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How To Navigate Your Capital Campaign Through a Leadership Transition

Capital campaigns can last five years or longer. Meanwhile, the average tenure of a nonprofit executive director or college president is approximately six years. That means if you’re in the midst of a capital campaign, it’s likely there will be a leadership transition at some point during your journey.

These transitions can be difficult to navigate, particularly if your departing leader is adept at raising support and generating enthusiasm. However, change can also present significant opportunities for your organization to reach new levels of success.

Keeping your capital campaign on track in the midst of change will require you to stay flexible and optimistic. You’ll need to consider thoughtful ways to keep donors and volunteers engaged, especially if you find it derails major gift conversations or otherwise affects your campaign plan and/or timeline. 

Despite the temporary speed bumps you may encounter, take heart. You can still inspire constituents, create excitement about your campaign’s impact, and ultimately reach your fundraising goal. Here’s how to make the most of the change that’s coming your way.

Ramp Up Your Communication With Key Donors and Stakeholders

The first thing to do when you learn that your president, EO, or executive director is leaving is make a list of people who deserve to hear the news early. Bring your top donors, campaign steering committee, and other key stakeholders into the fold and give them as much insider information as appropriate. This signals to  these individuals that they are important to and valued by your organization.

Keep the lines of communication open from this moment forward. Now may–or may not be the time to ask for a gift or follow up on an outstanding proposal. After all, it’s normal for donors to feel hesitant about the ways a new leader might shift your organization’s direction and priorities.

Instead, ramp up cultivation efforts and give donors time to adjust before you move forward with planned solicitation strategies. You might consider inviting key stakeholders to meet with other organizational leaders and visionaries to assure them that there are capable people at the helm during the interim period. 

Of course, it’s also important to ask good questions and pay attention to the signals your supporters are giving you. Their inclination to support your campaign goals may not be diminished by the leadership transition.

Finally, when the new leader has been selected, revisit the “insider” list again and deliver the good news prior to the general announcement.

Leverage Your Capital Campaign in the Executive Search Process

The hiring landscape is competitive. Finding the right nonprofit executive leader to propel your organization’s unique mission and vision forward takes skill, determination, and perseverance.

The good news is that a capital campaign, provides an advantage in attracting excellent candidates. Why? Dynamic leaders want to join dynamic organizations. Your capital campaign demonstrates a compelling vision and a community that is excited to take part.

On the other side of the coin, involving donors, volunteers, and community leaders in the search process is an effective way to convey insider status and draw key individuals closer. For example, you might consider:

  • Invite your capital campaign steering committee, lead donors, and other prospects to participate in interviews with your executive search consultant to help shape the position profile
  • Ask one or two campaign volunteers or donors to serve on your executive search committee
  • Hold social events with your finalists to observe how they interact with members of your community

A consulting firm with experience facilitating both capital campaigns and executive search processes can help you manage your overlapping needs and priorities in an appropriate and effective way.

Give Donors the Opportunity to Honor Your Outgoing Leader

Capital campaigns are about the future, not the past. For that reason, your campaign should not become your outgoing leader’s swan song. 

At the same time, it’s only natural to want to honor the impact this person has made. Since it’s common for fundraising to slow down once a leadership transition is announced, raising funds to celebrate your outgoing leader’s legacy is a smart way to maintain momentum.

Consider these strategies:

  • Ask lead contributors for a second gift to fund a project that’s near and dear to the outgoing leader’s heart
  • Keep the campaign in the “quiet” phase through the departing leader’s tenure and allow the next leader to benefit from the momentum of a public launch
  • Use this leadership transition as an opportunity to get in front of prospects who haven’t yet made a commitment to the campaign and have an interest in the outcome of the search

Word to the wise: Navigate that last strategy with caution. Donors who haven’t already given will likely want to wait and see what happens before they make their best gift. It’s important to let these prospects know that you plan to discuss a more meaningful gift in the future in order to avoid undermining your overarching goals.

Delay Your Capital Campaign’s Public Phase (If Possible)

Leadership transitions are more challenging to manage once you’re in the public phase of a capital campaign. By the time of the public launch, you’ve communicated funding priorities broadly and have secured the lion’s share of the support you’ll need to reach your goal. It may be difficult for a new leader to champion and promote a cause they had no opportunity to influence.

If, if at all possible, hold off on launching the public phase of your campaign until after your new leader is in place. This will allow:

  • Give your new leader time to become familiar with your organization and get to know your internal and external stakeholders
  • Add campaign priorities and initiatives that the incoming leader is passionate about
  • Position your new leader as a visionary and successful figure who is moving your organization forward

If you have launched your campaign publicly by the time your new leader is appointed, there are still ways to make it work. One way is to capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm of campaign events to introduce your new leader to constituents. Another is to identify areas within the campaign that align with the incoming leader’s passions and interests so they can emphasize those areas when speaking with constituents.

Use Leadership Transition To Invigorate Your Capital Campaign

Although many will find the leader’s departure bittersweet, there may be some who will view the transition as welcome news. Therefore, a leadership change might provide the opening you’ve been waiting for to re-engage these individuals and get them excited about your strategic direction

Even if your departing leader was universally liked and respected, introducing a fresh perspective and outlook can galvanize donors in surprising ways. For example, one Ohio university’s new president took the helm on July 1, 2022, and the University subsequently launched the public phase of its campaign in October. This University initially set a campaign goal of $80 million, which they’ve already reached.

Thanks to the excitement their new president has generated and her collaborative way of engaging the community, this University is well-positioned to blow past their goal and raise $100 million.

You can turn leadership transition into an opportunity to invigorate and energize your campaign. It may initially seem an insurmountable task. With the right strategies and a thoughtful approach, it’s possible to leverage organizational change for your capital campaign’s ultimate benefit. 

has a background in grant writing, grant and program management, and nonprofit administration.