The New Normal in Higher Education: Endless Fundraising Campaigns

photo:  niroworld/shutterstock

photo:  niroworld/shutterstock

Remember when capital campaigns were all about new buildings and actually had end dates? Well, those days are over, according to a new survey of nearly 600 fundraising professionals, mostly in higher education.

Instead, campaign fundraising has become an endeavor that is either ongoing or about to be initiated, said more than 80 percent of survey respondents, leaving fundraisers perpetually in campaign mode.

Campaigns are far more likely than they once were to raise money for goals other than buildings, wrapping in organization-wide goals for annual donations, planned gifts from donors’ estates, and other contributions, the survey found. Institutions’ capital needs, respondents said, have dropped in comparison to campaign goals for endowment and current operations.

“We see significantly more current-use funds in campaigns, both in the institution’s need for immediate support and the growing interest among donors to see the effect of their philanthropy today,” said Brian Gawor, vice president of research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, the fundraising consulting firm that conducted the survey.

In addition to the 598 respondents, who had spent an average of 10 years in the fundraising profession, the study was based on campaign data compiled by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and a review of $500 million-plus capital campaigns at 20 colleges.

Capital campaigns are getting longer, with a median length of 95 months, according to the survey, despite a high number of fundraisers who said they should be shorter, five years or 60 months on average.

Increasing fundraising goals are driving campaign longevity, with a median goal of $1 billion for doctoral institutions, CASE has reported.

Among other findings from the survey:

  • Fundraising budgets during a capital campaign increase by an average of 65 percent, with larger institutions upping their budgets by 100 percent or more.
  • Asked what they would do in a campaign if their financial resources were unlimited, respondents said they would increase their fundraising staff, invest in staff training, hire more development officers to meet with donors, bring in specialists such as planned-giving consultants, conduct more research on donors, put resources into print and social media, educate the public, and add a new relationship management system to aid their interactions with supporters.
  • Given a list of things to improve in their campaigns, respondents’ top four choices were engaging younger donors, providing better stewardship for donors, improving volunteer participation, and holding small fundraising drives for limited needs.
  • While meeting their dollar target was the most oft-cited campaign goal, survey respondents also highly ranked the importance of providing a good experience to donors and making it easy for people to give to a campaign. Another oft-cited campaign goal was learning more about donors’ preferences and passions, partly to help set the stage for the next campaign.
  • Some respondents said they were concerned about donors growing tired of seemingly endless campaigns, while others expressed worry about their ability to attract younger donors who seem less excited by colleges and universities than other charitable causes.

“Campaigns aren’t just booking big numbers,” said Gawor. “They’re about listening to donors and making them part of the conversation.”

A full copy of the survey is available online at