5 min read

Capital campaigns put a lot of stress or an organization—when the economy is healthy. How do you navigate a campaign when times are bad?

When leading development for an engineering school during the 2007-8 recession, I remember traveling to Chicago with the dean to meet with one of our top donor prospects to ask him to endow the school for $20 million. What were we thinking?

We met at the Chicago Athletic Club, a place that was thriving during good economic times. As the dean and I walked into the dark, empty club, the donor was the only one in the room where he was reading the Wall Street Journal with coffee. It seemed like a ghost town. Somehow, we remained positive towards our meeting, thinking that somehow he would say yes to our ask.

Well, he didn’t say yes . . . but he didn’t say no, either. He explained to us his financial situation and even wrote out on a napkin where he needed to be in order to make the gift. The recession certainly had an impact on him, but what would enable him to the make the gift was to sell off his company, which he was planning to do. The timing wasn’t right, but we learned the recipe for when it was right.

What’s the takeaway from that story? It’s important to continue to talk to donors about gifts during challenging times.

Your organization’s needs do not go away, and the needs may even be greater. While the dean and I did not secure a gift to name the school, we learned valuable information about the donor, while also cultivating the relationship. By the way, we were able to recruit him to be on our advisory council during the visit and he has given multiple million-dollar gifts to the school since then.

When times are difficult, how should organizations approach campaign work? Should they pause like so many did during the Coronavirus pandemic? I believe there is a lot an organization can and should do, even when times are difficult. Recessions don’t last forever. The sun will set, as will the recession . . . and, the sun will come up tomorrow, and so will the economy.


I believe there are at least four ways to move forward with campaign work during tough times.

Plan. Campaign prep work is often overlooked and skipped. Preparing for a campaign in the midst of challenging times can therefore make great sense: if it’s not a good time to launch a campaign, there’s a good chance that it’s a good time plan a campaign.

It’s safe to assume that you’ll be free and clear of today’s challenge at some point—like I said, the sun will rise and so will the economy. So you need to plan for the future, looking ahead to brighter days. Even as we address what the most critical needs during tough times, we must continue to look ahead at the possibilities.

What can you do to help plan for a future campaign? Assess your organization’s capacity, programs, and processes and look to make improvements. Before any campaign, you should spend a significant amount of time analyzing your donors in your database. Identify and tier campaign prospects into giving level potential, and make sure you have solid donor strategies.

Know what you want to raise money for in a campaign. Engage key stakeholders to help determine what is needed before you go into a capital campaign. How are the following areas? Staff capacity, board strength and participation, systems, processes, donor capacity, donor affinity, materials? How will your organization be able to continue to raise annual revenue while raising campaign funding? Who will lead your campaign? Who will be securing gifts?

Even if times are tough, planning is practical and will get your organization in position to launch a campaign at the right time.

Cultivate. Even if you have already entered the active phase of a campaign, you don’t need to be only in solicitation mode with donors. Cultivation with donors is often needed before talking about a gift. Sometimes, fundraisers jump to solicitation too early, before enough cultivation has occurred with the biggest donor prospects. When times are tough economically, you can use that time to meet with donors to learn how they are being impacted and to inform them of your plans and how things are going. If you are prone to rush through cultivation and jump to the solicitation, then you might even benefit from a slow economy forcing you to put the brakes on!

I once prematurely solicited a donor during a campaign. I realized after the fact that I should have done better at bringing the donor along earlier and assessing whether they were a major gift prospect for the campaign. As it turned out, it was an inappropriate time to solicit them for a gift because of personal reasons. If I had been in touch with the donor before the solicitation, I would have easily picked up on that and would have avoided an embarrassing situation. Use this time as an opportunity to check in on your donors, to slow down on asks, and learn from them.

Listen, and keep asking for support. Data shows that donors continue to give to their top five organizations during tough economic times. Through good donor contact and cultivation, you should pick up clues on how donors may have been impacted during tough times. Often, campaign gifts are made with assets and not donors’ checking accounts. There may be a myriad of reasons why it makes sense for a donor to make a gift during tough times.

During Covid, one donor happened to be having his best year ever as a business owner. He sold safety equipment, including respirators, masks, gloves, etc. Don’t make assumptions that donors can’t and won’t make a campaign gift. It is critical to always look for signs on how donors are doing. It doesn’t hurt to be up front and ask a donor how their business is doing!

Securing planned gifts during a campaign can be an excellent option during tough times. A former colleague of mine had a brilliant idea to launch a planned giving campaign during the recession in 2007-8. He organized a campaign committee and started with a nucleus of donors who had made planned gift commitments. An event to launch the planned giving campaign generated great buzz and eventually secured millions of dollars. Very little cash was raised, but the main purpose was to build a pipeline for the future—and by engaging donors as planned givers, they more than likely increased the annual giving and retention rate for each of those donors.

Be nimble. Adjust when needed. Sometimes, curveballs do happen during a campaign. When a batter sees a curve, they must adjust their approach to hitting the ball. Otherwise, they will miss and experience failure. A curveball for a campaign could be when the economy tanks or Covid happens. When events like these occur, we need to not be tone deaf to the situation. We need to be able to problem solve during campaigns. Things aren’t always going to go our way.

Recently, I had a client who was impacted by Hurricane Ian. Unfortunately, their building endured significant damage from the storm and now they need to address other priorities than pursuing their $20 million campaign.

The organization’s response was excellent: instead of soliciting lead donors, they put a hold on many of the solicitations and decided to call donors to see how they were doing after the storm. During their calls they learned a lot about how donors were handling things and how much impact they experienced. They also asked donors how they could pray for them. This is a wonderful example of how to pivot during a campaign. The campaign may be slowed down as a result of the hurricane, but the organization used it as an opportunity to build deeper relationships, which will pay greater dividends over time.

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