Endowment Funds Go on Forever But an Endowment Campaign Should Not

There comes a time in an endowment campaign when the initial urgency of the need inherent in the campaign’s case for support begins to fade. The excitement of the kickoff, anticipation of success as the personal solicitations begin, the first promising results—can go for naught if the campaign goes on too long. As an organization’s endowment campaign begins to extend well into its second year of actual solicitation activity, volunteers begin to grow tired and donors will not believe there is a real and immediate need for their money. Invariably, campaigns of this type slow, stall, and sometimes fail because the management and implementation of the campaign plan were not well organized. The key to successfully completing an endowment campaign on or before its established and public deadline is, in a word, organization.

How Is A Successful Endowment Campaign Organized?

Because an endowment campaign is a special, widely-spaced occurrence, a non-profit organization must be certain its leadership fully understands the process of raising endowment funds, knows how such a campaign effort fits into their overall development plan and ensures the organization and resources are in place to carry it out.

An endowment campaign is a fund-raising campaign that raises money for an organization to invest rather than spend. The proceeds from an endowment campaign are placed in an endowment fund, the income from which is used by the organization to meet ongoing expenses, cover capital expenditures, or fund special projects and programs.

An organization which undertakes an endowment campaign does so in order to lessen its need either to raise money each year to cover any operational deficit—the difference between earned income and expenses—or to raise money for occasional extraordinary expenses. Income earned on money placed in an endowment fund is restricted to the purpose of that fund, and the fund is not easily invaded. Usually, an organization’s bylaws make it hard, if not impossible, for the organization to spend endowment.

Because of the special nature of endowment funds, an organization should undertake an endowment campaign only when:

  1. The organization is old enough to have exhibited sufficient financial stability for donors to feel comfortable giving to endowment which will yield income in perpetuity. Endowment is for eternity, and before beginning an endowment campaign, an organization needs to be well-enough established to anticipate a long life; an organization with a history is more likely to look like an organization with a future.
  2. The organization anticipates and expects that in the short term it can cover any operational deficit through an annual campaign and other gifts and grants. It simply is not good business to expend limited resources on an endowment campaign when those resources may be desperately needed to raise money to offset an operational deficit. Another argument for having a strong annual campaign in place before attempting to raise money for endowment is that a successful annual campaign program aids endowment fund-raising efforts by creating a cadre of volunteers and a proven donor base.
  3. The organization has the desire, resources, and opportunity to manage a successful endowment campaign for a substantial amount of money. Since the money being raised in an endowment campaign is to be invested for future income, the goal should never be small. The effort required for an endowment campaign is too great to justify a result that when invested will yield only a few thousand dollars of yearly income.

Endowment campaigns ought to be rare creatures. They probably should have a separation of at least five or seven years between them. Special anniversary years of an organization’s founding—the 10th, 25th, 50th,—are often used to whip up interest, but an endowment campaign is not something that should be scheduled as regularly as every five years. You have to be careful about arbitrarily deciding that it’s time to go out and make another pass at raising endowment. Like capital campaigns, endowment campaigns rely heavily upon large gifts from a few donors. Run them too close together, and you may find that your donor base is still meeting its last pledge. That does not bode well for the success of new requests.

An Endowment Campaign Must Be A Large-Giver Campaign

While an annual campaign is a broad-based effort relying on smaller gifts from a great number of donors to achieve its goal, an endowment campaign expects a much smaller number of donors to make very large gifts. In an endowment campaign you should expect to get a third or more of the goal from 10 or 15 donors. The second third or more would then come from an additional 75 to 100 donors, and the remainder in smaller gifts from whatever other donor base you have targeted for the campaign. In short, an endowment campaign must be a large-giver campaign.

All too often, organizations that have decided on an endowment campaign begin with the idea of making it a broad-based appeal. You can’t raise a million dollars by targeting as your primary donors those who have the capability to give $100 or even $1,000. You would have to achieve 10,000 of the former or 1,000 of the latter. Rather, you need to begin by targeting prospects who can give at least $50,000—and remember, a number of those prospects may give only $5,000, or $10,000, or $20,000, instead of the $50,000 you suggested. Especially daunting is fund-raising’s “rule-of-thumb” prospect to donor ratio. You usually need to identify at least three viable prospects for each contribution you desire at the required contribution level.

Ask Small And You Get Small

At the Cleveland Orchestra, I once disagreed with the volunteer leadership of a $15 million endowment campaign about the size of gifts we should be seeking. The idea was put forth that we raise $5 million by enticing people to endow each of the 2,000 seats in our concert hall. That worked out to $2,500 per donor. I strenuously objected to this, literally risking my job. My reasoning was simple: We would not succeed in finding 2,000 donors at $2,500 each. Experience had shown me that the base of donors able and willing to give that much wasn’t large enough. I also feared that the campaign committee and solicitors would get used to the idea of asking small, and the campaign would lose its steam.

My argument held, and the volunteer leadership agreed not to put so much of the campaign effort into an idea that past experience showed could not succeed without damaging other areas of the drive. In our effort to find 2,000 donors willing and able to make gifts of $2,500 we would have included donors we knew to be capable of making far larger gifts. These would be donors we would need to solicit for other, larger-gift divisions of the campaign. It is never a good idea to ask for two separate gifts for the same campaign. Donors will often make the decision to give either one or the other, and the option they pick can well be the lower.

Leadership Wants To Be With A Winner

Because of the amount of money being raised and the size of the gifts being sought, volunteer leadership and solicitors in an endowment campaign will be drawn more heavily from the upper echelons of the community’s business and civic leaders. This fact, combined with the infrequency of endowment campaigns, gives them a far higher visibility than annual campaigns. An annual campaign which comes up a little short can often be glossed over and made up the following year. An endowment campaign which fails to make its goal—especially if that shortfall is substantial—invites questions about an organization’s vitality, management, and potential for longevity. It also reflects badly on the campaign’s highly visible volunteer leadership. People do not volunteer to lead fund-raising campaigns in order to fail publicly. An organization that begins an endowment campaign with a goal that does not match the capability of prospects to give, dooms that campaign to failure, and organizations that experience a highly visible failure find it harder to recruit campaign leaders and solicitors for future efforts.

How Long Should An Endowment Campaign Take?

Endowment campaigns are of longer duration than annual campaigns. It takes more time to make the contacts and cultivate them, and it usually takes longer for donors to decide to give larger sums of money. My experience has been that, from kickoff to finish—no matter what the goal—an endowment campaign will last from 12 to 16 months. It is possible to wrap up things sooner, but the process should not be stretched much beyond a year and a quarter. An endowment campaign that lasts longer runs the risk of extending over two annual campaigns, and a seemingly endless endowment campaign can damage the enthusiasm of an organization’s volunteer base and its credibility with donors.

“Named” Gift Opportunities

Many times endowment campaigns will be general in nature, seeking donations which will provide income to non-profit organizations for support of their operations. However, you can still create and offer commemorative naming opportunities because they are symbolic in nature. Of the myriad programs and services conducted by an organization as part of its regular annual operation, many can be “packaged” and related to donors’ gifts. Other campaigns are for the purpose of endowing a specific project, program, etc., and as such offer explicit naming opportunities. As membership categories in an annual campaign work to suggest contribution levels, so do naming opportunities for endowment and capital campaigns. Naming faculty chairs, artistic positions, medical departments, buildings, and so on allows an organization to establish a tangible reward for a major contribution. This is especially bolstering to solicitors. It gives them something to “sell.” The reason a donor gives should be to benefit the organization, but a naming opportunity at a university, such as the Joseph & Louise Smith Professor of Economics Chair, can be a great incentive for giving.

However, naming opportunities do not always have to be taken as absolute literal. It is not necessary for the annual income from a particular endowment to equal the annual actual expense relating to the operation of the event, program or position endowed. Your suggested contribution amounts for certain named gift opportunities should be based upon the potential giving capability of your prospective donors. However, if the maximum potential contribution is not at an amount reasonably appropriate to the endowment opportunity, an organization should not conduct a “fire sale” and give the opportunity away.

An Unanticipated Obstacle To An Endowment Campaign

Amazingly, one of the biggest challenges for endowment campaigns seems to be the creation of a suitable printed piece that presents the argument for the campaign. I have seen endowment campaigns actually languish and die because the organization could not come to agreement over design, number of pages, color, and phraseology. I believe this kind of impasse occurs more with endowment than annual campaigns because an endowment campaign is a very special event. Because it is not repeated every year, the previous year’s material isn’t there to serve as a model in developing a new brochure. Also the nature of an endowment sometimes engenders among campaign leadership and volunteers an inordinately great fear of not being adequately prepared to ensure success.

Campaign management should make decisions about the brochure and other similar materials early on and stick to those decisions. Documents and strategy should not be continually revised in an attempt to obtain the complete agreement of everyone involved on each and every point. Consensus is important to achieve in fund-raising, but consensus does not mean you give 20 members of a campaign committee veto power over the color, size of type, or choice of words used in printed support material.

What I am saying about endowment campaigns also applies to capital campaigns, but there is one big difference. Endowment money raised is going to be invested in order to produce future income to fund future, not fully defined, endeavors. Capital campaigns are for a closely defined and tangible purpose. Campaign leadership and volunteer solicitors know exactly where the money is going. They can even show pictures of it.

Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome your comments and suggestions: tony@raise-funds.com

Note: My article Fitting Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting Campaigns Into Your Organization’s Plans and Making Them “Sing” suggests how and when an endowment campaign functions within an organization’s overall development plan.

In addition I recommend my following three articles also found on this website:

  1. Making Your Endowment Funds Work for Your Organization
  2. Setting an Endowment Campaign Goal
  3. How Much endowment Is “Right” for Our Organization?

Additional resources are available on this website relating to endowment campaigns:

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2 responses to “Endowment Funds Go on Forever But an Endowment Campaign Should Not”

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  1. This is really clear and useful. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Jennie Winton, Mission Minded

  2. Amy Kuchler says:

    I found this really helpful. Thank you for putting sensible fundraising advice on the web. Sincerely appreciated after all the links I’ve seen to sell candy and other gizmos. :-( Thank you. This was especially helpful because it is about something so specfic (how endowment campaigns should be conducted). Really terrific. Thanks!

    Amy