Capital Campaigns – What Counts?

Capital Campaigns – What Counts?


3 October 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


OK – so call me a purist. I think that capital campaign fundraising should be about private, charitable gifts for specific project outcomes.

It’s not a $5.0 million capital campaign if $3.0 million comes from taxpayers. That would be a $2.0 million campaign.

And State Government shouldn’t be your lead donor. Neither should the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

And neither should someone telling you they’ve left $500,000 to the land trust in their will.


Call me a purist.


Capital campaigns should be about private, philanthropic giving. Of course, in that context we can talk to donors about the overall funding plan for the project(s). So much from the Federal government. So much from the State. And so on.

And when we do that, we should also talk about where the money is coming from against the amount necessary for the permanent conservation of the land:

  • The VALUE of the land in question. This is NOT the purchase price, though we can sometimes choose to use the purchase price if it is greater than the value.
  • PLUS all closing costs, surveys, biological and cultural inventories, and other due diligence expenses.
  • PLUS an amount of money to be set aside by the Board as a fund dedicated to providing stewardship funding in perpetuity (Board-designated endowment funding).
  • PLUS an amount of money necessary for first-year stewardship (because interest from the Board-designated endowment fund won’t be available until (at least) a year later.
  • And finally PLUS an amount of money necessary for first-day stewardship (signage, trash pickup, fencing, parking considerations, and so on).


Taken together, these are the costs associated with conserving the land in perpetuity. And this total conservation cost is what we should be communicating with donors.


We should also be talking about leverage. If the conservation costs are $5.0 million and the State is providing $3.0 million, the capital campaign is run to raise the remaining $2.0 million. (It’s still just a $2.0 million campaign.)

Every dollar donated to the capital campaign is then leveraging $1.50 from public grants. So every campaign dollar is resulting in $2.50 worth of conservation.

Regardless, the public money is part of the funding package making the project possible. But it’s not part of the capital campaign.

Call me a purist.


So – should planned giving count?

The problem with most planned giving is that it’s revocable – at least until the donor passes away.

There are circumstances when you would count planned gifts. For example, if the donor passes away! My first campaign was barely off the ground when we learned of a $6.0 million bequest gift. That changed the calculus of the entire campaign.

Another example is if the donor uses an appreciated asset to purchase an annuity. Doing so provides them with an income stream for life and can result in significant tax savings, depending on their age and the asset’s capital gain. The land trust receives the difference between the value of the asset and the cost of the purchased annuity.

It doesn’t happen that often, but it would count – because it’s irrevocable.

You could also build into your capital campaign a specific planned giving objective. For example, in addition to raising $2.0 million, we want to inspire 10 donors to leave the land trust in their will and let us know in writing that they have done so.

But – NO, in the great majority of cases, planned gifts shouldn’t count.

Call me a purist.


What about gifts of land? In-kind? Donated time?

Sure – but not automatically. It’s not about counting everything you can to make the land trust look good.

Think about it.

If the land being donated is relevant to the campaign, it should count. If you’re raising money for the Smith property and the Jones family donates land on the other side of the hill, that wouldn’t count. (Unless you change the campaign to include both.)

If the land being protected is sold to you as a bargain sale, the difference between the VALUE (see above) and the PRICE represents a donation from the seller. That donation would count.

If the donated time is included as a campaign expense, a gift of that time counts. For example, if the legal services, appraisal, survey work, or biological inventory are included in the campaign budget, donations of those same services should count.

Otherwise NO. Call me a purist.


Why does any of this matter?

It matters because your capital campaign plan will depend to some degree on asking donors to give against a goal that is defensible. You don’t actually need $5.0 million if $3.0 million is already secure from the Feds and State. It’s not transparent. It’s not defensible. (Why are you talking to me about $5.0 million when you only need to raise $2.0 million?)

It matters because the messaging becomes more donor-centric. A donor’s $500,000 lead gift doesn’t feel as significant against a $5.0 million goal.

And it matters for the story you tell later. Many donors, volunteers, Board directors, and even future staff will understand capital campaign fundraising. Successfully completing a $2.0 million campaign is a significant accomplishment. The story doesn’t need the embellishment.

The story doesn’t benefit from an asterisk.


Call me a purist.


Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


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1 Comment
  • Alice Hudson Pell
    Posted at 06:46h, 03 October

    Agree, completely! We’re in the public phase of a $565k campaign and counting the funds provided by the State through a competitive grant application process that has no guarantee. We are not counting the land sale for a portion of the property to NPS. We choose to count the grant because 1) it was in no way a sure thing; 2) it was a grant process—and I want to recognize the efforts that went into it; 3) it helps us get closer to our goal when we went public around $515k. 

    Planned giving is wonderful (and can be transformative!!), but it doesn’t provide the needed cash on hand to get the job done in a timely way.