Capital campaign strategies you may be missing

What’s new and what’s working for institutions engaged in capital campaigns

Last January, The Campaign for Oregon State University surpassed its $1 billion goal—almost a year ahead of schedule. It was the university’s first comprehensive campaign, and it also exceeded its goal of raising $200 million for facilities and equipment—providing all or part of the funds for building, renovating or acquiring more than two dozen facilities.

“The single most important factor contributing to our success is our maniacal focus on clearly identified and major gift fundraising priorities tied directly to the university’s strategic plan,” says Kevin Heaney, vice president of the OSU Foundation.

More than 1,000 donors have made gifts of over $100,000 to OSU’s campaign, including 177 gifts of $1 million or more. “A higher percentage of gifts are coming from fewer people, so we allot time and resources accordingly,” he says. “We are a major-gift-driven organization.”

OSU is not alone when it comes to folding capital fundraising into a comprehensive campaign. “Capital campaigns used to be strictly focused on bricks and mortar projects,” says Jim Eskin, executive director of Alamo Colleges Foundation in San Antonio, Texas. “Today they are much broader, and we are seeing comprehensive campaigns that address facilities, scholarships, programs, endowment and more.”

In addition to broader campaigns and a razor-sharp focus on major donors, more institutions are seeking support from the business sector. “Colleges are becoming more successful at capturing corporate money, usually in the form of a partnership that gives exposure and branding for the company,” says Timothy Winkler, CEO of the Winkler Group, a fundraising consulting firm.

As much as 75 percent of the money raised by community colleges is from commitments made by corporations and their charitable foundations, says Marvin LeRoy, executive vice president of the Armistead Group, an advancement consulting firm focused on two-year colleges. “We are gaining access to that money by moving away from emotional appeals and to fact-based arguments: What is the need, what is proposed to meet that need and what will the return on investment be.”

Capital fundraising retains a top slot among institutional fundraising priorities due to renovation and construction imperatives, new program requirements and the need to update technology within buildings. Capital and operating investments for campus facilities have fallen behind 2009 levels, and resources on most campuses remain constrained.

About half of U.S. campus buildings are nearing or already in need of renewal or replacement, reports Sightlines in its “State of Facilities in Higher Education 2014” report.

“Today, more institutions—both public and private—have to raise half or more of building funding, and in some cases, all of it,” says Myrna Hall, senior fundraising consultant at Marts & Lundy.

New strategies for capital fundraising are being sought for good reason. “Institutional characteristics and facilities have a direct correlation” with students’ decisions to attend a particular school and to stay, found a survey of U.S. and Canadian college students published in Facilities Manager Magazine in 2006. Two-thirds of students surveyed said the appearance of a college’s grounds and buildings was the factor that most influenced them during a campus visit.

Here are some new strategies college and university leaders are using to raise capital funds.

1. Lead gift first

With the onus on colleges to raise most or all of new building funds, Hall says an institution shouldn’t put the shovel in the ground until it has identified and raised the money through outright philanthropy rather than deferred gifts. After all, she says, “When contractors want to be paid, you can’t wait for Mr. Smith to pass away.”

At OSU, when a department needs a new facility, the advancement staff works with the dean to identify one to three donors who might make lead gifts. OSU works to secure donations that will cover the majority of the philanthropic goal before the wider fundraising campaign is launched. “We do not go public with the announcement of a new building until the lead gift is tied up in a nice bow,” Heaney says.

Suppose the science department is making the case for a new chemistry building. The advancement staff works with the dean to identify potential lead gifts, usually from one to three donors, that would cover at least 50 percent before announcing a fundraising campaign.

It’s a strategic move institutions are beginning to make. According to the “CASE Campaign Report 2013,” released in June of this year, more than one-third of campaign managers raised 41 percent to 60 percent of the total goal during the quiet phase of the campaign.

2. Volunteers paired with professionals

Gustavus Adolphus College secured $36 million toward a campaign goal of $150 million by putting a new twist on an old fundraising strategy. “Asking volunteers to open doors to potential donors is not new,” says Thomas Young, vice president for institutional advancement at the Minnesota-based school. “Our success was due to the new partnership between teams of volunteers and our major gift officers.”

Young organized a team of volunteers for each of his five major gift officers. A key to success was giving the volunteers direct access to the college’s professional fundraisers. “Whether [the volunteers] wanted to visit independently, or have a gift officer accompany them and even make the ask, we gave them whatever they needed and they connected us to people who made a big difference in our campaign.”

3. Strategic talent management

Where do you find the next generation of major gift officers? Mary Jane McGarity, chief development officer at the Montana State University Alumni Foundation, says she is finding new talent in unexpected places.

“Experience in academic advancement is always terrific, but some of my strongest development officers discovered this fulfilling profession after various careers, from real estate sales to social work to nonprofit management, education and engineering.”

McGarity relies on a well-crafted on-boarding plan with targets and milestones—along with development training—to bring new hires up to speed. She’s also turning to deans, department heads, key faculty, advisory committees and donor volunteers for help with the donor cultivation process.

4. Major gifts online

Developing new ways to engage current and future major donors requires creativity, says Winkler, of the Winkler Group. Clemson University in South Carolina, for example, is expanding its fundraising opportunities with an engaging, user-friendly website that allows major donors to give gifts online.

“This is a smart move,” he says. “Not long ago, you would never receive a major gift online, but I’ve now seen five- and six-figure gifts come in this way. … Studies show that even older folks who are approached for donations in the traditional manner, in-person or by phone, may still choose to give a gift online.”

Clemson’s giving site includes several features that major donors may appreciate, including sections on the institution’s greatest needs and on the impact of giving, as well as illustrated donor recognition write-ups. Those giving online can create an account to make future gift transactions quicker and easier. The account includes a profile that helps the donor connect to other “Tigers” as well as access gift history and tax receipts.

5. Media match

Savannah Technical College had instructional programs and construction at five campuses riding on a successful $10 million capital campaign. Leaders recognized that positive image building was key. But the college could not afford the media buys needed to accomplish this goal.

Gail Eubanks, executive director of institutional advancement, found a novel approach. “We asked our media partners to match us dollar-for-dollar for the amount we were able to spend, and the response was tremendous. Our paid ads are for recruitment, and our free ads are for image building,” she says.

The local newspapers are featuring a free weekly color advertisement highlighting a student success story. A TV station is shooting video and running commercials. And a magazine runs ads that focus on faculty excellence. “In a medium-sized community like ours, media companies are tremendous community partners. They benefit from association with organizations that serve the community like our college does,” says Eubanks.

6. Strategic partnerships with business

Just six or seven years ago, Oregon State had virtually no corporate relations program. “The tradition of corporations making large philanthropic gifts has become almost null and void,” says Heaney. “It is now more important to become strategic partners with key companies, moving away from pure philanthropy to grants, contracts and research partnerships.”

OSU has developed a corporate relations program that identifies about 20 companies and demonstrates the value of stewarding research projects that benefit them in the long run. For example, OSU received a grant from the Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund to help accelerate manufacturing in the United States. The $590,000 grant will support OSU’s development of innovations in plastics injection molding.

7. Engaged corporate employees

Denise Ciccarelli, corporate and foundation relations director at The College of Charleston in South Carolina, finds that many corporations she targets for support are involving their employees in the decision process. “As a result, employee engagement has become part of our proposals,” she says.

Ciccarelli engages corporate employees by getting them involved with the college—by mentoring students, serving on advisory boards, being guest speakers and taking part in community outreach projects. “This focuses their attention on us and makes it more likely they will make giving decisions that are favorable to the college,” Ciccarelli says.

8. A fine-tuned message

Major donors want to know that their gifts have an impact. This desire was expressed by 74 percent of respondents to the “2012 Bank of America Study of High Net Worth.”

“You’ve got to tell them what difference it will make if they give the gift and why it is important now,” says Hall, of Marts & Lundy. “Ask academic deans and vice presidents to define the gap—what will be sacrificed if you don’t have that money?”

Instead of telling donors that you need a new building, Hall recommends explaining exactly what will happen in that building. “Describe the 80 or so new students you won’t accept into the program if you don’t have additional facilities,” she says.

9. Access to the president

Presidents play a key role in developing relationships with major donors. “I see administrators who can make a campaign sing with success through their active participation,” says Hall.

Big galas and recognition ceremonies don’t get the bang for the buck they used to, says Winkler. “Rather than having their picture taken with the president at a gala, donors prefer to meet one-on-one over coffee.”

Top donors at Wheaton College in Illinois and Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina receive presidential access on a more low-key basis. “There’s still an air of frugality in the marketplace, and flashy parties can be a turn-off,” Winkler says. “Making donors feel part of the ‘inner circle’ works better.”

10. An informed internal audience

Heaney says the increased amount of attention his office has given to communication with OSU’s internal community has had a major impact on building understanding of the campaign process and objectives.

“There’s been so much misunderstanding about why some projects are green-lighted and others aren’t,” he says. “By communicating how our objectives are chosen, what they are and why we honor the requests of our donors, we build powerful support internally that carries over to enhance the way we present ourselves to the public.”

11. Alumni relations growth

Community colleges are establishing alumni relations programs to step up their fundraising, says LeRoy, of Armistead.

Officials at Lower Columbia College in Washington have made a concerted effort over the past few years to have departments work collaboratively and to use data strategically to ramp up alumni outreach, says Erin Brown, executive director of the college’s foundation. That’s been possible because the college hired its first employee to oversee alumni engagement, including maintaining a database of alumni. In the past, all alumni engagement was handled by the college’s PR team.

Two major construction projects and the establishment of a campus university center have renewed the excitement of alumni. The college communicates with alumni regularly and invites them back to campus.

“LLC is nearing 80 years in the community, and we are fortunate that so many of our alumni still live nearby—so we have focused new efforts on alumni planned giving,” Brown says. “Our two latest major planned gifts culminated from these activities, including a $4 million gift that changed the landscape of our music program forever.”

Harriet Meyers, a Columbia, Md.-based writer and editor, has written extensively on higher ed fundraising.

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