How to Find Top Gifts for Your Nonprofit’s Capital Campaign

By Stan Hutton, Frances Phillips

You don’t start at the top when building a pyramid, but that’s where you begin with a nonprofit capital campaign. You will want to structure your gifts by first looking to the top and then working your way down the pyramid.


  • Ten percent or more of the money comes from a single gift, known as the lead gift. This large donation crowns the tip of the pyramid.

  • Fifteen percent of the money comes from the next two largest gifts.

  • Fifteen percent of the money comes from the next three largest gifts.

  • Overall, 80 percent of the money comes from 10 percent of the donors. In other words, if you receive 100 contributions, ten of those people will provide 80 percent of the money that you must raise.

Say you’re driving across town and pass the Janice Knickerbocker Symphony Hall, the Engin Uralman Medical Center, and the Jerome Kestenberg Museum of Natural History. What do Janice, Engin, and Jerome have in common? Generally, those people whose names adorn buildings made the contribution of 10 percent or more of the campaign total. They’re called the lead donors.

When you conduct your feasibility study, one thing you’re trying to determine is the size of the campaign’s largest gift and whether it totals 10 percent or more of the campaign total.

Your lead gift becomes one of your campaign’s attractions. Some contributors may support a capital project because they like or admire the person after whom the scholarship fund or building is named, even if they have little connection to the cause or organization.

Many times the lead donors want to be part of something new and transformative and are looking for an opportunity for recognition. However, always clarify with your lead donor prospects if naming opportunities and public recognition are important to them. Sometimes a lead donor wants to be anonymous; you’ll want to honor that request.

After the lead gift is in place, your organization begins seeking the other major gifts that make up the first one-third of the funds to be raised. Individuals usually pledge these lead gifts during personal visits from nonprofit staff and board members.

Continuing down the pyramid’s structure to the widening middle, an organization usually moves beyond board members and major donors to seek grants from foundations and corporations.