One Capital Campaign Norm You Should Pay Attention to and Why

One Capital Campaign Norm You Should Pay Attention to and Why


26 September 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Nonprofits have been running capital fundraising campaigns for as long as there have been nonprofits. And (thank goodness!) the land trust community has become increasingly bold and sophisticated in their approach to campaign fundraising. Indeed, campaigns with goals greater than $10 million have done really well recently, and other land trusts are taking notice.

And for good reason. There is a perfect storm emerging with:

  • more and more people taking an interest in outdoor recreation as a factor in their perceived quality of life;
  • more frequent and more severe environmental events associated with climate change (fire and smoke, major storms, flooding, and so on) are bringing home the magnitude of the existential threat; and
  • aggressive new development pressure is carving up natural areas as more and more people begin to work remotely – from everywhere!


Still, campaign fundraising is not to be taken lightly. It is still a MAJOR organizational effort and there is considerable risk. Organizations that jump in, expecting to learn to swim, can drown just as easily.

If you are an organization thinking about a campaign, take the time and effort to learn as much as possible before launching. Go into the project with eyes WIDE OPEN. Avoid the mistake of expecting a campaign to help you find donors. And invest in a professional feasibility study before launching any campaign larger than $1.0 million.


Thinking for yourself is always recommended, but pay attention to the norms also – they are norms for a reason. Here’s one of the most important:

Don’t go public until you have 75-80% of the money.

Here’s why –


Imagine the actual campaign experience in the early days of a campaign, when the prospects you are approaching are the friendliest and the amounts you are asking for are the highest.

Before long, you’ve raised 24, then 40, then 50% of the money. It’s coming much easier than you expected. Sure, some prospects are saying NO, and others are blanching at the ask amount before they give something less.

But overall, the experience is positive. People love you. They love hearing about the project. And they are giving money! Lots of money!

As difficult as it has been to screw up your courage to ask, the success has been both exciting and rewarding.

So, your instinct is to go public. Tell the world. Shout it from the rooftops.

People love us! We’re winning! It’s not as hard as I thought it would be!

After all, everyone will give once they hear about it, right?


Instead, this is an instinct you should R  E  S  I  S  T.


Calm down. Pat yourself on the back quietly. (Because you have done a good job – so far.) But take a deep breath. 100 percent success is still anything but certain.


What “Don’t go public until you have 75-80% of the money” really means is “Don’t go public until you are reasonably certain that you can finish.

It’s not uncommon for the first 75% of the goal to be raised from about 50 prospects and about 20 gifts. But these same campaigns often depend on 200 prospects and 80 gifts to raise the rest. The problem with announcing at 50% is that you easily have 90% of the actual work still ahead of you. It will be both mentally and emotionally draining.

You are going to get TIRED. Can you make it? Will you make it? Do you have the organizational stamina to raise $1.0 million in $5,000 and $10,000 chunks?


The moment you take your campaign public is your last chance to change the CAMPAIGN GOAL. Perhaps you need to increase it because of the early success you’ve had – that’s a happy thing. But perhaps, it becomes clear that you are not going to make it. That the goal is unreachable given the donors you have access to. Or maybe you just get tired. Emotionally exhausted.

One campaign I worked on got to 75% and announced a revised goal at 80% of the original. That allowed them to project a successful campaign without actually having to solicit the other three-quarters of their prospect list. They were tired. And successful in reaching their announced goal.


Is going public and not making it a big deal? In a word – yes. Giving is emotional, and you want the overall experience to be emotionally positive for everyone – donors, volunteers, board members, staff – everyone.

Think about planning a dinner party for twelve and only having food enough for ten versus having food enough for fifteen. How do you feel?

Walk in a door five minutes early for an important meeting versus five minutes late. How do you feel?

Come in under budget versus coming in over budget. How do you feel?

Raise $850,000 against a public goal of $800,000 versus a public goal of $1,000,000. How do you feel?


Donors will feel the same way. You can become an organization remembered for surpassing its goals or an organization that comes up short. And that impression is hard to shake later.

So, resist the temptation to go public too soon. Instead, turn around and look forward. Do you have the donors left to raise the rest? Do you have enough prospects to bring the campaign home?

If not, you have several choices. You could extend the timeline. You could reduce the goal. You could “phase” the campaign – raise some now and save some to be raised next time. You could do all of these things.

That is, if you resisted the temptation to go public after 50%.


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.


Photo by Kelly Ishmael courtesy



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