Capital campaigns routinely raise millions and last several years—the stakes are high, so you must be prepared for every step along the way. Extensive planning and research are certainly critical for powering capital campaigns, but never lose sight of the fact that solicitation is what will ultimately drive your campaign forward.
For some people, making the actual asks for major gifts seems like the hardest part of a campaign. Even with the best prospect research backing you up, asking for a large gift is a human-to-human activity. It involves complex interpersonal aspects that feel tricky to navigate with confidence.
You’ll involve key board members, campaign leadership, and staff in asking for gifts during the quiet phase. But if this is your organization’s first capital campaign, your team will almost certainly feel nervous or unprepared—this is completely normal, but it needs addressing.
As a campaign leader, you can and should take steps to prepare your team for the solicitation process. Here are our top recommendations:
1. Encourage the right mindset from the start.
Which do you think yields better results: positivity or negativity? You probably know that mindset plays a role in your success, whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish. This truism applies to soliciting major gifts, and we’ve seen it play out many times. People with a positive mindset get better results than people who are negative.
We think of it as operating from a mindset of abundance—getting excited about what’s possible—rather than a mindset of scarcity—focusing solely on what’s holding you back.
Fundraisers who have no confidence in their skills, are skeptical that the prospect will say yes, or simply have no enthusiasm for the campaign will never achieve the same results as fundraisers who feel prepared and are excited to drive their mission forward.
Foster this mindset of optimism and abundance in your team from the very start by:
- Finding a balance between being fiscally responsible and articulating an exciting vision. Do you spend more time worrying about cutting costs or figuring out ways to do more for your mission? Do you plan for growth or are your plans dictated by a fear of losing what you have? Healthy nonprofits need a balance of both approaches. Manage your finances from a careful scarcity mindset, but don’t approach major gift solicitation that way. The most successful fundraising is based on excitement and a vision of what might be possible.
- Encourage big dreams. What would your organization do with an extra million dollars to spend? What could you accomplish? Take some time to ask your team these questions. Give them permission to think from abundance.
- Base your campaign on your vision for the future. Simply put, don’t let your campaign be based on how much money you need. Instead, highlight the potential impact raising that money will have on the community you serve. Let that vision and the excitement and passion it creates infuse every aspect of your campaign.
When your team is driven by a sense of enthusiasm and hopefulness, that same energy will infuse your case for support and conversations with prospects. From there, it will trickle down through all of the storytelling strategies and marketing materials you create later.
An abundant mindset fuels the optimism that will keep your campaign’s energy up from start to finish. You can always provide more guidance and training when it’s time to solicit prospects, but you can’t change your campaign’s energy overnight.
2. Equip your board with resources and guidance.
Next, make sure your team has the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.
Don’t toss volunteers into an event, campaign, or project without first training them on what needs to be done. You can’t leave your board and committee volunteers to navigate the campaign on their own. There are a few tried-and-true best practices to keep in mind before the quiet phase officially kicks off:
- Provide your team with books and other resources on major gift solicitation. Take a structured approach to reviewing them, assigning specific chapters and regularly regrouping to discuss key takeaways.
- Establish and explain standard data management processes for your team. Successful campaigns use data to shape their strategies, but you have to make sure everyone understands how the CRM and other analytics tools will be used.
- Create additional resources for your campaign like prospect worksheets. These will not only get your team in the habit of tracking important insights but will also be invaluable during the quiet phase.
- Schedule a workshop or other training sessions with fundraising professionals. Going straight to an expert who can translate solicitation best practices for your unique fundraising context is often the most effective choice for bolstering your team’s confidence.
Many organizations choose to partner with fundraising consultants for their capital campaigns anyway, so keep training in mind if you’re in the market for one. For the most long-term value, look for capital campaign consultants or guides who take collaborative approaches and prioritize showing your team how it’s all done rather than simply doing it themselves.
3. Conduct fundraising exercises.
Training helps cover your bases, but your team needs to start putting what they’ve learned into action before actually getting in touch with prospects. We recommend this exercise to nonprofits preparing to solicit donors.
Start by preparing a flipchart or other large visualization of the steps of a solicitation meeting (in bold below). Talk your team through the steps, asking and encouraging plenty of questions along the way. Here are the steps to review:
- Build rapport with the prospect, discussing interests, friends, and activities.
- State your goals for the meeting, such as learning more about the donor, providing additional information about your campaign, and asking for support.
- Discuss the prospect’s needs and interests—aim to uncover why they care about your nonprofit’s mission and programs.
- Give a brief presentation about your nonprofit’s work and the impact that the donor will have on it by supporting your campaign.
- Ask for the gift, naming a specific amount or range, then wait for the prospect to respond.
- Discuss any concerns or objections from the prospect.
- Wrap up the meeting by reiterating any agreements or specific next steps.
- Report the meeting’s results to the relevant committee chair.
During each step of the exercise, take some time to pause and ask key questions—How long should Step 1 take? What are meaningful facts or real-life stories we can share about our work? What kind of language should we use for making the ask?
Break your team up into groups of three to practice soliciting gifts. One person is the solicitor, one is the donor and the third observes and gives feedback. Practice three solicitations, changing roles each time, so that every person gets to play every role. Each round should take about 10 minutes.
Once you’ve completed all three rounds, debrief the exercise by asking a few final questions. What’s one aspect of solicitation that your team now understands more clearly? What are the areas where they feel they need more practice? How will this knowledge change their behavior going forward?
Remember that it’s your leadership’s responsibility to help campaign volunteers and staff feel prepared and confident. Plan ahead to conduct a variety of training and fundraising exercises leading up to and during the quiet phase to introduce and reinforce important takeaways.
4. Assess prospect readiness.
When is a prospect ready to be asked for a major gift? It’s a tricky question, but your capital campaign team should be able to pick up on signs that a prospect is ready to be solicited.
Take some time at the start of your campaign to lay out what it means for a prospect to be ready. If you’ve developed prospect personas, readiness will likely vary for each group. In general, a prospect is ready to be solicited when you know:
- Why a prospect might want to give—What’s your organization’s relationship with this prospect? What motivates them to give? What’s important to them?
- What specific area a prospect is interested in—Are there specific aspects of your work that appeal to this prospect? Are they interested in the impact of their gifts? Are they interested in being publicly recognized?
- Whether the time is right—Have you learned anything about your prospect’s financial circumstances that could indicate whether now is or isn’t the right time? How does this impact the amount and giving method that you’ll suggest?
- How much to ask for—What have you learned from the prospect’s giving history to your and other organizations? What size gift would be comfortable or a stretch for them?
- How to approach them—Who is the best person on your team to make the ask? Have you customized your case for support to the prospect’s unique history and motivations?
If you can answer those questions for a prospective donor, chances are that donor is ready to be solicited. Track that information by creating worksheets or other trackers for your fundraisers to keep updated over time. This way, they can quickly know when the time is right or if there’s still more work to be done in one or more of the key areas listed above.
At the end of the day, the success of your campaign will depend on having successful major gift solicitations. Campaigns are big undertakings, so you’ll have to rely on a well-organized, confident team to get it done. And while solicitation can be nerve-wracking for newcomers (and even veteran fundraisers), it’s not impossible. Preparing ahead of time and providing plenty of guidance will set your team and your campaign up for success.
Board Member’s Guide to Capital Campaign Fundraising
If you’re on the board of an organization that’s considering a capital campaign, there are things you need to know. This guide will help you understand your own role, and that of the entire board, during a campaign. Download this free guide today!
About the Author
Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, is CEO & Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. She is a veteran fundraising consultant. With over 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she’s published a number of books, including Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops. Amy is also an in-demand keynote speaker and an engaging board retreat trainer and facilitator.
Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders running successful campaigns. The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.
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