The nano-campaign playbook: Strategies for swift, focused gifts projects

Do you have ambitious campaign aspirations but not much experience or institutional confidence? Has Mr. Chips just announced his retirement? Is this year’s senior class particularly grateful? Is it too early for a campaign, but you know there are a few prospects who “know the many ways of saying thank you?” If you answered in the affirmative, then a “nano-campaign” could be a good fit.

What’s a nano-campaign? Before you Google it, know that it’s not a term in the AFP glossary but rather a term for the purpose of this essay. It’s any advancement endeavor that doesn’t rise to the occasion of a full comprehensive campaign with a campaign cabinet, a feasibility study, and five-year timetable. It’s any small and targeted gift project built around either one particular audience or one particular funding objective. I am not calling it a “special gift project” because I want to emphasize that it requires the same components of a true capital campaign.

Examples of nano-campaigns include reunion class gifts, small capital projects, and focused endowment drives. If you’ve worked in development, you’ve probably run one. The basic outline that follows will drive success in almost any situation. The key thing to remember is that, because a nano-campaign is a campaign, it requires the same foundational elements of a fully-articulated campaign, including a strong case, a sound plan, volunteer leadership, and a viable prospect pool.

Sound familiar? Again, the mechanics are the same as a more complex campaign. Here’s how the project unfolds:

1) The case: The school or the development team recognizes either a pressing need (e.g., resurfacing a turf field, ramping up DEI programming, initiating 1:1 technology in the lower school) or an opportunity (e.g., the reunion of a historically generous class, the retirement of a popular teacher) that calls for fundraising. Develop a succinct case statement—if it exceeds a page, you have lost your audience. Focus on why this case matters and how it will transform an element of school life…not the technical specifications of the turf field or tablet device. Ask whether this need intersects with donors’ interests? If not, find a more relevant project.

2) The plan and timetable: The advancement team ties the case to a preliminary/working financial goal based on your knowledge of those donors and what should be reasonable request amounts (perhaps double or triple an annual gift). Financial goals should be embedded within a timetable that is measured in weeks or months, not years.

3) Leadership: The advancement team recruits a capable volunteer. In the case of a nano-campaign, don’t weigh the effort down with an elaborate committee—one or two energetic volunteers can deliver. Be sure to share the plan and a simple job description with the volunteer. Test your case with your volunteer—is it compelling? Can she stand behind it with confidence? If so, your case is finalized, and it is time to partner with your communications team for light graphic design (or homegrown video, if you dare). If you wish to be swift (and you do), this isn’t the time for an outside print job and five proofs.

4a) Prospects: The advancement team identifies the broad audience that will be moved by the effort. (e.g., lower school parents, young alumni, performing arts devotees).

4b) Leadership Prospects: The advancement team and volunteer leadership identify those financial prospects who will make the project successful. Much as there are rules that govern science and nature, there are rules that govern campaign work: You know that 80% to 95% of the funds raised will come from 5% to 10% of the donors. Identify those prospects—the alumni, parents, and friends—with the capacity and inclination to be “the 10%.”

4c) Get to work: Your volunteer now begins to contact those lead prospects. It’s a small and qualified group and the request is significant but not unwieldy; accordingly, the outreach should be quick. Because the request amounts are appropriately modest, you can present the case and make the request at the same moment.

5) Pause, tabulate: Close the lead prospects and tally the gifts. With the information provided by asking those with the greatest capacity, you may set the goal. No, you may not set a goal that is double what’s in hand. Remember that you cherry-picked the best prospects. Make your goal perhaps 20% more than what has already been committed.

6) Take it “public:” Invite the broader population to participate. If your volunteer remains motivated, she may reach out to second tier prospects. If community morale will benefit from participation, you might enlist additional volunteer support to broaden the donor base.

7) Communicate: Share the progress of the effort to all known prospects and existing donors (it’s never too early for stewardship). Celebrate the accomplishment, the donors who stood behind it, and the volunteers who made it all happen.

You might notice that specific dollar amounts are not referenced. That’s situational. For some schools, a $10,000 goal is lofty, for a few, a seven-figure project can be achieved in weeks.

When is the right time for a nano-campaign? There are many good times; here are a few:

  • Institutional transition: Are you losing a beloved staff member? Let your community express affection and affirm her legacy through financial support.
  • Constituent transition: the seniors are graduating, a particularly generous class is celebrating a reunion.
  • An urgent need: If you have a significant and pressing opportunity, your champions will emerge and rise to the occasion. Many of us witnessed this with COVID relief funds.
  • Training camp: Nano-campaigns are an excellent warm-up for grander plans. They provide training and instill confidence in staff and volunteers. They demonstrate in a positive light the swift impact advancement may bring. They allow your board to appreciate the fundamentals of development work.

When’s the wrong time for a nano-campaign:

  • When there are more pressing priorities from which philanthropic resources could be siphoned;
  • When morale is low;
  • When volunteers or donors aren’t available;
  • When it’s an urgent need resulting from poor school governance or management (this is not the same as a newfound opportunity, and most donors don’t like losing causes).

In the past, I have recruited the parents of seniors and told them earnestly, “The senior gift project is historically our most successful project to scale.” This statement is true because the effort is swift, lucrative, and makes everyone feel good. This is no accident…because it follows the plan above. It is the quintessential nano-campaign, and it succeeds.


If you need assistance developing a strategy for your nano-campaign—or your macro-campaign—contact Shelby at slamar@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Shelby LaMar

Vice President

Shelby LaMar, Consulting Vice President, serves clients within our independent school practice area. He has more than 20 years of experience within this sector, including managing capital campaigns, annual funds, and advancement services, as well as communications and marketing development, including proposal writing, and case statement development. Since 2009, Shelby…