Understanding the Stages of a Nonprofit Capital Campaign

There are countless options when it comes to fundraising, from online campaigns to silent auctions to walk-a-thons. But if you’re looking for a fundraising technique that will allow you to supercharge your nonprofit’s capacity to serve more beneficiaries, launching a capital campaign may be the best choice.

Capital campaigns are tried-and-true ways to grow your mission and impact, whether you’re a higher education institution or a smaller nonprofit focused on getting out the vote. In fact, according to recent research, capital campaigns are overwhelmingly successful—on average, organizations raise a whopping 108% of their target campaign goal.

Before you can successfully plan a capital campaign of your own, you first need to understand the essentials, including the phases your organization will go through to reach its goal. Let’s take a closer look at a typical capital campaign timeline and what’s involved in each phase.

Image that lists the phases of a capital campaign, which are described in detail in the text below.

Stage 1: Pre-Campaign Planning

Duration: 3-12 Months

Before you dive too deeply into planning the specifics of your campaign, you’ll need to lay out some essentials. Working with a small group of leaders at your organization who are already on board with the need for a campaign, tackle these tasks:

  • Define your campaign’s objectives—what exactly are you raising money to build or accomplish?
  • Set a working financial goal for your campaign.
  • Begin putting together a rough case for support, which you’ll keep refining in later stages.
  • Start securing buy-in from more leaders and stakeholders at your organization.

Everyone (including internal leaders and donors) will need a crystal-clear idea of what your campaign is about before you can move forward. Defining these essentials is the first step towards securing buy-in and will give your campaign the initial structure it needs.

Stage 2: The Feasibility Study

Duration: 2+ Months

A feasibility study assesses your early campaign plans through conversations with leaders, donors, and other stakeholders. You’ll gauge their opinions and compile their thoughts on the need for your campaign, its goals, and its ultimate feasibility.

Traditionally, nonprofits partner with consultants to outsource the entire feasibility study process. This can be a good choice for some organizations, but it’s not the only option. According to Capital Campaign Pro’s guide to feasibility studies, organizations are increasingly taking a more hands-on approach, conducting stakeholder interviews themselves with the guidance of an expert coach.

Whichever approach you take, this step is essential. Capital campaigns are major investments of your time and resources, so getting a firm grasp on where you stand with key stakeholders early is a wise move.

After your study, you’ll use your findings and expert recommendations to determine the next steps for your campaign. These may include adjusting your goals, repositioning your case for support, holding off on a major campaign for the moment, or going full steam ahead.

Stage 3: Campaign Planning

Duration: 2+ Months 

Now it’s time to dig deeper and plan the specifics of your campaign. At this stage, you’ll focus on securing full buy-in from your organization’s leaders, board members, key donors, and other stakeholders. Form your campaign’s various committees, start researching prospective donors, and finalize a campaign plan. This plan should include elements like:

  • A complete campaign budget
  • A full timeline or timetable
  • detailed gift range chart outlining how many gifts you’ll need at various levels
  • Donor recognition plans
  • Communication and marketing strategies
  • Additional campaign policies

During this stage, you should also take time to prepare all of the internal infrastructure that you’ll need throughout the campaign. Upgrading technology, recruiting additional staff, and hiring consultants are all common tasks that nonprofits should complete before launching their campaigns.

Stage 4: The Quiet Phase

Duration: 6-24 Months

Once your team is on board and you have concrete plans in place, you can officially launch your capital campaign. The quiet phase is when the actual fundraising begins, albeit with minimal publicity and fanfare. During this stage, you’ll cultivate and solicit your campaign’s largest gifts, so you have to keep the focus on your prospects as individuals. Specifically, the quiet phase entails these key activities:

  • Prospect research
  • Developing materials to share with prospects
  • One-on-one conversations and prospect cultivation
  • Soliciting major gifts and pledges

Many organizations give their quiet phase a head start by beginning the solicitation process with their board members and key stakeholders who’ve already been privy to the campaign’s existence. From there, you’ll branch out to a wider range of major and mid-level prospects.

Use your quiet phase conversations to continually refine your case for support and appeals. A mix of concrete facts, impact statistics, and emotional appeals rooted in storytelling will work well now and later in the public phase as you approach the finish line. Just make sure your development team actively tracks their conversations with donors and shares their insights as gifts begin rolling in.

Stage 5: Campaign Kick-Off

This stage occurs once you’ve raised 65-75% or more of your total goal. 

Once you’ve secured the majority of your campaign’s total funding, it’s time to take your campaign public.

But first, you may choose to reassess your goals. Major gift fundraising is complicated and can be unpredictable even with the best plans in place. If your quiet phase went extremely well and you think you can reasonably raise even more than planned, you may adjust up. Alternately, you may need to adjust down.

The main idea is to make sure that the overall goal and results that you announce publicly are realistic and representative of what you’ll actually accomplish by the end of the campaign.

When you’re ready, kick off the final public stretch of your capital campaign with engaging events and press releases. Take the opportunity to celebrate your progress thus far and recognize the campaign leaders and donors who’ve gotten you there. Pump some major energy into your nonprofit’s broader community to get everyone excited about what you’ll be able to accomplish once you reach your goal.

Stage 6: The Public Phase

Duration: 3+ Months 

The public phase of a capital campaign is short and full of energy. During this stage, you’ll expand your marketing and fundraising efforts to reach much wider audiences of donors and community members.

You’ll also secure the smaller donations necessary to take your campaign over the finish line. Remember that the overarching goal during this phase is to drive engagement and energy. Get your whole community excited about what expanded capacity will mean for your mission! This can involve:

  • Hosting a variety of events (whether virtual, hybrid, or in person)
  • Taking your campaign online
  • Spreading the word on social media
  • Creating new engagement opportunities, like virtual volunteering

Just remember to stay strategic. You can host broad events for your entire base of support, but supplement them with a range of more focused offerings for the best results.

For instance, simply hosting a virtual auction won’t deliver the same results as thoroughly planning and targeting one towards specific groups and interests. Your item procurement strategy, marketing tactics, and more should all be geared towards a particular audience, like mid-range donors who weren’t contacted during the quiet phase.

Stage 7: Stewardship

Duration: 3-6 Months 

The work isn’t over once your campaign officially ends. After all, the project that you raised funds for is only just beginning!

Immediately after your campaign, you’ll need to tie up loose ends. Create campaign reports, collect pledges, draft new press releases, host groundbreaking ceremonies—the exact tasks will vary based on your unique context.

Regardless of the specifics of your post-campaign to-do list, focus heavily on gratitude and recognition. Take the time to thank everyone who made your campaign a success, whether by sending automated emails to public phase donors or one-on-one calls and meetings with major donors. Celebratory events, thank-you messages, and, if applicable, naming ceremonies or constructing donor walls are all standard for post-campaign follow-up.

All of these activities will put you on the path to effectively stewarding the donors who made your campaign possible. When you proactively strengthen your relationships with them, you can be confident that you’ll have a community of supporters to rely on for the long term.

Wrapping Up

If you’re looking for a way to take your organization’s work to the next level, a capital campaign can provide the funding and the donor engagement opportunities you need to make it happen.

As you begin working toward your own capital campaign, review these core phases to give your campaign plan the structure it needs to position you for success.

Eager for more information to guide your capital campaign planning? Take a look at these additional resources:

Want to dive deeper into each step of a capital campaign and get started planning your own? Check out Capital Campaign Pro’s Step-by-Step Guide to Your Campaign: A Timeline and Checklist