7 Pitfalls to Avoid In Your Next Church Capital Campaign (And 3 Keys to Success)

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Church Giving Campaign

Let’s face it. Capital campaigns are difficult. No pastor I’ve ever met looks forward to them (myself included). 

You’re probably here because you’re planning a massive fundraising campaign and looking for help… and possibly feeling a little in over your head. (It’s more common than you think.)

The good news is that if you approach a giving campaign – or, more commonly called, a capital campaign – thoughtfully, it’s easy to break it down into digestible chunks. 

Run a successful capital campaign for your church, and it can set you up for years to come. Whether it’s for a new building, debt-repayment, outreach, or another big investment in your ministry, raising an additional 1-3x of your annual giving in a single year enables you to have a bigger impact. 

But get it wrong, and things can really go sideways. 

So, here’s my high-level overview of what church capital campaigns are, how to execute one successfully, and lessons I’ve learned to avoid along the way. 

What Are Church Capital Campaigns?

Everyone has heard of the term “church capital campaign,” but what exactly is it?

How does it compare to your classic run-of-the-mill fundraiser? What churches should use them, and for what reasons? 

Let’s dig in.

Defining Church Capital Campaigns

Church giving campaigns or church capital campaigns are major fundraising events that seek to collect significant sums of money for a ministry. 

They can take multiple years to execute and often require months of prep time.

Big and small churches alike can conduct a church fundraising campaign of this nature, and it can be for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars, depending on the need.

Why Run a Church Capital Campaign?

Regardless of the timeline and amount you’re seeking to raise, I’ve found a church-giving campaign is ALWAYS a lot of work. Count on it

So, why run one, then?

Because I guarantee a capital campaign will be WAY better than running a traditional fundraiser. 

It may not be the most welcomed opinion in some circles, but I strongly disapprove of spaghetti dinners and car washes. Fundraisers like that are inefficient and exhausting. Instead, if you get comfortable talking about money in church and consistently teach your congregation to tithe, you can expect them to give generously when genuine needs arise.

As far as specific reasons to raise funds in larger quantities, there are plenty to draw from, including:

  • Funding big-ticket expenses (like building projects, parking lots, and new campuses).
  • Missions beyond your four walls (including local outreach, community events, and mission trips).
  • Paying for important internal ministries during a season of high growth (this can apply if numerical growth is outpacing financial growth and the church needs to ‘catch up’ or financially grow into its new size).
  • Debt reduction (while not the best or easiest capital campaign to run, sometimes it’s a good idea to reduce debt via a campaign)

If you know your church falls into a category like this, you should consider a church giving campaign.

Choosing the Right Campaign for Your Church

Church giving campaigns are fairly straightforward in their end goal. But there are many nuances you need to clarify along the way.

Above all, you need to have a compelling vision behind your campaign. 

You shouldn’t just be clear on what you want to do but also why you want to do it and why the timing is critical. 

  • The WHAT is that you may want to raise capital for debt-repayment, build a new location, or upgrade a major area of ministry. 
  • The WHY needs to be a whole lot more compelling. For example, by raising capital for a new location, you’re planning to reach another ‘x’ people in your community.

As you consider what kind of needs your campaign will address, you can get an idea of how big of a goal you should set.

If you’re aiming for 20-40% of your annual income, you can probably run an end-of-year giving campaign without too much trouble. 

In most cases, though, I’ve found that capital campaigns for churches seek to raise closer to one, two, or even three times a congregation’s annual budget. This isn’t bad. Asking boldly is a great thing! But if you’re seeking larger amounts, that’s something you want to know at the beginning of the process.

PRO TIP: Don’t guess with these kinds of numbers. Check the amount you’re raising with a professional. I strongly urge you to retain a consultant or capital campaign specialist if you’re attempting to raise an amount that’s more than 20-40%. of your annual giving. (Honestly, even that can be difficult to do solo.) 

Most capital campaigns are not a DIY project. Use the professional support you have available, both inside and outside of the church (like a church bookkeeper), to avoid setting yourself up for failure.

How to Conduct a Successful Church Capital Campaign

Okay, so how do you pull off a successful church capital campaign? 

Again, I strongly believe step one is to seek professional help, but let’s run through the basics of an effective campaign to get you oriented. 

Here is a step-by-step process to launch a campaign:

  • Make your plans (but stay flexible)
  • Define clear goals
  • Build your team and involve your congregation
  • Create encouraging milestones

Let’s look a little closer at some of these, shall we?

1. Campaign Planning and Strategy

We already touched on this earlier. Start every campaign by clearly defining your main goal. This is your elevator pitch. It’s what you’ll recite whenever someone asks, “Why are we doing this again?” – and trust me, people will ask.

Remember, you’re talking about months, if not years, of investment. You’ll have new church members, fresh donations, and plenty of questions over that time. 

We’ll clarify and flesh out the specific objectives of your campaign in a minute. But it all starts here. 

You want to have a clear “why” behind the project from the jump. This helps you cast an infectious vision, even if you’re the only one initially itching for change.

From there, you can create your initial plan. Set a budget (you’ll need money to create promotional content, at the least) and consider who you can ask to join the team. You should recruit your capital campaign team from church leadership, professionals, and congregant members alike, depending on the need and how the Lord leads you.

2. Define Campaign Objectives

Now, it’s time to clarify what you’re trying to accomplish. People don’t give to ambiguity. They give to specifics. The clearer the vision, the easier it is to raise funds. One way to approach it is to think through the lens of SMART goals.

SMART stands for goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

As you consider the goals for your campaign, make sure they meet these criteria. It’s also worth considering a feasibility study, especially for larger campaigns. 

Make sure your campaign idea will work and has SMART goals in place before you get too far into the process.

3. Engage Congregation Members

Once you’ve set the stage, it’s time to let your congregation know. Yes, talking about money can be awkward, but this is an excellent opportunity to grow your skill set and open your heart to leading your people through a meaningful financial journey. 

Don’t start with a general announcement. Instead, begin with your inner circle of leadership and bounce (even test) the vision for the campaign with them. If it’s unclear, revise your messaging until it’s clear.

Then roll it out with a slightly wider circle, again, testing it for feedback.

Once the messaging and aims of the campaign are in their final form, approach your lead donors (your best givers) first. Again, a capital campaign consultant will help you do this thoughtfully and strategically. 

The goal here is to raise a meaningful percentage of the total campaign goal first with your lead donors.

Then, and only then, do you roll it out with the rest of the congregation.

Gathering the lead gifts consumes a lot of time and energy. It involves meeting one-on-one with certain donors, in groups and over dinners or retreats with others, and then setting up larger events with remaining donors.

This isn’t about making ‘great announcements’ from the stage or preaching a powerfully moving series. It has to go much deeper than that to be effective. 

How NOT to Conduct a Church Giving Campaign

Alright, now that you’ve seen the basic outline for leading a capital campaign, let me cover some landmines that too many people miss along the way. 

Here are the top seven things you want to avoid…

1. Not Knowing if Your Church Is Ready

Is your church ready for a capital campaign?

Red flags that show you might not be ready to do a capital campaign include:

  • Being in a season of conflict
  • Having an unclear vision
  • A lack of momentum
  • Recent heavy staff or key volunteer turnover

There’s a myriad of other factors that would make over-and-above giving difficult.

No congregation is perfect. But stability and momentum go a long way to laying solid groundwork for a campaign. 

Again, a professional capital campaign firm can do a readiness assessment here to help determine whether the timing and conditions are right for your church to embark on a capital campaign.

2. Underestimating the Effort

Let’s just call a church giving campaign for what it is: a one-to-three-year marathon

Each campaign will require the senior pastor, senior staff, and board’s focus for months before launch, the entirety of the campaign, and heaven knows how long for follow-up. 

Yup, that’s a lot of focus, which is why Point 1 above is so key.

Going into a campaign with your systems solid and some personal rest and margin will help you come in strong. You’ll be ready to tackle the extra workload of meetings, decisions, receptions, one-on-one dinners, and, of course, a powerful sermon series or two as you go along.

PRO TIP: For the senior and executive pastors especially, it’s wise to ask your campaign consultant exactly how much of your time it will take and prepare your family for the change. Going in with your eyes wide open, making plans to stay well-rested and energized, and having realistic expectations of what’s ahead are essential for a strong campaign. 

3. Lack of a Clear Vision

Ensuring a campaign is viable is one thing. Refining your vision so it’s crystal clear is another.

To be clear, you should not just be specific about what you want to do. Clarifying why you want to do it and why at this time is critical.

Sure, you want to launch a new location, build a facility, or upgrade a major area of ministry, but why now? 

As Simon Sinek taught us, people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you’re doing it.

Having a clear “why” at the outset will help answer 90% of the questions you’ll get as the campaign progresses. This isn’t just for the congregation, either.

Knowing the “why” is essential to keeping you motivated throughout the process. I said it already, and it bears repeating yet again. This is a long process. Knowing why it matters will keep your passion hot.

4. Being Afraid of the Ask

 Unless you’re made of steel or had your amygdala removed, you’ll get nervous during the capital campaign process.

Just coming up with the number you’re trying to raise can leave you shaking in your boots at the thought of communicating it to others. (Um, excuse me, did you say we need to raise $3 million? Are you kidding me???)

The good news is, if you have a professional guiding you, they’ll come up with a number that might stretch your church but is entirely realistic. 

Once you overcome that initial hard swallow, the time will come for you to start asking. 

And…are you ready for this…you won’t want to do it.

You’ll inspire people. You’ll inform people. You’ll ask people to pray. 

But when it comes to asking for money, you’ll feel like it’s an impossible task. As a result, you’ll want to qualify your ask, hedge it, fudge it, soften it, or settle for asking people to “pray about it.” 

That’s a mistake – a big one. 

(I show you more on how to get over your fear of talking about money here.)

One of the Senior Pastor’s hardest but most essential jobs in a capital campaign is to clearly, humbly, but also boldly ask people to give. If you shrink from that, all your hard work will be in vain.

Don’t let it undermine all of the rest of your team’s efforts. 

Ask boldly.

5. Failing to Engage Your Top Donors Personally

Maybe you muster up the courage to ask your congregation to give. Nice.

But you’re not done.

Part of a well-run capital campaign involves making personal asks

This is usually reserved for the pre-public part of the campaign, where you’ll gather your top donors in small groups. You might even (gasp) conduct one-on-one meetings with your top donors. 

Fear is powerful and can make you think that “broadcasting” the message in a sermon or sending a few emails should suffice. 

Trust me. It won’t. 

People give to vision, and people give to people in whom they have confidence.

Those top donors will want to hear the vision personally, ask questions, and have a dialogue with you about it. 

It also means you might ask some of them for a specific amount (again, your consultant will guide you on this). 

Yes, that takes courage and faith. But as someone who has sat on both sides of a capital campaign as a Lead Pastor and as a donor, I promise you, as a donor, I want to be asked, and I want to be challenged. That’s what those meetings are for. 

6. Making Too Many Asks

You might be thinking that a capital campaign sounds like too much work, and maybe you can just stand up and ask for some “extra” once a month or once a quarter. 

Nice try. But that’s deeply counterproductive and will only lead to reduced giving. 

Why? Because donor fatigue is real.

People are giving meaningfully and often sacrificially to your church every week. If you keep unstrategically asking them for more on a regular or semi-regular basis, they’ll tune you out and roll their eyes.

Unless you’re growing rapidly, you only get to make a really big ask every 3-5 years

That means you need to make it strategically. That’s why a well-timed, well-executed capital campaign is so important. Take every shot with purpose and care in mind.

7. Giving up on the Follow-Through

A final challenge you’ll face in a capital campaign is seeing the pledge date as a finish line, not a start line. That’s a big mistake.

Yes, a lot of the work has been done by the time the final pledge cards come in.

Many pastors are tempted at that point to say, “Whew, now that that’s over, I can get on to other things.” My response to that is, “Yeah, sort of.”

Yes, everyone needs to move on, especially those who already committed their hard-earned money to the cause. 

But it’s your job (and your team’s job) to provide ongoing updates, keep the vision alive, and show that you’re delivering on your promises. These follow-through moments are also a chance to remind people of any ongoing commitments to help them fulfill those, as well.

Ensuring Long-Term Impact From Church Capital Campaigns

While there’s a lot of upside to church giving campaigns, there are numerous capital campaign examples that demonstrate how challenging it can be, too. 

At the end of the day, a well-run capital campaign takes all of these into account, effectively bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be. 

A thoughtful, well-planned, and cleanly executed campaign can open up a whole new era for your church. Knowing what the pitfalls are is an important first step. This is where working with a stewardship consultant can keep you on track.

This really is the safest, most effective way to raise large sums as a church body. A professional of this nature can help you consider the challenges while fully realizing the potential your church has for impact as you lay your plans and put them into action.

Increase Giving and Fully Fund Your Mission—Regardless of Where You're at Now.

When it comes to money conversations with your church, my guess is that you want the outcome (margin in your budget and a generous congregation) without the process (having to raise funds and talk about it).

The Art of Building a Generous Congregation is a proven method for increasing giving, creating a culture of generosity, and building financial margin at your church... without the stress and awkwardness.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable talking about money right now.
Even if you’ve never seen your congregation fully engage with that kind of conversation.
Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

And yes, especially, if you could make a bigger difference by increasing your budget by 20%, 30%, or even 40%.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof