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Do Church Capital Campaigns Still Work?

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by Greg Gibbs

It can be a tough conversation sometimes when encouraging churches to consider a capital campaign. There are opinions, experiences, and even folklore that surrounds this practice in the context of the church. If you are a church leader, you have probably heard (or thought) them all at one time or another. And if you are a church attender, you may have a unique set of experiences that inform your perspective. In my travels, I still hear these concerns on a regular basis:

  • Capital campaigns cause church splits.
  • Capital campaigns will drain the giving to the operating budget.
  • Capital campaigns will fail unless the economic conditions are ideal.

I’m sure these ideas are rooted in some reality. People have experienced the downside to this kind of initiative. But those unwanted results are the exception and not the rule in my experience of coaching nearly 200 campaigns. And yet, I respect the questions. And I honor people’s painful concerns about something negative happening at the church they love.

After the last few years of chaos in culture and in the church, some are still wondering:

Do campaigns still work? Is there a better way?

A few years ago, I wrote about the two major changes I saw in campaigns after the last national event – the 2008-2009 economic downturn. The first was that churches still using a pledge campaign format (most of them) were increasingly apt to do so in a shorter time span. For decades a vast majority of churches used the 3-year campaign model. With each passing year since then, the 2-year window has increased in popularity.

The second is that the traditional mantra of church campaign consultants (again, for decades) is that a church would raise 2-3 times their annual income in capital pledges. This also drastically diminished over the last 15 years. I think it is unfair to churches for consultants to still be using those back-of-the-napkin predictions. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but churches tend to raise half of what they used to.

Some brand-new research has caught my attention. A consulting group called Capital Campaign Pro (focused primarily on the nonprofit space) did a study of how people are responding to capital campaigns now. Not 20 years ago (when I started doing these), not after 2008, but over the last few years including the pandemic period.

The fascinating part of these results was that few of these organizations saw a need to slow down or pause during the last few years. Donors tend to respond very well (and sometimes even more generously) in times of crisis. The reasons for this can be explored in another article. Additionally, the respondents said that their campaigns were overwhelmingly successful and positive for their mission.

Consider these other results and how they may apply to the responses of givers in our churches to a capital fundraising initiative:

  • 79% of respondents said that their operating fund increased or stayed the same during the campaign.
  • An additional 14% (on average) was raised when organizations did a campaign readiness assessment.
  • 62% of the campaigns were prompted by Strategic Planning.
  • 72% of participating organizations said that one of the biggest benefits of doing a campaign is strengthened relationships with major donors.

Finding this research made the team at Auxano Generosity bubble with excitement.

For years, our church clients have been ecstatic about the helpfulness of the Campaign Readiness Assessment we use. And there has been a natural segue from the highly regarded vision clarity and strategic planning work our team facilitates into a capital campaign to fuel that vision financially. And because we believe so deeply in the relational approach to discipling people toward generous responses to the church financially, we were pleased to see that relationships are only strengthened during a campaign.

I have had to rely on anecdotal evidence and my personal journey to encourage churches. I continue to say that I’m still ridiculously biased toward capital campaigns to grow disciples and grow budgets. Campaigns hit people in the heart differently than other things we do in church leadership. But now, I am energized by some research that potentially backs those claims. Here we go, church leaders. Let’s raise some capital.