Surviving a Capital Campaign: Tips for Executive Directors

Janet is an amazing executive director. There’s no pressing problem, delicate strategy, or multi-layered project she can’t tackle and tame. She knows everything there is to know about her organization and will do what it takes to get the job done.

But there’s one task she’d really rather not even think about: capital campaign fundraising.

Not all EDs have the experience or even the desire to become strong fundraisers. The prospect of sitting eye-to-eye with a donor and asking for money can be daunting – or downright terrifying. Adding fundraising to an ED’s already overflowing inbox can be a big ask.

For EDs who find themselves on the campaign frontlines, it may be comforting to know that you’re not alone in your trepidation. And that there are ways to get the job done.

Xan Blake, a Capital Campaign Toolkit adviser and past ED herself, has walked this walk, landing her first ED job right in the middle of an ongoing campaign.

“I learned fast that as an ED, you really are a key part of your nonprofit’s success. You might want to, but you can’t look away,” she says. “There are a lot of things you don’t want to do as an ED. But we do them. We don’t want to grapple with government regulations and compliance, but we do. We didn’t want to manage through COVID, but we did.”

The ED can and should be a critical part of a successful campaign. Who knows more about the inner workings, the successes, and the needs of their nonprofit? Who better than the ED to be among the external faces of a campaign as the administrator who keeps the lights on and the work flowing?

For EDs, the key is to tackle their campaign role as they would their administrative role: honestly and with sincerity.

Blake tells the story of an ED she once counseled who was so shy about asking a donor for money, he just couldn’t overcome his fear.

“I knew he could turn shyness into respect,” she says. She suggested a technique she had learned from Capital Campaign Toolkit co-founder Amy Eisenstein. “[Amy] says that if you’re really nervous, just say to the donor that this really makes you nervous, that you have never asked anyone for a gift of this size before.

“Then say, ‘So, I’d like to ask you for a gift of $100,000, and I want to ask what you think about that.’” Her client used this technique over and over, and his nonprofit exceeded the campaign goal. “He didn’t get over it,” Blake says. “He got through it. He figured out how to work it, how to use it.”

Honest. Sincere. Effective. That’s an approach that rarely fails. In fact, Blake says, 75 percent of in-person solicitations result in a gift.

If you get that call you dread to help lead your capital campaign and actively fundraise, fear not. Here are six tips we know will help:

  1. The donor is on your side. They may test you a bit, but they want you to succeed. Your insider knowledge can lead them to a gift that’s meaningful to them and touches their heart. Bring your passion for the work to the meeting.
  2. A donor may ask you a question you can’t answer. No worries! Tell them you don’t know – but that you’ll find out and get back to them. Promising to chase down a detail not only shows respect and responsiveness, but it also gives you a chance to re-connect.
  3. Nobody but nobody knows more than the ED about the organization. A donor may not care about every part of your capital campaign, but your words could bring a proposed new program to life for them. Put plenty of careful thought into your campaign’s case for support and associated materials so that you can lean on them to tell your story later.
  4. Donors can’t help solve your organization’s problems unless you share the details with them. EDs know to the penny what works and what doesn’t. As Blake puts it, a little vulnerability can go a long way.
  5. You may assume you don’t have time to raise money. Look at it this way: The time you invest in meeting with donors will return in ways you can’t even imagine yet. When you need information in the future, they will take your call. When you have a new idea, they will listen. Face-to-face fundraising during the campaign’s quiet phase is time well spent!
  6. The more you talk to your donors, the easier it gets and the more rewarding it can be. And always: speak from your heart.

When all is said and done, participating as an ED in your organization’s capital campaign could make your work easier.

While you’re talking to and engaging your donors, make sure you are listening for ideas, suggestions, and questions that lead to new answers. Listen to their complaints, as well. It’s not fun, but it can help bring needed changes beyond the campaign.

If you are tasked with fundraising, there are resources out there:

Search for blogs and other digital resources from those who have been there, like your friends at Capital Campaign Toolkit!

Is your organization ready for a capital campaign? This simple assessment tool will help you find out. You’ll assess six key areas of your organization. Take this free assessment now and find out if you’re truly ready for a campaign.

Andrea Kihlstedt is a Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign ToolkitAndrea Kihlstedt is a Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit.  She is the author of Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, now in its 4th edition, as well as How to Raise $1 Million (or More) in 10 Bite Sized Steps, in addition to other books. Andrea has been leading successful capital campaigns for more than 30 years. To learn how the Capital Campaign Toolkit can support you through a capital campaign, visit