Capital Campaigns

Burdened by the typical funding limitation CDCs face – program specific, short term, restricted use, etc. – Isles, Inc. of Trenton, New Jersey decided to create an endowment – invested funds that over time should grow and offer financial returns in support of Isles’ work. Three years ago, Isles began its first capital campaign to raise $3 million for an endowment and $500,000 to build an environmental education center.

Like direct mail campaigns, capital campaigns are a long-term investment in an organization’s future. After spending one year doing a feasibility study, Isles started raising funds two years ago during a “silent period” in which wealthy individuals were approached to spearhead the drive and make early contributions. Isles held its official Campaign Kickoff Dinner last December. Today, we are over the $3 million mark and heading toward finalizing the campaign by the end of 1999.

More than Money

We developed three primary goals for the campaign: to expand and deepen our work; to transfer authority and accountability from distant funders and other gatekeepers to target communities; and to bolster our ability to think, write, and share information with others. The campaign’s mission transcends funding. We work to engage the central New Jersey region in dialogues on race and class; approaches to social and environmental change; smart growth; and the roles community organizations like Isles, corporations, and other stakeholders play in these efforts. In effect, the campaign offers an excuse to spend time in living rooms throughout the region, testing our mission, message, and knowledge while broadening our ability to influence.

Campaign Lessons

Many leaders and experts don’t know. During our feasibility study, we talked to over 40 influential consultants and leaders in the region. Many were skeptical about our ability to succeed. They told us that: “bricks and mortar” funding was far easier to raise than endowment funding; Isles was not a “household name”; the region didn’t really care about the condition of its city, Trenton; funding competition was fierce; local development groups don’t need endowments because they come and go, unlike museums and universities; Isles’ mission is noble but not close enough to the interests of those with money; and on. They told us we should be very satisfied with a $1 – $1.8 million campaign. On most fronts they were partly right – and terribly wrong.

Public relations matter. I get excited about building communities and getting real work done – not pouring over marketing campaigns, case statements, brochure designs, video transcripts, or media opportunities. Thankfully, a volunteer with a public relations background condensed the myriad messages we’ve used over the years into a coherent communications strategy. As a result, many people besides our leadership could adequately describe our work.

Campaigns require leadership time. At Isles, others had to assume responsibility for decisions and work I once supervised. Strong interim or middle managers make a world of difference. Even then, expect leadership to give up some things that might really need to be done.


Campaigns require attention to detail. Mail lists, meeting schedules, follow-up calls, letter writing, etc. Campaign managers must be detail-oriented and organized. Consultants can help, but you need staff as well.

Mission counts. Isles’ mission – to foster more self-sufficient families in sustainable communities – seems to pleasantly surprise people. They are used to hearing guilt-laden messages of doom and gloom (“Our communities are so sick”). When we talk about our efforts to measure our progress against that mission, and our work on the Success Measures Project of the Development Leadership Network, they appreciate it even more.

Campaigns cost time and money up front. A large investment of time and, to some degree, money went into three public relations pieces – a video, Campaign Case Statement, and an internal communication strategy document. They are bringing enormous dividends. The video enables participants in our work to tell their stories in their own words – a powerful tool.

Capital campaigns are only part of a strategy. The campaign is part of a longer-term strategy to connect to many new people and sources of funds, including a major gifts and planned giving campaign that will follow on the heels of the capital campaign. We also expect to increase our direct mail efforts substantially this year and the years ahead.

New donors, new opportunities. Younger entrepreneurs have extraordinary wealth yet are less tied to existing institutions such as museums or hospitals. The next generation’s philanthropy decisions can greatly affect our future.

In most situations, you can’t ask for too much. Many people are worth more than they ever expected to be. We asked one donor for a $250,000 contribution. He replied that he would rather give $500,000 – “Would that be OK?” “Uh, sure.” We were lucky with him, though we “undershot” a few others.

Success may lead to problems. Your peers in other organizations and some political leaders may be disturbed at your audacity. Community members will ask (as they should), “Where is all this money you are raising?” Staff salaries may become an issue. Who manages the money? How socially responsible are the investments? Will foundations and others penalize your success by throwing their money behind other more “needy” organizations?

Thinking Differently

The Campaign has enabled us to think differently about the future. We have some real control over what happens. Knowing that a growing percentage of our funding is secured three to five years out, without strings, frees us to think creatively. Most importantly, our funding increasingly supports our theory of change: communities learn and grow when they choose to do so. This notion of community choice is critical. They should be the consumer of our work – not external funders, donors, or government.

 

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