Building powerful relationships is the central tenet for creating a successful capital campaign. Engagement should be both “top-down” and “inside-out.” Targeting prospective donors at the top of the gift pyramid is a priority for most campaigns, while engaging insiders is often an overlooked strategy, or left for later in the campaign. And while major gift donors get most of the attention, it can only strengthen your campaign to invest in engaging those who are closest to the heart of the issues right away.

Capturing Everyone’s Interest

It is obvious why institutions place high value on first cultivating relationships with the largest prospective donors. Their involvement and support offer a new campaign a sense of legitimacy that is crucial for success. They also provide highly visible leaders who are invested in the campaign’s future. But because your insiders already have a strong familiarity with your organization, also involving them early will provide you with an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

Looking at the independent school space as example, getting those insiders engaged can be a challenge. Faculty and staff are already overworked, parents may not be major gift prospects, students are focused on other priorities, and alumni have no established culture of philanthropy.

In addition, the general perception is that they are already committed to the school and their resources are limited. But with a creative approach and targeted strategy, these challenges can be turned into opportunities.

Redefining the Engagement Paradigm

What would happen for the school that redefines the traditional engagement strategies and includes their internal community at the earliest stages of a campaign? Think about the powerful assets these insiders can offer! They are invested in the school’s future and will be the ones who benefit directly from the campaign.

  • They are best positioned to serve as advocates by telling the story of “why” the campaign is needed.
  • They can provide a first-hand introduction to grandparents, extended family members, colleagues, and friends.
  • Their gifts, while small, will enhance their sense of investment, and increase the number of donor/participants at this early phase of the campaign.

Connecting with the internal community at the earliest phase of the campaign requires a different approach and new tools. In addition to establishing a campaign name and identifying the goal, defining an inspirational theme that tells a compelling story is also important. In selecting and developing a theme, campaign leadership should ask:

  • “How does this theme capture the spirit of the school’s history, impact, or future?”
  • “Why will the internal community care about this campaign theme?”
  • “How can the theme be integrated into the everyday life of the school?”

Beyond the importance of drafting campaign plans and benchmarks is developing an engagement strategy that is aspirational and invites investment in a successful outcome. In building this strategy, campaign leadership should ask:

  • “How can we turn overworked faculty into inspirations for engagement?”
  • “How will we invite parents to leverage their connections to support their passion for their children’s success?”
  • “How can we cast students as the centerpiece of the story?”
  • “How does this theme provide a vision for the future?”

Pressing On: A Case Study of Crean Lutheran High School

Crean Lutheran High School (CLHS) is the third largest Lutheran high school in the United States. This ten-year-old school of 800 students has a culture that is unique for an institution so young. The internal community is committed to their mission, focused on their future, and motivated by continued measures of excellence that are notable for an institution that was so recently founded. Their capital campaign is intended to nearly double the usable square footage on campus and is part of the 25-year master plan. The campaign is seen as the next step in CLHS’s journey to provide a top-rated Lutheran high school in the region. What makes this plan stand out is that it has already been embraced by the entire school community rather than being viewed as a fundraising effort that is external to the school’s mission.

In order to leverage this pre-existing culture of engagement, campaign leadership selected a theme that is future focused and visionary. Building on a verse from Philippians 3:12 “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus made me His own,” the name of the campaign is Press On: The Campaign for Crean Lutheran. The campaign includes seven “press on” statements that reflect the mission and spirit of the school while also defining the future of the campus. The name, theme, and statements form the core of the school’s engagement strategy. Together with campaign leadership, the school’s leadership asked the internal community to consider “how can you press on to make it your own?”

It was also important to use the core message of the campaign when considering outreach to insiders. Because of the school’s strong commitment to its mission of Proclaiming Jesus Christ through Excellence in Education, the “it” in this question has a dual role – spiritually it is a reflection of the community’s desire to know and reflect Christ more in their lives; and operationally, it is a reflection of the promise offered by the new campus expansion. By connecting the campaign theme directly with the mission of the school, insiders had an immediate and clear understanding of the overall purpose of the campaign.

Throughout 2017, CLHS challenged expectations for a traditional engagement strategy by inviting members of the faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni to integrate the theme of “press on” into their everyday life. This increased awareness of, and excitement for, the campaign and resulted in a wide variety of unique expressions of the theme. Select examples include:

  • The sculpture class used the theme as inspiration for their sculpture of many hands reaching up to support the campaign, the school, and their mission. The sculpture is now being shown at the Irvine Fine Arts Center and will ultimately be displayed in the new art gallery when the campus expansion opens.
  • The Saints Dance Company and Praise Band worked together to choreograph a dance to the song “Press On” by the band Building 429. This was premiered at the fall gala, and reprised on campus for the students. It will be performed again during grandparents’ day and at other times throughout the campaign.
  • The athletic department will be holding a bench press competition with their strength and conditioning students and athletes.
  • The science department has incorporated lessons on the persistence required of inventors and scientists as they press on in their work of discovery.
  • The literature students are being asked to use the campaign theme as a prompt for a journaling exercise.
  • The theology department, student life groups, and faculty bible studies are all using the campaign theme as a basis for lessons and discussions.
  • The spring alumni newsletter will include samples of how some members are “pressing on” to introduce the campaign, and will invite all alumni to share how they are “pressing on” in life after CLHS.
Campaign-themed sculpture
Campaign-themed sculpture

These examples, and many others like them, are also being used during prospective major donor cultivation efforts to help illustrate the purpose and value of the campaign.

As CLHS has implemented this transformational approach to engagement, they have experienced significant successes during the silent phase of the campaign. They have consistently exceeded every benchmark, and have already raised more than 53% of goal with 550 donors, whose gifts range from $100 to $1 million.

Transformational Engagement

Although CLHS’s campaign theme is based on a Biblical verse, and their strong faith foundation is deeply imbued in their culture, this strategy can be transitioned easily for secular schools.  The key is defining a vibrant and engaging theme that will capture the spirit of the school.

  • Instead of a biblical verse, select a quote from a founder, community, or historical figure that inspires and is tied to the culture of the school.
  • Instead of a Chapel, try using the campaign theme as the inspiration for a noon rally or special assembly.
  • Instead of a Bible Study lesson, try using the campaign theme as the prompt for an inspirational talk led by a senior faculty member or well-respected member of the alumni.

As the culture of philanthropy is changing, building relationships with prospective donors, volunteers, and community members becomes increasingly difficult. Capital campaigns are challenged by multiple factors and increasingly limited resources. One way to overcome these challenges is to ensure that a capital campaign is integrated fully into everyday life for the institution’s internal constituents. As CLHS demonstrates, rather than being viewed as yet another demand on limited time and resources, with careful and creative strategies, the purpose and value of a campaign can be embedded into the culture of a school.

About the Authors

Julia Siebel is a Senior Director with CCS. She has more than two decades of experience in the nonprofit sector that has focused on empowering communities through effective action and capacity building. Her work spans the sectors of education, membership organizations, social services, and health care. She holds her Ph.D. in U.S. History and Women’s Studies from the University of Southern California.

Jacquie Antoun is the Senior Director of Development at Crean Lutheran High School where she has successfully built a culture of philanthropy. Under her direction, this ten-year-old school has launched its first capital campaign, organized an annual fund that consistently increases in size, and created an alumni relations program, all while maintaining a robust event schedule. Motivated by the school’s mission, her team is committed to ensuring the fiscal stability of the school for future generations.