Understanding the Stages of a Nonprofit Capital Campaign


As the post-COVID fundraising landscape becomes more of a reality for many organizations in different parts of the country, your nonprofit may find that it’s time to kickstart your growth. A measured return to in-person engagement via hybrid events is a great first step, but what if you need larger-scale investments to take your mission to the next level?

Surging need and support as a result of the pandemic have meant that many nonprofits suddenly need to ramp up their capacity in unexpected ways. For these organizations, the time may be right to plan and launch a capital campaign in the near future.

The classic capital campaign model is a tried-and-true way to grow your mission and impact. You can adapt this model for all sorts of goals, timelines, and fundraising contexts, but you must understand the essentials before you can begin shaping your plans.

At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we’ve guided countless organizations through the process of adapting their strategies based on their unique goals and circumstances. We wanted to share an overview of the fundamentals—the stages of a capital campaign—to help your organization start off its plans on the right foot:

The stages of a capital campaign allow you to best focus your efforts and accomplish goals.

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 bought-into the need for your 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 all 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 that it needs.

Stage 2: The Feasibility Study

Duration: 2+ Months

A feasibility study tests your early campaign plans through guided 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 ultimate feasibility.

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

After your study, you’ll use your findings and expert recommendations to determine 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.

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

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:

During this stage, you should also take time to prepare all of the internal infrastructure that you’ll need throughout the campaign. Upgrading technology (like choosing and/or updating your CRM), recruiting additional staff, and hiring consultants are all common concerns that nonprofits should consider 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—just don’t over-rely on pamphlets and brochures yet—keep the focus connecting with prospects individually
  • One-on-one conversations and prospect cultivation
  • Soliciting major gifts and pledges

Many organizations give their quiet phase a headstart 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 in the later public phase as you approach the finish line. Just make sure your development team actively tracks their conversations and shares their insights as gifts begin rolling in.

Stage 5: Campaign Kick-Off

This stage occurs once you’ve raised 65%+ 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. As DonorSearch points out, 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 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. Gin up some major energy in 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 mean:

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

In many ways, the shift towards virtual fundraising has made it easier than ever to kickstart your public phase with peer-to-peer campaigns, live-streamed events, and more.

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.

By the end of the public phase, you should reach or exceed your capital campaign’s goals.

Stage 7: Post-Campaign Activities

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 at hand will vary based on your unique context.

Regardless of the specifics of your post-campaign to-do list, you’ll need to 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.

Capital campaigns are long and resource-intensive, but they can be game-changing for nonprofits. By securing an influx of new capital all at once, your organization can fund the major investments needed to take your mission to the next level.

Your campaign should ultimately be uniquely yours, but you’ll have to start with the essentials. The traditional capital campaign model can be adapted as needed, but it’s a go-to approach because it works. Anchoring your plans with these stages will give your campaign the structure it needs to succeed

Step-by-Step Campaign Checklist & Guide

This intuitive guide breaks down each step of your campaign, and the timeline allows you to visualize your whole campaign from start to finish! Download this free campaign checklist now!

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders to run successful campaigns. The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.