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The time’s right to prepare for a real capital drive

In June 1997, New York's WNET wrapped up a five-year capital drive that raised more than $70 million, exceeding its ambitious goal of $65 million. Other than WNET, however, few public TV stations have tried to equal the capital campaigns that are mounted periodically by other kinds of nonprofits. Current asked Paula Kerger, who ran Campaign for Thirteen, to describe the first steps toward a successful capital drive.

Originally published in Current, June 2, 1997
Commentary by Paula A. Kerger

After we announced the completion of WNET's capital campaign, a number of general managers and development directors at public television stations asked me whether they can replicate our experience in other markets.

We think so. One of the great myths is that this kind of fundraising succeeds only in New York. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, fundraisers here face special challenges. Though this community has great economic resources and a rich history of philanthropy, there are an immense number of competing nonprofits--universities such as Columbia, cultural institutions such as Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and medical facilities such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Some of the largest capital campaigns in this country have been conducted outside New York. For example, the University of Nevada just concluded a $124 million campaign, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a $105 million campaign for a new concert hall, not to mention the billion-dollar campaigns underway at a few major universities.

Volumes have been written on how to organize a successful capital campaign. If you are serious about launching a major effort, you will find excellent resources published by the National Society for Fund Raising Executives (NSFRE) and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). In addition, PBS Development has compiled a capital campaign planning guide, using the lessons learned at public broadcasting stations around the country. The annual PBS Development Conference, which will be held this year, Sept. 17-20, always includes a number of useful sessions on aspects of planning and executing a campaign.

This article outlines a few key points to keep in mind when considering this type of fundraising venture.

One of the great misconceptions about capital campaigns is that they are just like any traditional fundraising campaign. They are not. Capital campaigns typically attempt to raise money for "bricks and mortar" expenses or for an endowment. Pledges traditionally are payable over a period of years, and the size of gift is usually many times larger than an annual contribution. For both the institution and the donor, capital campaigns are extraordinary events and occur no more than once or twice a decade. Their extraordinary nature is lost if the name is applied to an additional gift mail appeal or an extra pledge drive each year.

Capital campaigns require a tremendous amount of planning and a commitment from the entire institution, both board and staff.

The institution begins by identifying the need. An amazing number of campaigns run off-track because they lack a true mission or focus. WNET established its campaign to create an endowment and a program development fund. Many campaigns focus on building or capital improvements, such as the conversion to digital technology. Others may focus exclusively on endowment or may focus on capital needs. Again, it is important to underscore that you're seeking to fill extraordinary needs that have far-reaching implications for the institution. Often plans for a campaign evolve out of the station's long-term strategic planning.

Once the need has been established, the next step is to embark on a feasibility study. This is traditionally the moment when the institution hires a campaign consultant to determine its preparedness to launch a campaign. The feasibility study looks at your current fundraising capacity, especially in attracting major and planned gifts. It examines your board's commitment and the ability of staff and volunteers to raise major campaign gifts. The study tells you whether you are ready to conduct a campaign, and how high to aim.

The next step is to begin planning--identifying leadership, setting goals, securing the board's commitment to mount the campaign, preparing solicitation materials and establishing campaign practices and gift-acceptance policies, defining the naming opportunities that will be offered, and staffing put in place. This is a major undertaking and a campaign consultant can provide invaluable guidance.

With the planning complete, your campaign enters what is referred to as "the quiet phase." You begin soliciting large leadership gifts, usually from your board and other donors who have given major support in the past. When you have commitments totalling roughly half of the campaign goal, you are ready to publicly announce the launch of the campaign. Now you are really off and running.

One of the most critical steps is making certain that you have a strong campaign committee in place. The board will be key, not only for the money they contribute, but also for their role in soliciting large gifts from their peers and contacts. If your board has not played a major role in fundraising, your campaign consultant can help guide them through the process--even providing solicitation training if necessary. You can also get support from the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. A committed general manager and chief development officer will play key roles in motivating the board. Their partnership in this task will make or break your campaign.

A large percentage of proceeds in many campaigns comes from individual donors. A great weakness in public television fundraising that I discovered after beginning work in the field is in seeking and receiving major gifts from individuals. Many New Yorkers were making substantial contributions to other nonprofits, but supporting public television only at a modest level. Many donors were thinking of public television in terms of pledge drives and the $50 basic membership. We worked to re-align WNET, comparing it to the city's other major cultural institutions and arguing that it merits the same type of support that they receive. In fact, since our programs enter our donor's homes and become a regular part of their lives, we could argue that it makes sense to support public television at a more generous level.

Planned giving solicitation is an integral part of any endowment campaign; at WNET, it raised roughly one-third of the proceeds. Planned gifts may be described as those that involve forethought and discussion, usually with an adviser or development professional. It can be argued, in fact, that all major gifts are planned gifts.

Planned gifts can be divided into two categories--those that are "offered" by the nonprofit institution, such as charitable gift annuities and pooled income funds, and those that it "accepts," such as bequests--the most common form of planned gifts. Other gifts of this kind would be donations of life insurance policies, retirement plans and charitable trusts.

You must at least raise the public's consciousness that you welcome gifts through bequests. To offer gift plans you must allot a minimal amount of resources, assigning a staff person familiar with planned-giving techniques and ready to respond to inquiries. You do not want any prospect's overture to go unanswered. There are many excellent one-day and multiple-day planned giving seminars that will give your staff a good working knowledge of procedures.

Many public television stations are realizing the importance of establishing endowment funds, but the sobering fact is that, so far, only 14 have built them to $1 million or more. With the challenges of the digital transition just ahead, the timing is right for many in the field to be taking steps toward their own capital campaigns.

Paula A. Kerger is v.p. of development and government affairs at WNET, New York, was previously director of principal gifts for the Metropolitan Opera and coordinator of its Silver Anniversary Fund capital drive. She earlier served as director of development for the International House in New York and as program development officer for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF. In July [1997] she will begin a term as chairman of the PBS Development Advisory Committee.

WNET tops capital goal, tallying $70 million

Originally published in Current, April 28, 1997

WNET has raised $70 million so far in its five-year capital campaign, giving it a larger endowment than all the other public TV stations combined, according to Paula Kerger, v.p. of development. Only 14 public TV stations have endowments of $1 million or more, she noted.

The New York City station announced campaign results April 17 [1997] during its annual dinner dance for benefactors at the Plaza Hotel. The Campaign for Thirteen, launched in spring 1992, had already exceeded its original goal of $65 million. The campaign officially concludes June 30.

The campaign was chaired by WNET Chairman Henry Kravis and Mrs. Felix Rohatyn. Walter Cronkite served as honorary chair.

Raising funds year-to-year was "no way to operate," Kravis told the New York Times. "Other great cultural institutions have large endowments--museums, libraries, great universities--and if you think about Thirteen, it's all those in one ... and with the ability to reach millions of people every day."

More than half of the funds donated so far will become principal for WNET's permanent endowment, says Kerger. Other funds have provided seed money for revival of WNET's national production operation as well as backing for three seasons of City Arts, a local arts newsmagazine produced on small-format video, and Reel New York, an on-air festival of independent films.

Kravis, a prominent financier and partner in Kravis Kohlberg Roberts & Co., began the campaign with a $5 million gift. Others who donated more than $2 million each were the Jacob Burns Foundation, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Starr Foundation, the Estate of Joanne Toor Cummings, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust and Sy Syms.

Web page posted April 3, 1999
Copyright 1999 by Current Publishing Committee

Kerger headshot


Successful fundraising helped WNET build working capital to lift its national production efforts, which had declined by the mid-1990s.


Minnesota Public Radio built probably the largest endowment in public broadcasting in large part by creating and then selling a for-profit mail order company, 1998.

Several public TV stations built endowments by selling a broadcast channel, 1999-2000.

Fundraisers' courtship of Joan Kroc led to a large gift for NPR's endowment, 2003.

Fundraisers for public broadcasting have been urged for several years to spend more time nurturing major gifts and bequests. CPB targeted major giving for major attention in 2003. Some donations are missed because nobody asks.


Kerger named president of PBS, AP reported in January 2006.