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April 21

State of Capital Campaigns: Internet Giving & Micro-Philanthropy


Across the country, capital campaigns only seem to be getting bigger. But what if you could raise more for your school by going smaller?

Capital campaigns are by nature massive projects that require huge amounts of effort, funding, and communication for what is commonly a 5 to 10-year project.

While that is, of course, exhausting, the result seems to justify all the work. 

Just look at all the amounts being raised in this Inside Higher Ed capital campaign database

There are numerous campaigns raising billions of dollars.

That’s more money than a lot of universities have ever seen, but still the number of dollars raised keeps going up each year.

Recently, Caylor Solutions was brought in to help on the marketing side of Rose-Hulman’s Mission Driven Campaign where the Institute was able to raise $250 million. 

As a result, Rose-Hulman is able to build a new academic building, boost their endowed scholarships, and cover some miscellaneous capital needs around campus.

While $250 million is a large amount of money to raise, Steve Brady, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, believes capital campaigns should get smaller.

When Steve joined us on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, he explained why he believes this is a better strategy for most colleges and universities and how to get started.

The Impact of the Internet

When we talk about the ever-growing size of modern capital campaigns, we can’t ignore the role the Internet has played in how fundraising is done. 

Steve explains how the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse.

So the current number of 501 (c) 3’s out there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.6 million. Something like 90% of them are new as of 1950. Just about every nonprofit out there has been in existence for a relatively short amount of time, compared to your traditional churches and many cultural organizations in higher education who’ve been around for hundreds of years. 

The internet, in my opinion, has really done a lot to allow this micro-philanthropy where people can get very specific with the causes they want to impact. They can direct their dollars in a way that they couldn’t pre-Internet. 

Most of these new nonprofits can’t afford to do advertisements in a way to get to a general audience. But between the Internet and social media, there is an ability to get in front of people in a way that we just couldn’t before. So it’s great from a smaller nonprofits perspective, because it has lowered the cost of entry. But at the same time, it has increased competition.

Now, I’m competing with 1.6 million other nonprofits out there who have compelling cases, their reasons to be supported. And my creativity has to be better than theirs in a way that engages and attracts prospects, that I think pre-Internet, we didn’t really have that kind of competition.

Differentiating yourself through compelling content and a careful messaging strategy has never been more important.


Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of schools who try to differentiate themselves on how big their capital campaign can be rather than who they are and what they offer.

The Importance of Stewardship

The Internet isn’t going anywhere, which means the amount of Internet-driven competition is bound to continue rising. 

So how can you compete in this kind of market?

Among other things, stewardship is going to become more important as competition for new donors rises.

Finding $500 gift donors is one thing but trying to find those major gifts at the $25,000, $50,000, $1,000,000, or more level is getting more and more competitive. 

One of the things that we’re trying to do at Rose-Hulman is [improving our stewardship]. There’s an old adage that it’s easier and more cost effective to keep a customer than it is to find a new customer. That’s the business saying, but we’re trying to recognize that particularly from a stewardship perspective.  

If we can get even a gift of obligation from an alumnus, can we steward that gift? Can we thank that donor more creatively and more personally, in a way that makes them a repeat donor? 

It’s important to realize that not everyone gives out of a passion for the project. 

Sometimes they give simply because they were asked and they felt an obligation to give due to the relationship they have with you. 

But even then, how can you steward the gift so that you can move the donor toward a more robust gift – toward something they really care about? 

That’s the power of stewarding gifts rather than facing the massive competition to find new gifts.

The Case for Mini Capital Campaigns 

Of course, one of the most interesting ideas Steve talked about on the episode was this idea of “mini-campaigns.” 

I think it was compelling and something every advancement team should think seriously about. 

The average tenure of a college president is shrinking. I think it’s somewhere around 6-and-a-half years now. As recently as four or five years ago, it was closer to eight years. Presidents are transitioning quicker. 

If you think of your average silent phase being somewhere between three and four years, by the time the president has figured out what their priorities are, they’re launching the silent phase—but then they’re also transitioning on to the next school. 

I’ve worked with a number of wonderful presidents throughout my career. A number of these wonderful presidents come in and say, “Well, I certainly understand why so-and-so thought this was the priority. But now I’m kind of married to this, and I need to finish this.” Oftentimes, it’s been right after the launch of the campaign, and we’re having to continue to finish that campaign. 

With a more mini-campaign that has a shorter duration of maybe just two years, we can get in, accomplish a goal, and then get out and transition that donor to the next project. 

As we look at our donors, we can see that this group of donors is passionate about this project, maybe it’s athletics [or it]might be scholarships. That means we don’t need to necessarily wait until one mini-campaign is over before we launch the next. I think we can layer these campaigns on. 

The idea of smaller capital campaigns allows you to go bigger.

By lowering the fundraising goal and limiting the scope of your capital campaigns, you’re actually giving yourself room to reach more donors who may have other passions.

Rather than one, massive campaign for everyone, you could think of launching smaller campaigns that have appeal for a more selective group of 1,000 donors or so. 

With mini-campaigns, you can avoid the highly probable disruption of a presidential transition while reaching out to a broader spectrum of donors.

Certainly a strategy worth considering as the Internet continues to drive us towards more granularization in segmenting donors and their passions.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Steve Brady to get even more insights into:

  • The state of capital campaigns
  • How theInternet has changed fundraising
  • The benefits of mini campaigns
  • Finding small opportunities to thank donors

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 Featured image via rose-hulman.edu

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