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Capital campaigns grow in frequency and duration

Smaller organizations also embracing such efforts

In the beginning, the capital campaign was a rare and special creature.

It was a momentous fund-raising endeavor for major construction projects: new hospital wings, new college research laboratories, new church roofs. It was undertaken infrequently, the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime appeal. It asked its supporters for an exceptional one-time gift.

What a quaint notion that’s become.

A common lament among fund-raising professionals, nonprofit board members, and wealthy donors is that capital campaigns have become constant. Once noteworthy, these intensive multiyear efforts — which raise money through methods including phone banks, direct mail, and one-on-one conversations with wealthy individuals — are now run-of-the-mill. Some are virtually overlapping, with organizations quietly preparing for another campaign before ending the previous one.

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Yet such campaigns are growing in length, ambition, and frequency for an uncomplicated reason: They are highly effective.

“We raise more money when we do them. It’s that simple,” said Scott Nichols, senior vice president for development and alumni relations at Boston University, which launched its first-ever capital campaign — with a $1 billion goal — in 2012. “People respond to specific deadlines and specific targets.”

Fueled by the improved economy, competitive pressure, and relentless demand for resources, capital campaigns are also increasingly common at smaller organizations, including ones with little traditional “capital,” such as buildings.

And they’re lasting longer, “to the point where some of us are quite concerned,” said Nichols. “You can’t do these things eternally or you end up with donor fatigue and volunteer fatigue, so taking a break is very advisable.”

“The joke in fund-raising is you’re in a campaign, you’re celebrating wrapping up a campaign, or you’re planning for your next campaign,” said Mary Beth Martin, senior managing director of Changing Our World, a national fund-raising consulting firm with an office in Boston. “That’s what we say all the time because it is pretty much a cycle now.”

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Nichols previously worked in fund-raising at Harvard University, a place that he jests “started its first campaign in 1635 and seems to have never stopped.”

Capital campaigns can also have hidden costs, since the new facilities they pay for are often expensive to operate.

The most aggressive campaigns are conducted at hospitals and universities, which insist that to remain competitive, they must continually add amenities, from specialized medical technologies to luxury athletic facilities to Ritz-Carlton-like dorms. The multiple gleaming buildings under construction in Boston’s Longwood Medical area are evidence of that.

This arms race of sorts for ultra-modern campuses — whether for university students or hospital patients — has led to increasingly ambitious fund-raising goals.

Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, completed a $1.5 billion capital campaign in 2012, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is hoping to raise $1 billion. Likewise, mega-campaigns are underway at Harvard ($6.5 billion, making it the most audacious fund-raiser in the history of higher education) and Boston College ($1.5 billion, up from the $400 million goal of its previous campaign).

Competitive fund-raising exists even at the secondary school level. Consider Xaverian Brothers High School, an all-boys Catholic prep school in Westwood, which completed a $12.1 million capital campaign in 2004, mostly for a new library and technology center.

Last year, Xaverian Brothers launched another campaign, this time for $20 million, to help pay for expanded academic and athletic space, more scholarships, and a new division for seventh and eighth graders, among other initiatives.

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“All our peer schools have launched some form of middle school, and some have even gone down to sixth grade,” said Alec Bleday, director of the Fund for Xaverian, the school’s annual giving program, “so this is certainly to stay competitive and keep up with local trends in education.”

Traditionally, capital campaigns funded brick-and-mortar projects, such as buying or renovating facilities, but these days, some have nothing do with construction.

“I’m doing one myself right now,” said Bob Giannino, chief executive of uAspire, a Boston nonprofit that helps students afford college and that is in the midst of what it’s calling a “growth capital campaign” that so far has raised $9 million of its $15 million goal.

“We’re not building any walls,” Giannino explained, “but we’re saying we have an ambitious desire to expand our impact as an organization,” including by bringing uAspire’s programs to other cities.

Laura MacDonald, president of the Benefactor Group, an Ohio-based fund-raising consulting firm whose clients include Lasell College in Newton, said she’s seen a “significant increase in inquiries” by organizations weighing whether to embark on campaigns.

Another factor in capital campaign fever is the recovering economy. Many organizations put their money-raising efforts on hiatus after the 2008 financial downturn and only recently renewed them, releasing a fund-raising backlog of sorts.

“We’re seeing a lot of organizations that deferred their capital campaign aspirations during the Great Recession and have now put their houses back in order,” said MacDonald.

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But ceaseless fund-raising risks turning off donors.

“We don’t want to create donor fatigue by always being out asking for major gifts,” said Martin, of the fund-raising firm Changing Our World. “You can’t be repeatedly coming back to someone within a really short window and saying, ‘OK, you gave $100,000 a few years ago, but can you give $100,000 again this year?’ You’ve got to give them time to regroup.”

Northeastern University built in such a regrouping period before launching its current $1 billion capital campaign in 2008. It did that, according to Joseph Donnelly, the school’s vice president for advancement, following complaints by donors after its previous campaign, which ended in 2005 and raised $200 million.

“One of the things we heard at the end of that campaign was that Northeastern had been campaigning ... basically nonstop since the 1970s,” Donnelly said, “and donors were tired of Northeastern coming to them.”

The school spent the interim years cultivating new donors to expand its philanthropic base.

Fund-raising exhaustion is also possible among nonprofit board members, especially those who sit on multiple boards, since they’re typically expected to make hefty contributions to capital campaigns.

Some board members also caution that capital campaigns can result in increased operating costs due to the added expense of newer facilities.

State Street Bank’s chief marketing officer, Hannah Grove, learned that lesson when she co-chaired the recent capital campaign by Women’s Lunch Place, which raised $3.2 million for a renovation and expansion. The upgrade enables the Newbury Street day shelter to serve more guests, she said, but the bigger space led to increased rent and utilities.

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Grove used an automobile metaphor to make her point: “All of a sudden you go from having somewhat of an old jalopy, an old car with tons of mileage that’s limping along, to having a new car that can do so many incredible things, but you need to think about the care and feeding of that car required to keep it moving.”


Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.