7 min Read
October 4, 2023

5 questions to ask when setting your capital campaign’s goal

Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt

Picture this—you’ve just put together an outline for your organization’s capital campaign that will fund a big renovation and a handful of other new investments.

You know what you want to accomplish, and although you haven’t yet tallied up the exact numbers, you know that you have plenty of actively engaged “major donors” who’ll be excited to hear your plans. You understand all the moving parts of a capital campaign and feel prepared to move forward step by step. Great!

But now it’s time to determine the actual goal for your campaign so that your plans can begin taking a concrete shape. 

Nervousness creeps in as you add up the estimated costs of each of the campaign’s objectives, plus a slight buffer to be safe. You feel your plans crash-landing back to reality when you see the final number: $10 million. This amount is far higher than anything your organization has ever raised in a single campaign. 

What do you do? How do you move forward? As someone who’s already been knee-deep in campaign plans, this number gave your team sticker shock. Your board hasn’t yet thought much about the campaign, so what will they say? Can you confidently commit to this number?

Don’t let paralysis set in.

Never lose sight of the fact that while capital campaigns look different for every organization, they’re supposed to have lofty goals that test your limits. After all, the purpose of a campaign is to jolt your mission to the next level by growing your capacity and creating an influx of financial resources.

Of course, campaign goals must be ambitious but still achievable. There’s a fine balance to strike, which is what makes this early task so tricky.

If you add up the costs of your campaign’s objectives and see a number that feels shockingly high, don’t worry. There are many ways to refine your goal, ensure that it’s rooted in what’s realistically achievable, and address your team’s anxieties. 

But first, you need an initial number to work with. There are a ton of questions and decisions that shape a capital campaign goal, but as you take your first steps, which are the most important ones to keep in mind?

Five essential questions to ask about your campaign goal

Let’s walk through some of the most important questions that you’ll need to answer as your campaign plans come into focus. Answer them thoughtfully to reach an initial goal. You can then refine it in the campaign planning phase.

1. What are our objectives?

What are the specific projects and investments that your campaign will fund? In the example above, let’s say the list of objectives looks like this:

  • Major renovation project
  • Hiring one new staff member 
  • Upgrading your organization’s donor management software
  • Contracting a tech consultant to implement and customize the software

Your objectives should be clear and specific. If you don’t yet have a concrete list of them, that’s where you should start.

2. How much will it cost to accomplish them?

Next, estimate the cost of each objective. 

The estimates don’t have to be perfect, but they should be close so that you’ll have a realistic sense of how much you need to raise. Do the necessary research or consult with contractors or vendors for quotes as needed.

Then, add up the estimates. Be sure to include a reasonable cushion—projects tend to go over budget, even with the best-laid plans, so it’s better to anticipate these challenges rather than let them derail your campaign once it’s already underway. 

3. How much will it cost to run our campaign?

You’ll also need to consider your campaign’s overhead expenses and how they’ll relate to your goal and budget. Typical campaign overhead expenses include:

So, how much should you budget for overhead and logistics? We recommend budgeting approximately 10% of your campaign’s goal spread over three years. For the $10 million example above, this would mean carefully spending $1 million as needed throughout the campaign. 

Many nonprofits choose to factor their campaign overhead expenses into their total fundraising goals. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it can drastically simplify the process of running and budgeting for your campaign. Decide now if you want to include your overhead in the campaign goal or fund it separately.

4. What is our tolerance for risk?

There’s no way around the fact that capital campaigns bring some risk because of their scope. They’re big investments of your time and resources—missing the mark can be costly and harm your reputation. But bigger goals will also excite donors and drive the greatest impact on your mission. 

We often recommend that nonprofits carefully assess and embrace the risks of big-picture thinking, but the scale of the risk you’re willing to take is ultimately up to your organization.

Gauging your institutional risk tolerance early in the planning process is important for shaping your campaign’s goal. Present your board with the initial total of the costs of your objectives plus an overhead cushion, and then gather their thoughts.

We’ve written before about a quick risk tolerance exercise that nonprofits can use in this situation. Try it out to find the sticking points—are there any non-starters? Are concerns significant enough that it will be best to reduce the campaign’s goal, or could they be addressed internally?

Considering your risk tolerance along with conducting a feasibility study (more on this next) should give you the insights you need to set a goal that you can feel confident in, one that’s ambitious but achievable and aligned with your organization’s culture.

5. Do we have a plan to test our plans and goal?

If a goal comes into focus and feels shockingly or impossibly high, you’ll be faced with a few options:

  1. Shrink your objectives.
  2. Move full steam ahead.
  3. Test the possibilities to figure out what the most realistic approach will be.

Option #3 is the best. You don’t want to shrink your campaign to the point that it won’t deliver meaningful long-term ROI, and you definitely shouldn’t commit to a large goal that will risk dragging on for years with no clear resolution. 

Once you have an initial goal in mind, you’ll need to test and refine it by collecting input from those who will help you achieve it. Ask yourself, “Are we prepared to test this goal by conducting a feasibility study before moving forward?” 

Feasibility studies allow you to make informed, responsible decisions for your campaign. In a feasibility study, you’ll discuss your campaign’s objectives, initial goal, and current plans with your largest potential donors and other partners and community members whose support you’ll rely on. Some nonprofits opt for the traditional hands-off service conducted by a consultant, but we recommend a more hands-on guided feasibility study. This will give your campaign leadership direct insights into donor opinions and kickstart the process of generating buy-in and excitement.

The findings of your study will then shape your campaign’s working goal. You might increase it, scale it down, leave it as-is, or even decide to focus on other capacity-building initiatives before committing to a campaign—whatever the outcome, you’ll have built confidence and credibility into your decision.

Taking the next steps

So you’ve tallied up your campaign objectives, added an overhead cushion, considered your organization’s risk tolerance, conducted a feasibility study, and made a few adjustments. You end up with a working goal of $10.5 million. What next?

The campaign planning phase can begin in earnest. Your team will work to hammer out the details of the campaign, develop a gift range chart, and more. You’ll put together an electrifying case for support that expresses why you’re raising money and the transformative impacts the project will have. You should also continue to educate your team and begin to create your campaign committees. 

Finally, always remember that your campaign goal can be fluid for some time. 

No rule that says you are legally bound to your goal number once planning begins. Gifts fall through, projects go over budget, and all kinds of challenges can be thrown your way. You have the freedom to continue refining your goal up or down until the public kick-off if it will help you conduct the best possible campaign.


About the Authors: Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of Capital Campaign Pro. By leveraging technology and expert advising, they have created a unique community that provides nonprofit leaders the support they need to manage campaigns efficiently and effectively.