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Nonprofit Research Collaborative

Conquest or Cause

What you need to know to plan your next capital campaign

In a recent study, the Nonprofit Research Collaborative found that 56% of nonprofit organizations are either in the midst of a capital campaign or are planning for their next. With shifting donor demographics and a growing interest in the long-term impact of donations, today’s nonprofits must create innovative campaigns that appeal to a broad range of supporters. For many nonprofit leaders, planning a capital campaign comes down to the question of “conquest or cause?”

Campaign as Conquest

An organization with a “conquest campaign” pursues a single, unwavering goal: to meet—or exceed—a fundraising target as quickly as possible. From eye-popping “billion-dollar campaigns” to small-scale fundraising efforts, conquest campaigns are driven by the bottom line.

Is a conquest campaign right for you?
In general, conquest campaigns have the following characteristics:

  • highly goal-oriented and heavily influenced by numbers and data;
  • driven by accolades and a desire to break previously set records; and
  • tailored marketing that appeals to a small set of key influencers.

If your organization’s campaign is focused on conquest, it is important to be transparent at every step of the process. Avoid the temptation to take shortcuts in order to meet your fundraising goal. While every nonprofit has distinct counting methods, unclear data and “creative math” can damage your organization’s credibility and hinder your ability to reach your next campaign goal.

While conquest campaigns have a long record of success, they may not be as effective with the rising generation of donors and leaders. According to a 2013 report by Blackbaud, older donors are more likely to believe that monetary gifts are the best way to support organizations they care about. A conquest campaign may be the best way to earn the support of older donors who tend to ascribe great value to monetary gifts. But the types of institutions that have relied on such campaigns—such as higher education, or elite arts institutions—are experiencing a troubling decline among younger generations who are more likely to devote their contributions to causes that have demonstrated impact.

Campaigning for a Cause

Rather than highlight a nonprofit’s financial goals, a cause campaign shows potential donors how their financial support will serve the common good. The campaign case is usually filled with anecdotes rather than accolades, and success is measured by the ability to affect social change.

Is a cause campaign right for you?
Cause campaigns tend to be most successful for organizations with the following:

  • a results-oriented message that focuses on stories of impact;
  • a diverse set of stakeholders engaged as voluntary leadership;
  • an approachable marketing strategy that encourages gifts of any size.

We’ve observed that cause campaigns hold greater appeal for younger donors and leaders. When asked whether the ability to see the impact of their donation would influence their decision to give, 60% of donors aged 18-32 agreed, compared to only 35% of donors over 49.

While a cause campaign is often driven by a heartfelt vision, it is crucial for organizations to set concrete goals and then develop a strategy to meet them. A cause campaign may not be as focused on celebrating the financial tally, but knowing how to honor donations of all sizes will be instrumental to your campaign’s success.

Why not both?

The most successful capital campaigns find ways to appeal to both the head and the heart. For some organizations, this involves combining cause- and conquest-based strategies. Cause-focused campaigns can help to develop a loyal donor base and motivate volunteer leaders—just in time to kick off a larger-scale conquest campaign.

Whether you choose to focus your next capital campaign on conquest, cause, or a bit of both, understanding your donor base will put your organization on a track to success.

For more information, stay tuned on our blog.

Laura MacDonald has earned a national reputation for her dedication to the nonprofit sector. She is a Certified Fund-Raising Executive (CFRE) with decades of experience in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, and philanthropy. In 1999, she established Benefactor Group to serve the needs of those who serve the common good.

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