely effective. Gustavus Adolphus College raised $36 million with this strategy. Thomas Young, vice president for institutional advancement at Adolphus, says the key was flexibility. "Whether [the volunteers] wanted to visit independently, or have a gift officer accompany them and even make the ask, we gave them whatever they needed" he says.

3. Look for talent in new places. Don't limit yourself for searching for major gift officers who have a background in higher education, says Mary Jane McGarity, chief development officer at the Montana State University Alumni Foundation. "Some of my strongest development officers discovered this fulfilling profession after various careers, from real estate sales to social work to nonprofit management, education and engineering," she says.

Find that elusive high-performing major gift officer in today's competitive market

4. Solicit major gifts online. While major giving via the internet may seem taboo to some, it is going mainstream. "I’ve now seen five- and six-figure gifts come in [online]," says Timothy Winkler, a fundraising consultant at the Winkler Group. Use your giving website to tell a story to donors about where the money is going.

5. Partner creatively with media. As part of a $10 million capital campaign, Savannah Technical College needed to build their brand, but couldn't afford the media promotion costs. So, they asked their media partners to match their advertising spending. "Our paid ads are for recruitment, and our free ads are for image building," says Gail Eubanks, executive director of institutional advancement.

6. Partner with businesses. It is now less common for corporations to make large philanthropic gifts, but they still have a lot to offer colleges and universities. "It is now more important to become strategic partners with key companies, moving away from pure philanthropy to grants, contracts and research partnerships," says Heaney.

7. Engage with corporate employees. Employees help shape a corporation's decision to support a college or university, so engaging with them is important. Offer them speaking invitations, mentoring opportunities, or a spot on the advisory board to help build a connection to the institution.

8. Hone your messaging. According to a 2012 Bank of America study, 74% of wealthy individuals want to know exactly how their giving is making an impact. "Ask academic deans and vice presidents to define the gap—what will be sacrificed if you don’t have that money?” says Myrna Hall, senior fundraising consultant at Marts & Lundy.

Inspiring stories + compelling data = A donor-centric website

9. Use your president. In today's atmosphere of frugality, recognition ceremonies and galas have fallen out of favor. Instead, make donors feel like part of the "inner circle" by providing access to the president in a low key way. “I see administrators who can make a campaign sing with success through their active participation,” says Hall.

10. Communicate internally. For large campaigns, donors aren't the only audience. It is important to keep other campus constituencies informed about a campaigns goals and thinking behind its priorities. "By communicating how our objectives are chosen, what they are, and why we honor the requests of our donors, we build powerful support internally that carries over to enhance the way we present ourselves to the public," says Heaney (Meyers, University Business, November 2014).

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