Are comprehensive fundraising campaigns still effective?

A number of university advancement leaders have recently asked me about the continuing efficacy of comprehensive fundraising campaigns. They offer donor and volunteer fatigue and concerns about the “arms race” that emphasizes dollar goals over the impact of philanthropy as reasons why traditional campaigns have lost their relevance.

The data tell a different story. Our studies of leading public and private higher education institutions between 1980-2019 show that the compounded annual growth rates during campaigns are significantly higher than non-campaign periods as depicted in the chart below.

Universities Growth during campaign years Growth during non-campaign years
Private universities 7.3% 4%
Public universities 9.9% 4.2%

The fact remains that campaigns are the most effective means to achieve accelerated and sustained growth in private support for our institutions.

In fact, top-performing programs have reduced their intra-campaign periods and many remain in campaigns continuously.

That’s why the more objective question for us to ask is: Do our institutions (and advancement programs) have the discipline to sustain the urgency, excitement and momentum that effective campaigns create?

Critical factors that contribute to successful campaigns

A breakdown of what is required to achieve campaign success helps to inform leadership decision-making about campaigns. Through GG+A’s six decades of partnering with clients, we have identified several critical factors that contribute to successful campaigns that need to be fostered over time:

  • They require the sustained commitment of institutional leaders and internal stakeholders who can articulate an organization’s vision and are prepared to cultivate long-term relationships, recruit key volunteers, and solicit critical leadership gifts.
  • The most successful campaigns effectively deploy exemplar volunteer leaders who are ready to take leadership roles as advocates for the organization’s ambitions, as donors and as campaign volunteers. Organizations must work hard to ensure volunteers are engaged meaningfully over time and continuously groom others to assume volunteer roles in the future.
  • Sufficient pools of potential donors–beyond the tried and true supporters–are needed to meet the identified financial targets of the campaign as are the systems necessary to identify, qualify, manage, solicit, and steward these prospective donors.
  • Campaigns require experienced professional staff who are disciplined in building donor relationships at every major gift level.
  • Campaigns also require a continuing commitment to resource investment in fundraising programs and infrastructure, strategic communications, and engagement initiatives to ensure their ongoing success.

Campaigns should be undertaken with these critical factors in mind. There is no question that they require tremendous planning and focus to mobilize internal and external stakeholders around a common cause over time. Well-run campaigns stimulate all those involved from the recruitment and retention of motivated advancement staff to our academic partners whose ideas attract philanthropy to our volunteers and donors who are deeply invested in our institutions. As long as the needs of our universities remain great and compelling, campaigns will remain the single most effective means of generating resources to advance their missions.

Our current clients are engaged in fundraising initiatives with a total value of nearly $60 billion, with individual campaign or program goals ranging from $5 million to more than $7 billion. We would be more than happy to speak with you about your institution’s campaign plans and how we might assist in ensuring your success.


To discuss your campaign plans and strategies, please reach out to Pete at plasher@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Pete Lasher

Senior Vice President

Pete Lasher, Senior Vice President and Higher Education Practice Leader, brings more than 30 years of successful fundraising experience, including leadership of five separate billion-dollar capital campaigns at private and public institutions in the US. As GG+A’s higher education practice senior leader, he currently advises universities in North America and…