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Nonprofits need general operating support in order to achieve social impact. Over the past several years, funders and donors have started to wake up to this fact. Dan Pallotta’s 2013 Ted Talk The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong now has over 4 million views, and blogger Vu Le has made the discussion rich and entertaining. Recently, the CEO’s of 5 major foundations joined forces to help nonprofits cover operating costs and urged their fellow grant makers to follow suit.

It is unclear whether this move will successfully destigmatize “overhead” in the foundation world. Still, there are fundraising strategies that can help your organization position unrestricted operating gifts as essential investments in your mission. One of these strategies is to opt for a comprehensive campaign model over the traditional focused campaign.

What is a Comprehensive Campaign?

Comprehensive campaigns bundle annual fund goals over several years with extraordinary fundraising needs, such as capital or endowment support. While this approach to major gifts fundraising may not be as familiar to your leadership or donor base (and therefore may require more coordination and consistency in your messaging), there are many benefits:

  • Since donors are typically solicited just once for a multi-year gift, you’ll have more time for stewardship and donor engagement;
  • The opportunity to make the case for increasing unrestricted gifts to build infrastructure, or respond to unique challenges and opportunities in your environment;
  • Your entire universe of donors will be included in the campaign effort – everyone’s gift counts.
  • Greater volunteer participation and leadership — these campaigns can appeal to a wider audience.

Comprehensive Campaigns vs Focused Campaigns

Of course, there are many reasons to stick with the traditional campaign model. Focused campaigns can be transformative for organizations, generating excitement around something new and exceptional. They also allow organizations to concentrate campaign messaging on a distinct, concrete and pressing need.

Before embarking on a traditional campaign, organizations need to carefully plan to mitigate the risk of losing annual fund gifts that may be allocated to the campaign instead. Some large institutions do this by building in a mandatory campaign gift “fee” to support operations. Many nonprofits, however, find this transactional approach to be at odds with their efforts to create a culture of philanthropy.

Instead, budget-relieving dollars can be included in the focused goal for campaign-related costs, such as staff time and planning. Organizations can also solicit annual fund gifts in concert with campaign gifts, even if annual fund gifts will not be counted to the campaign. Of course, momentum you build with either campaign model can be leveraged as a donor acquisition strategy.

The Bottom Line

Nonprofits should take every opportunity to connect unrestricted gifts to increased impact. By elevating the importance of your flexibility, infrastructure and capacity, you shape a narrative about your organization that instills confidence and inspires larger gifts.


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