III. Building Blocks and Positioning

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Fundraising Campaigns

Mr. Kevin J. Heaney

The hallmark of many presidential tenures is the launch and completion of a successful fundraising campaign.  Long ensconced in the set of expectations of presidents of many private institutions, today most leaders of public institutions are also being called upon to lead large, complex fundraising campaigns. Whether the institution is private or public, fundraising campaigns aim to ensure the well-being of their institutions, to launch strategic initiatives and build new facilities, and to advance institutional goals, aspirations, and values.  The president plays a pivotal role in a campaign, from setting the overarching tone and establishing an institutional vision and priorities to cultivating and soliciting lead donors for philanthropic gifts to advance those priorities.  Increasingly, many institutions are melding their separate and distinct offices of Development and Alumni Affairs into offices of “Advancement,” to better serve their goals of engaging alumni, parents, and friends and inspiring them to serve as volunteers, to make philanthropic contributions toward institutional priorities, and to serve as ambassadors for the institution.  Good campaigns can effectively accomplish all three of these interrelated objectives.  In short, good campaigns are about more than simply raising money; good campaigns can position a president and his or her administration to achieve multiple goals for the institution.  As such, this essay will focus on:  1) the case for having a campaign; 2) the role of the president in a fundraising initiative and/or comprehensive campaign; 3) the importance of a strategic plan or institutional vision to guide the campaign and its goals and planning; 4) the important partnership between the president and the chief advancement officer; 5) the components and stages of a successful campaign, and what should be accomplished in each of those phases; and 6) current trends in fundraising campaigns.

The hallmark of many presidential tenures is the launch and completion of a successful fundraising campaign. Historically, fundraising has been entrenched in the set of expectations for presidents of many private colleges and universities. Today, however, as state and federal funding for higher education dwindles, leaders of public institutions—from community colleges to complex research universities—are also being called upon to lead ambitious fundraising campaigns. Most fundraising campaigns share the same goals: to secure an institution’s long-term financial stability; to launch strategic initiatives and build new facilities; and to realize goals and aspirations that advance the institution’s mission.

Throughout the entire process of planning and implementing a campaign, the president plays a critical role in ensuring the campaign’s ultimate success. The president provides the overarching vision for the campaign and identifies its key objectives. The president sets expectations for achievement and ensures that key institutional leaders and administrators are appropriately involved. Finally, the president develops strong relationships with many—if not most—of the institution’s most capable potential donors and plays an important role in cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding those donors whose participation in the campaign at the highest levels is critical to its success.

So, what is a campaign? Traditionally, a campaign is an “intensive fundraising effort designed to raise a specific amount of money for an institution’s strategic priorities within a defined time period” [Emphasis mine.] (Reiser 2021).  Campaigns come in all shapes and sizes, and range from single-focus initiatives to comprehensive efforts to secure philanthropic support for a wide array of priorities across multiple schools and constituencies within an institution. Traditional fundraising campaigns typically include a two- to three-year “quiet phase,” in which a college or university seeks to raise at least half of its dollar goal from its most engaged and generous alumni and stakeholders. A campaign then moves into a “public phase,” traditionally marked by a public announcement of a time-bound dollar goal and a curated set of fundraising priorities. At this point, institutions seek philanthropic support from a broader swath of their alumni and stakeholder community. The public phase often lasts five years, although campaigns have been trending longer in recent years, especially if the campaign’s momentum remains strong (Gower 2018).

Why embark on a campaign? There are generally three reasons. The most obvious reason is to raise money, and a campaign provides valuable fundraising discipline in terms of planning, establishing goals, and allowing institutional leadership to manage by focusing on objectives. A campaign also provides a timeline for fundraising, which can increase momentum with potential donors. The sense of urgency that is created during a campaign often inspires donors to consider “stretch gifts,” making larger commitments during the campaign time frame than they might otherwise have made. In addition, a campaign can often produce long-term benefits beyond the campaign period. Because greater-than-usual numbers of potential donors are typically identified and engaged during the concentrated campaign period, there is increased potential to maintain these higher levels of support after the campaign closes. In short, an effective campaign elevates an institution’s overall “culture of philanthropy” and enhances its ability to raise philanthropic support in both the near and long-term.

The second reason to embark on a campaign is that it provides an effective platform to meaningfully engage your alumni and stakeholders in the life of the institution, and build a shared sense of purpose. Campaign successes foster pride and strengthen affiliation among alumni and other stakeholders leading to enhanced alumni volunteer support and creating a larger cohort of institutional ambassadors. Effective campaigns galvanize stakeholders—including alumni, parents, friends of the institution, students and potential students, community and civic leaders, industry leaders, private grant-making agencies, and corporations—and help build a greater sense of community among members of these groups and with the institution.

The third reason to have a campaign is that an effective campaign can help define and position your institutional “brand” for a broader audience. In many ways, campaigns are large-scale marketing strategies that provide a platform to reaffirm your institution’s mission and share your aspirations for its future. For example, at my current institution, we are using our current campaign to tell the full story of Princeton today by reinforcing the university’s leadership in areas like college access and affordability, environmental science, and data science, among other areas.

A well-managed campaign can position the president to achieve multiple goals for the institution, with both short- and long-term benefits. It can advance institutional priorities and enhance an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission. It can help advance the institution’s communications and positioning strategies.

It is worth noting that every campaign is different—even campaigns for the same institution—and the set of circumstances surrounding each campaign is unique. In other words, campaigns are heavily influenced by the specific individuals in institutional and volunteer leadership roles, changing fundraising priorities, institutional culture and location, and the frequency of campaigns within the institution’s history. Campaigns are also influenced by economic, political, and social issues, as well as unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the five university campaigns in which I have been involved, each has been distinct, reflecting the unique character and culture of a particular institution at a particular point in its history. But it is also true that these campaigns have all shared certain characteristics and strategies that led to their respective successes. In this essay, I share some of the insights I have gleaned from my experiences at Princeton University, and prior to that at Oregon State University, that led to successful outcomes.

Understand Your Institution’s Readiness for a Campaign

Any president who is asked to spearhead a significant fundraising effort should request a thorough assessment of the institution’s capacity to secure the funds required to achieve its goals. It is important to understand the current state of fundraising at your institution by asking some essential questions. How much does your institution currently raise each year? Do you have an identified potential donor base, and if so, what is its anticipated giving capacity? How many campaigns, if any, has your institution previously conducted, and how much was raised and for what purposes? What is your institution’s relationship with its alumni and stakeholders, and does it include a strong “culture of philanthropy,” or is this something that will need to be developed? How engaged are alumni volunteers in fundraising activities? Is your board of trustees committed to fundraising, and how is that commitment reflected in their own giving and volunteer activity? What are the current strengths and weaknesses of your advancement enterprise, and is it staffed and resourced appropriately? How important is fundraising to achieving your institution’s aspirations? What other sources of support are available to underwrite institutional priorities?

Campaign readiness is often assessed by an outside consulting firm, and includes benchmarking your institution’s fundraising history against peer institutions, as well as identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your advancement team and its size and structure. The process will help identify strategic investments needed to build or reinforce infrastructure for the campaign, including staffing, technology, identification and cultivation of a pool of potential donors, and review of institutional gift acceptance policies. Prior to publicly launching Princeton’s most recent campaign in the fall of 2021, we conducted a thorough assessment of our fundraising enterprise. While the university had previously completed three successful capital campaigns in the past, we concluded that we would need to make more significant investments in terms of staffing and other resources in our major giving program—especially effort geared toward our top tier donors, often referred to in fundraising circles as “principal gift” donors—to achieve the aspirational goals we envisioned for the next campaign.

Princeton has long been a leader among universities when it comes to alumni participation in its annual giving program. Historically, the university has been able to count on at least 50 percent of its undergraduate alumni to make a gift annually. The opportunity identified for Princeton in our campaign readiness study, however, was to inspire a subset of those donors to make larger, more transformative gifts during the upcoming campaign. Therefore, we determined early on that if the university was to achieve its aspirations and ambitious goals in the upcoming campaign, we would need to grow and expand our principal gift efforts.

 Be “All In”

As president, it is essential that you be fully engaged in the advancement work of your institution and that you prioritize this aspect of your role. The success of any fundraising initiative will depend on your being present and visible throughout the campaign. As president, you are the public “face” of your institution as well as of the campaign. Major donors will often expect to have access to you and to feel like part of your inner circle. They will look to you to share a vision for the future of the institution and to engage them personally around institutional priorities.

As president, you are also the principal spokesperson for the institution, and you play a key role in communicating your college or university’s culture and values. You are uniquely situated to connect with alumni, donors, and potential donors, who want to know and invest in a specific leader and that leader’s vision, and not just in an institution. They want to trust you and be assured that you will be a good steward of their philanthropy and that it will have meaning and impact. Ultimately, one of the most important factors in a donor’s decision to make a gift to your institution’s campaign will be the strength of your relationship with that donor.

It is, therefore, essential that you commit the time required to engage meaningfully with alumni and other stakeholders. You should also hold your advancement staff accountable for using your time wisely. I have had the good fortune to have worked with several presidents who have devoted as many as sixty full days a year or more to advancement-related activities. This time is spent meeting with individual donors both on campus and throughout the world, hosting large-scale all-alumni gatherings in strategic regions of the country and abroad, and participating in donor stewardship activities. This level of presidential commitment has directly contributed to fundraising success everywhere that I have worked, and there really is not an effective substitute.

Finally, it is important that you work closely with your advancement staff to determine where you will have the greatest impact during the campaign. Is the best use of your time speaking before a large assembly of alumni in a particular region? Is it cultivating relationships with individual donors? Is it soliciting the gift yourself, or being brought in to close the gift after the solicitation has been made? Or is it most important for you to steward the gifts and ensure the donors of the impact of their philanthropy afterwards? Each situation will be different. Your schedule as a president is extraordinarily demanding, but it is important that you build in flexibility to meet with potential donors on their terms and in their time frame.

Link the Campaign to Your Strategic Plan

All good campaigns are informed by a robust institutional strategic planning process. At Princeton, for example, a carefully structured, eighteen-month strategic planning process resulted in a strategic planning framework for the university’s future (Princeton University, n.d.). This framework identified key priorities and areas of growth and expansion, as well as new areas of inquiry and initiatives that the university sought to achieve. That planning process, with the resulting strategic framework, has served as the basis for our current campaign.

I also believe that the best campaigns are “mission-driven” and tied to your institution’s values. In the case of the current campaign at Princeton, many of the university’s strategic priorities became our campaign initiatives. We knew that it would be essential for us to frame our campaign as not for Princeton, as had been done in the past, but rather about what Princeton could do for the world (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020).  This allowed us to position the university’s strategic priorities, such as access and affordability, environmental science, and bioengineering, as campaign initiatives in areas where Princeton was uniquely situated to make a difference beyond the university.

As president, you must articulate a vision and make the case for philanthropic support for your institution. It is key that you articulate a vision and identify fundraising priorities—based on your strategic planning—that both advance that vision and resonate with donors. Ask key questions in developing this vision and identifying the fundraising initiatives to support it: Where are we going as an institution? What programs do we want to grow? Create? What faculty, facilities, and/or other resources do we need to achieve these aspirations? Ultimately, your campaign’s success will depend on your ability as president to explain why your institution needs additional resources to grow or launch new initiatives, and why supporting your institution is an effective way to invest in the region’s, or perhaps the world’s, future.

You also will need to prepare your institution and its internal constituencies for a campaign. It is critical to garner the support of the board and key institutional leadership and to set expectations for them and for your senior staff. Decide whether deans and other senior staff will have specific fundraising responsibilities and expectations, which could include identifying fundraising priorities (tied to the strategic plan), developing compelling donor proposals, and engaging, soliciting, and stewarding donors. This was a key shift during my time at Oregon State University when the university made a key decision to assign the deans of each college the new responsibility of leading campaigns within their respective schools and colleges as part of the university’s broader campaign structure.

Insist on Focus and Strategic Discipline

One of the greatest contributions you, as president, can make to the management of a campaign is insisting on focused priorities and strategic discipline throughout the campaign period. This approach certainly can be difficult when deans and other institutional leaders are advocating for an assortment of fundraising priorities. But campaigns require that leadership makes tough choices; they cannot be all things to all people at your institution. Campaigns are one way of advancing institutional priorities, but they are not the only way. You and your campaign leadership team must determine which institutional priorities can best be achieved through philanthropy (i.e., which priorities will resonate most with potential donors), and then focus your efforts there. Effective campaigns do not result from throwing every gift opportunity up against the wall and seeing what sticks with donors. It is about choosing which specific areas of institutional investment—and co-investment with donors—will best advance your strategic vision for your institution.

It is critical that each significant campaign gift you seek and accept serves strategic priorities. If an institution accepts a gift on a purely opportunistic basis—especially if it is not well-aligned with strategic priorities—or if the institution accepts a gift simply to boost its fundraising totals, it can have a detrimental impact on the institution (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020).  Relatively few restricted gifts pay the full cost of an added faculty position, program, or facility. These gifts almost always require some institutional co-investment to realize their benefit. Consider, for example, if the giving level to endow a professorship at your institution is $5 million. While this would be a substantial gift at most institutions, such an endowment would not cover all the costs associated with supporting a senior professor, which would likely require an endowment of $8 to $10 million or more, depending on the field. By accepting an endowed professorship in a field that is not a strategic priority—especially if it is an incremental position—you may find your institution needing to allocate institutional funds to a non-strategic area (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020). Such gifts may limit your ability to invest institutional resources in areas that are strategic priorities.

New initiatives are essential to sustaining excellence and enhancing your institution’s impact; many depend on substantial new investment from both donors and the institution. To ensure that a campaign serves strategic goals, you will need to balance multiple considerations. Working with your advancement staff, you will need to set an achievable dollar target that will raise aspirations of donors without tempting the institution to pursue or accept gifts it should not take (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020).  You should strive to find ways to recognize, accommodate, and engage the interests of donors without allowing their particular interests to divert you from strategic objectives. Also, it is critical to understand the magnitude of institutional cost-shares, which should differ depending on whether, and to what extent, the gift advances a strategic priority. Endowed funds are established in perpetuity, so it is important to accept endowed funds that can be used not only for current needs and aspirations, but that also will continue to benefit the institution down the road. It is a best practice to avoid narrowly defined terms and conditions for endowed gifts whenever possible, sometimes incorporating in the gift terms alternative uses acceptable to the donor, as it is often difficult and costly to amend gift restrictions once they have been established (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020).

In an effort to secure a gift, you may find yourself willing to consider conditions or terms that may not be in the institution’s long-term best interest. (For example, accepting a narrowly defined professorship that may be difficult to fill or whose field may not be relevant a few decades from now.) Inevitably, during the course of a campaign, you will be approached by well-meaning donors who have goals for their philanthropic support that might not advance your institutional priorities (Christopher L.Eisgruber, pers. comm., September 17, 2020). It is essential that you get comfortable saying “no”—or, more appropriately, “No, thank you”—to donors whose interests are not aligned with your institutional priorities, perhaps helping to steer their philanthropy to other, better aligned purposes.

 Focus Your Energy on the Top of the Gift Pyramid

For decades, campaign planners have relied on the “Pareto Principle” from economics, which essentially advises that roughly 80 percent of the dollars you will raise in a campaign will likely come from about 20 percent of your donors. This is more commonly referred to as the “80-20 Rule” in fundraising circles. With the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States, however, we can no longer rely on this principle for campaign planning going forward. Today, you will more likely receive 90 percent of your goal from approximately 10 percent of your donors. In certain institutions with fewer donors making substantially larger contributions, you may even see something closer to a “95-5 Rule.” This was certainly the case in Princeton’s last campaign, completed in 2014, in which 65 donors out of a total of 79,000 total donors to the campaign provided half of the dollars raised. In fact, one-fifth of the campaign total came from just eight donors. Oregon State University’s last campaign (ending in 2015) had a similar result, in which $1.14 billion was secured from 106,000 donors. [1] Thirty-five percent of that total came from just twenty donors. These examples from successful campaigns underscore the importance of developing lasting relationships with high-level donors in order to secure transformational levels of support.

It is vital, then, to prioritize your time and energy on transformational gifts from your institution’s most capable potential donors (often referred to as “principal gifts,” distinguishing them from annual or major gifts). Engagement of principal gift–level donors requires extraordinary, dedicated resources and a sustained effort from your principal gift fundraisers and stewardship staff. Increasing numbers of institutions are raising more money because they are laser-focused on moving donors with great capacity toward progressively larger gifts.

To expand upon the 90-10 rule, it is also long-standing and common practice to think about campaigns in terms of a pyramid, with fewer, but larger gifts at the top and significantly more, but smaller gifts at the base. Thus, the more gifts you secure at the top of the pyramid, the less you need to rely on the more numerous smaller gifts at the base. While all levels of giving are important, your campaign’s success and impact will depend on your ability to inspire a relatively small number of donors to give at transformational levels.

It is critical for you and your advancement team to identify those potential donors that you can realistically cultivate for transformational gifts within the campaign period. Starting in the quiet phase, cultivate relationships with previous donors and those individuals who are currently engaged in meaningful ways. The president plays a key role in inspiring donor confidence and creates the climate in which fundraising takes place, representing the institution and developing fruitful relationships with potential donors. Furthermore, the president should regularly be a key player in directly soliciting gifts from major donors. In addition, it has been common practice in my experience that the president is intimately involved in the strategic discussions and planning around the cultivation and solicitation of gifts at this level.

It has long been accepted among practitioners that there is both an art and a science to fundraising; soliciting is where the “art” comes in. Feeling comfortable with asking for gifts may not be easy or natural at first, but it will get easier with time and practice. In your career, you have undoubtedly heard people refer to fundraising—or “asking for money”— with scorn or derision. However, the reality is that you are asking people with an interest in and affinity for your institution—as well as the capacity to make a transformational gift—to co-invest in something that will advance the institution’s mission and, hopefully, their own philanthropic goals. If your advancement staff is serving you well, you will be spending your time engaging with alumni and stakeholders who have the capacity to make a gift, have demonstrated some affinity for your institution, and want to see you and your institution succeed (Seymour 1988).

Also, do not worry about asking for too much. In my experience, many donors are flattered when asked for a substantial gift, even if it is beyond what they might comfortably contemplate. Genuinely engaged donors will want to help the institution achieve its goals and will often try to find the means to make the gift you have solicited.

Be Nimble

Almost inevitably, at some point during your campaign, you will encounter some unexpected challenge or headwind that will require you to reassess your strategy. Examples include the global economic downturn that occurred in 2008 and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. While I have argued earlier for the importance of focus and discipline in managing your campaign, it is also essential that you foster a culture of nimbleness. You and your campaign leadership team need to be adaptable and responsive to changing circumstances. Few campaigns—if any—go entirely according to plans! At Princeton, when faced with the prospect of launching our campaign’s public phase in the fall of 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to postpone the public launch. Rather than launch the campaign with the traditional on-campus gala with key donors, we opted to launch a series of online events, a campaign website, and videos that helped engage alumni and other stakeholders in the university’s strategic priorities. This approach helped pave the way for a public campaign launch in the fall of 2022. However, even then we had to be nimble: the pandemic was ongoing, and we felt that it would be inappropriate to host a traditional in-person gala event under such circumstances. Instead, we marked the public phase of the campaign digitally, with campus graphics, a video series premiere, and a social media strategy and website.

Despite the turmoil of the past several years, all signs indicate that the need for structured fundraising campaigns will continue to be strong. (Browning 2021). While the traditional fundraising campaign model has served higher education well for many decades, it is clear that we are in a period of reimagining this model. Fundraising campaigns have undergone significant changes in recent years, driven by greater institutional reliance on ever more ambitious goals, by advances in technology, shifts in donor behaviors, changes in perceptions about higher education, and greater competition as more institutions launch campaigns, often on the same timelines. Although the landscape of campaigns and philanthropy is changing, institutions are becoming more strategic in their fundraising efforts; as we move forward, data analytics and predictive modeling, along with our traditional methods, will continue to help us better identify potential donors who will make a gift.

Enjoy the Experience

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not tell you to remember to have fun! Stay focused on the fact that you are involved in truly meaningful work. These efforts will help you and your institution—and all those that it serves—to realize and benefit from its vision for the future. You will build relationships with fascinating people, and you will develop a deep sense of pride as you see the aspirations from your strategic planning take shape and advance on your institution’s ability to fulfill its mission on your campus and beyond. The ultimate outcome will be not just your legacy at the institution, but, more important, the impact your legacy will have on the world.

References

Browning, Jessica. 2021. “Trends That Will Shape Philanthropy in 2022,” Giving USA, December 16, 2021. https://givingusa.org/trends-that-will-shape-philanthropy-in-2022/.

Gawor, Brian. 2018. “The Future of Higher Education Fundraising Campaigns According to Fundraising Leaders,” February 16, 2018, https://www.ruffalonl.com/blog/fundraising/higher-education-fundraising-campaigns/.

Reiser, Blake. 2021. “Capital Campaigns 101: A Primer for Volunteers and Staff.” broadcast January 6, 2021. https://www.ccsfundraising.com/insights/capital-campaigns-101-a-primer-for-volunteers-and-staff/.

Princeton University. n.d. “Princeton’s Strategic Planning Framework.” https://www.princeton.edu/meet-princeton/princetons-strategic-planning-framework.

Seymour, Harold J. 1988.  Designs for Fund-Raising: Principles, Patterns, Techniques, 2nd ed., Rockville, Md.: Fund Raising Institute.


  1. Harold J. Seymour, nicknamed Si, is commonly referenced when discussing many accepted practices and principles. His book, originally published in 1966, continues to be helpful and relevant for fundraising: Harold J. Seymour, Designs for Fund-Raising: Principles, Patterns, Techniques, 2nd ed. (Rockville, Md.: Fund Raising Institute, 1988).

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Seven Habits of Highly Effective Fundraising Campaigns Copyright © 2024 by Mr. Kevin J. Heaney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.