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Uncle Sam: Your Capital Campaign’s Next Big Donor

This article was written by JeeYoung Dobbs. She is no longer with Ostara, but we want to preserve this piece so that you can learn from her and from the work she did while part of the Ostara team.

One of our campaign clients has been cultivating a relationship with a significant prospect for several years. They had several meetings, submitted proposals, and followed up with additional information to cultivate interest. They received word this spring that their request for nearly $1 million would be funded for their capital project.

The donor? Washington State.

We find that public funding, especially from state, county, and city sources, continues to anchor funding in many nonprofit capital projects. While interest in supporting capital can abruptly shift among specific individuals, corporations, and foundations, government steadily invests in nonprofit infrastructure (even considering 2017 when our state leaders failed to pass a capital budget). A sampling of our current and past campaign clients confirms this experience. The percentage of their capital campaign budgets that are funded by public sources (federal, state, county, and city) ranged from 23 to 65 percent.

Some individual donors appreciate knowing that these projects—which create significant public good—are collaborations between the public and private sectors. Some comment they have greater confidence in the viability of a project if they know their gifts are being leveraged by significant public dollars.

Yet, line items in budgets or public grants are not easy to secure. Just like individual, foundation, and corporate funding, securing funding from Uncle Sam is all about relationships, a strong vision, and well-planned project.

If you are considering including public funding in your capital campaign budget, channel what you know works with your individual, corporate, and foundation prospects.

Here are our three best pieces of advice for securing government funding during a capital campaign:

Identify the Top Prospects

Explore all the options available to your campaign based on location, project type, and sector:

Federal: There is capital funding available at the federal level from places like National Endowment for the Arts. Senator Patty Murray has a comprehensive list of federal grants to peruse.  New Market Tax Credit Benefits could also be a significant source of funding through tax credits if your project will serve historically under-funded communities. Check out the map to see if your project qualifies.

State: There are opportunities to include your project as a line item in the state budget, which can be accessed by advocating directly with your representatives. In addition, Washington State has a robust competitive capital grants programs, including Department of Commerce programs like Building for the Arts, Building Communities Fund, and Youth Recreational Facilities and the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board programs like Washington Wildlife Recreation Grants and Youth Recreation Programs. You can find a good list of the state competitive grant programs here.

County and City: Most counties like King County, Snohomish County, and cities like Seattle and Spokane align capital funding with their civic or economic goals (affordable housing, arts access, etc.) and list opportunities on their websites. Some smaller municipalities require you to be in touch directly with the county or city council members to learn about year-by-year opportunities.

Build Authentic Relationships

For budget processes at the state, county, and city levels, allow months or years to develop relationships with your representatives—senators, state legislators, county or city council members, mayors, or department staff. Like you do with other donors, start by mapping who on your Board or staff has existing relationships. If you’re starting from scratch, reach out and request a meeting as a constituent to update them on the project. You could start this process as soon as a campaign planning study—some of our clients include legislators in the interview process. Mobilize your grassroots supporters for letter writing campaigns or visits with representatives. Some organizations hire a lobbyist to advocate directly on behalf of the capital project.

For competitive grant processes like Building for the Arts, departments host information sessions that offer you direct access to program staff to ask questions about the process and clarify how to best position your project. Take advantage of these opportunities to connect in person. 

Make the Request at the Right Time.

Pay attention to project timelines and approach at the right time:

Some government programs will not fund your project until it is “shovel ready” (project construction can immediately start).

Budget line items are often tied to only a portion of the project that will be complete during the budget biennium (two-year budget cycle) because they are reimbursement payments.

Many state grant programs operate on the biennium (every two years) so pace your application appropriately for your project’s timeline.

Consider forming a government funding taskforce for your campaign that could include Board, staff, and community volunteers. Like other areas of campaign fundraising, funding from Uncle Sam takes time, strategy, and perseverance—don’t do it alone!

Let’s keep this conversation going. We want to hear your questions and ideas about government funding in campaigns. We’re here to connect.


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