In order for capital campaigns to be successful for independent and private schools, the board’s involvement must include achieving a clear understanding of the campaign goal and the case for support, establishing well-defined and articulated roles for the board and school leadership, and owning the campaign plan and timeline.

When it comes to the responsibilities of independent and private school board members, there is often uncertainty about what is expected of them beyond a financial contribution to the campaign. James Greenfield, long-time fundraising executive, addresses this in his book, Fundraising Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards: “Board members are the primary stewards of the nonprofit organization, ultimately responsible for securing adequate resources and overseeing the disposition of those resources. For this reason, a commitment to fundraising must begin with the Board.”

These words by Greenfield are likely to be well understood by most nonprofit board members, but what may not be as readily understood is what that “commitment to fundraising” looks like, and what is entailed when “securing adequate resources.” For independent schools, that commitment often means defining and participating in a capital campaign. For capital campaigns to be successful, the board’s involvement must include achieving a clear understanding of the campaign goal and the case for support, establishing well-defined and articulated roles for the board and school leadership, and owning the campaign plan and timeline. Each piece is essential for a board if it hopes to support an effective campaign.

The Value of a Planning Study

It is no secret that board generosity is critical to the success of a school’s capital campaign, but all too often, campaigns struggle to get off the ground or stall because board members don’t understand or embrace the important aspects of a campaign beyond their own financial commitment. There is often uncertainty surrounding how best to support the Head of School and the advancement team. Of course, for any campaign to be truly successful, one hundred percent commitment from the board and a willingness to consider stretch gifts are vital, but there are other elements that are equally important in ensuring a campaign’s success over time.

No matter what your campaign is aiming to accomplish, it is critically important that a board engages with school leadership in a planning or feasibility study. Nothing will derail a campaign faster than if there’s a lack of understanding, trust, or confidence in the campaign goal and the underlying composition of the gift pyramid. While the goal can (and should) be bold and aspirational, the board needs to understand and participate in a comprehensive, thoughtful process of determining the goal and the structure of the gift pyramid that will define the effort to achieve the goal.

Each board member should participate in the feasibility study or in a conversation that offers feedback on the case elements, as well as some indication of the level of support for the campaign. A study helps the board understand the donor base—both its capacity and inclination—and aims to instill confidence in a campaign goal that is realistic and attainable. Without this confidence, committing to the work involved in cultivating, soliciting, and closing gifts will be more difficult and will run the risk of a campaign that will stall or, even worse, fail.

One element of the planning study that can be especially informative for board members in structuring the gift pyramid is predictive modeling. Specifically, understanding the implications of an RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary) analysis of a donor base that segments the base into categories that give a clear sense of capacity to give and affinity toward the institution. This type of analysis and the information it yields can be invaluable to board members because it can help them understand how an attainable campaign goal is established and, perhaps more importantly, the path to reaching that goal.

Understanding the Mission’s Narrative

One of the most important aspects of involving board members in a planning study is familiarizing them with the campaign’s case elements. Campaigns are often bogged down when there is a lack of clarity or shared understanding of the important case elements. The board’s understanding needs to move beyond a mere description of the various elements. For example, it is not enough to simply know that endowment for financial aid is part of the campaign; board members should have anecdotal examples of the power of the financial aid program in supporting the mission of the school.

The board should be able to offer compelling, mission-appropriate examples of students who have enriched the life of the school because of the opportunity created by financial aid. It is more effective to share a specific vision for how growing this endowment will enhance the school and support the mission going forward. While this may seem daunting, the commitment to learning these stories and sharing them with the donor community is incredibly powerful. While it’s wonderful to host or to attend an event, it is much more compelling if board members can speak with enthusiasm, specificity, and conviction about the impact of the gifts on the various case elements.

Seeing the Road Ahead

Understanding both the planning and case elements of the campaign will also help provide a clear roadmap for reaching the campaign goal. Not having a clear, collectively understood plan to raise the money can be problematic. The board plays a critical role in helping to shape this plan by establishing leadership roles and assigning specific trustees to play those roles. It is important to choose campaign chairs who will be comfortable soliciting gifts and who will be able to devote time to spend with potential donors. Each board member needs to attend or host events and cultivate and steward donors. Additionally, it is always a good idea for board members to pay attention to how campaign plans are designed or carried out by peer or aspirant peer schools.

The board needs to work alongside the Head of School and advancement staff to establish and, ultimately, approve the campaign plan. But, more importantly, the entire board needs to understand the plan and have the leadership in place to adhere to the plan. Given the demands on the Head and the unforeseen issues that may consume his or her time, the board needs to support the Head by working closely with the advancement team to ensure that the plan is carefully created, communicated, and executed by each member. When boards commit to knowing the plan and having the discipline to follow it, they greatly increase the likelihood that the campaign will be a success. Additionally, when board members are deeply familiar with the institution’s plan, it not only improves their ability to ask but can also inspire them when it comes to their own gift.

Part of this plan is also developing a clear, intentional timeline. All campaigns go through peaks and valleys— times of great momentum and lulls—so understanding the campaign timeline, particularly when asking for leadership gifts, will mean that the campaign stays on course. Board members need to be active partners in building the donor pipeline by opening doors and cultivating potential donors, but it is a willingness to ask those donors to join them in support of the campaign that will ensure steady progress and ultimate success.

Campaigns can be intimidating in both scale and scope, but success is attainable when a board understands its role beyond its own financial generosity. Being well-organized, committed to the goal, well-versed in the case elements, and disciplined in following a plan will go a long way in keeping a board unified and cohesive as it fulfills its responsibility “to secure adequate resources” and realize campaign success.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.