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Kerri Kilbane

About Kerri

Fundraising Events: How to Create a Results-Driven Marketing Plan

When I was in elementary school, every year the World’s Finest Chocolate candy company would come to our school to pitch the annual fundraiser. Following a rousing presentation, a charismatic salesman in a pinstriped suit would hand each of us our very own sales package: a tracking sheet, a box full of candy bars, and a glossy flyer showing the cool bonuses we would win if we met our sales goals.

Unfortunately, while I dreamed of winning every single one of the bonus prizes and of the fame and bragging rights in being the school’s top seller, I invariably struggled to sell my candy bars. (Perhaps you are having a small panic attack remembering your own experiences with school fundraisers…) How I hated going door-to-door! After a timid knock, I was deeply relieved when no one answered, spared the humiliation of mumbling my reluctantly rehearsed two-sentence pitch. “Hi, I’m Kerri and I’m selling World’s Finest Chocolate candy bars because our school needs to raise money for [insert cause here]. Can you help us meet our goal?”

Looking back on that memory now, a couple of thoughts come to mind. Firstly, it’s no wonder so many people find the work of fundraising terrifying. (Nothing like getting your start asking for money by going door-to-door selling something nobody wants or needs.) Second, my chances for success would have greatly increased with a targeted marketing plan. People are more likely to take whatever action we desire when we are intentional, personal, consistent, and credible before we ask.

But let’s start at the beginning, which is actually at the end. The end result, that is. What is it you aim to accomplish with your marketing? What actions are necessary to get there and who will take those actions? When and how will they take action?

Start by Asking Three Key Questions

You can start by asking three key questions:

1. What Does Success for Us Look Like? (What is the BIG Goal?)

Start with your mission and vision statement and near- and long-term strategic goals. Be very specific. Is the goal to grow revenue? To acquire and serve more beneficiaries? To set your organization apart from other alternatives in the community? To engage more donors?

2. What Drives That Success? (The Levers)

When we are successful, we have:

  • Expanded community awareness
  • A reputation for delivering results
  • Recognition that we are experts
  • Buzz around our events
  • Visits to our website
  • Online conversions
  • Increased visitors
  • Ticket sales
  • Engagement opportunities

You won’t choose all these of course, but rather focus on one or two key drivers of your success. Choosing one or two drivers forces you to prioritize and concentrate your messages around the actions and audiences that will have the greatest impact on achieving your big goal.

3. What Limits That Success? (The Threats)

Once you have your BIG goal, and you understand what activities drive success, you can consider what circumstances might threaten or limit your progress to the goal and how you might address those challenges. Are the actors — the people you need to motivate to act — receiving the right messages in the right places at the right time? Do they know what you need them to do, such as buy tickets, donate, tell a friend, become a member, join your board?

Taking the time to answer these questions will help identify key assets that are helpful to achieving your goals. For example: website widgets to highlight your impact or increase interactivity with media, donors, or beneficiaries; a more robust email client service; high-resolution storytelling photos; a story bank; useful print materials and simple, benefit-focused copy; or materials translated into different languages.

First Who…Then What, When, and How

Armed with a clear understanding of what you aim to accomplish with your marketing plan (the BIG goal), what drives success (the Levers), and what limits success (the Threats), it’s time to get strategic.

Marketing is, broadly, the process of communicating with and motivating people to take a desired course of action ; ideally, the action or set of actions that you’ve determined will drive success in reaching your big goal. Here’s an example to illustrate the process.

The BIG Goal

Let’s say our goal is to increase individual ticket sales to the annual fundraising dinner. Our board and staff have selected this BIG Goal because this event is not only our single biggest money-maker during the year, but also attracts new individual donors, generates public awareness for our cause, and encourages deeper engagement of our existing supporters.

What Are Our Levers?

Our driver of success — the lever — is ticket sales to attendees, both past supporters and people with the potential for cultivation and future engagement as donors.

What Are Our Threats to Success?

All threats separate into two categories: things we can control and things we cannot control. Things we cannot control would be inclement weather, restrictions or limitations of vendors and contracts, direct scheduling conflicts, etc. Thankfully, there is much we can control, if we have enough lead time and can plan ahead.

Some hypothetical challenges we’ve identified that could threaten our fundraiser’s success are:

  • A relatively small social media following via Facebook
  • Lacking new prospects to invite
  • No easy way to sell tickets online ahead of the event

Now that we know what we want to accomplish, our marketing plan should zero in our strengths and shore up any weaknesses to achieve our prioritized, singular goal: sell more event tickets to past supporters and people with an affinity for our mission and capacity to provide support.

You’ll notice I’ve being more specific about the “who” in our plan. The more detailed our audience prototypes are, the better we can shape and target messages. Which leads us to our next topic, messaging for results.

Messaging for Results

The most effective communications are personal, memorable, and focused on the listener.

As you prepare to map out your messages, channels, and calls to action, here are some basic principles to keep in mind.

Repetition: What’s Your Effective Frequency

What is your effective frequency — the number of times someone needs to hear a message before acting on it? Hint: It’s more than you might think. In 1885, Thomas Smith wrote in Successful Advertising, it takes twenty exposures to an ad before a person buys. This is called “effective frequency” and it’s still cited by advertisers today.

There are also more recent studies (than Smith’s 130-year-old text) that suggest anywhere from three to seven impressions are needed to have a message stick. Whatever number of impressions you can achieve on limited resources, you will need to communicate your call to action more than once, and ideally as many times as it takes to get a response. You might think that your audience would find this annoying, but marketing research has shown that messages that are repeated often — true or not — are perceived as more credible.

Crafting Messages that Resonate

Rule 1: Follow the Golden Rule

What messages are most likely to resonate, and thus be more successful? The Golden Rule of effective marketing copy is simple, and yet quite often overlooked. It is to start and end with one single word: you. And by you, I don’t mean you (reader), but that we must make it always about them, and not our organization and its needs. For example:

Don’t say: XYZ Nonprofit has been helping our community for twenty-five years. Please help us prepare for the next twenty-five years by joining us for a very special 25th Anniversary Celebration.

Instead say this: How often do you have the chance to share your chops at a piano bar and dance the night away with friends and local luminaries, all while making a difference in our community?

Rule 2: Eschew the Vague

As much as possible, always be specific when making your case or describing a call to action or your organization’s impact. Marketing copy that is not specific is flat, ignorable, and practically invisible. Consider these examples:

Too general: The XYZ Nonprofit Anniversary Celebration will be a fun evening where you can join with friends and local luminaries to support a worthy cause.

Better: Under the stars on a moonlit night, enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime five-star meal prepared by Almost Famous Chef finalist John Gourmand, then dance the night away to our town’s very own Big Band artists The Swing Band and help support local families in need for the next twenty-five years.

You want to go now, don’t you? Was it the moonlit night, or the image of dancing in the arms of your significant other, or perhaps the Food Network geek in you is totally down with Chef Gourmand’s menu and near célebrité.

Rule 3: Always Write from a Position of Strength

One of the biggest and common mistakes that novice fundraisers can make is to ask for support from a position of “need.” Yes, in many cases nonprofits rely entirely on support from donors, but it’s essential that your marketing communications come from a position of power. Philanthropy needs nonprofit organizations and especially effective ones like yours. Anyone who engages in philanthropic giving does so to achieve some very personal goal. Fundraisers learn that donors typically fall into one of a few different categories: they give for altruistic reasons, they give because it is a family tradition and personal value, they give for recognition or to belong to a certain peer group, or they give for religious or political reasons. The point is, they give and at some level there is a transactional exchange of value that takes place. Every ask for support is, to the donor or prospective donor, an opportunity. Bearing that in mind, your ask should reflect your value to the donor — and not just their value to you.

Don’t say: XYZ Nonprofit relies on donations from people like you to continue its operations for the next twenty-five years.

Instead say: Philanthropy is essential to our work. Over the last twenty-five years, donors like you have helped our organization serve more than ten thousand local families in need. Working together, we are and will continue to create a community that works for all of us.

Rule 4: Location, Location, Location

We all know that the internet, email, and social media now make urgency, frequency, and relevancy of the messages we receive each day hyper-targeted. If you’re anything like me, you’ve figured out how to make your Facebook newsfeed somewhat reflective of your values, beliefs, and tastes. What you “like” comes through, who you “like” the most you probably see more of, and arcane Facebook algorithms ensure we can see more and more of what we “like” — whether we like it or not.

As you consider the myriad platforms available to you for sharing your messages, here are some data points and strategies to consider:

  • Email (instant, US workers spent 6.3 hours a day checking email)
  • Facebook (79 percent of Americans use Facebook, followed by Instagram at 32 percent)
  • An earned media strategy is a savvy way to reach new audiences without paying advertising rates. Earned media might include an op-ed written by the organization’s leadership or program staff, a proposed feature in a local or industry-related magazine, or press coverage of a special panel discussion or event.
  • Website marketing that includes a call to action . Keep blogs and news releases fresh and compelling.
  • Personalized letters are an effective way to reach new prospects and to deepen connections with current supporters.
  • Paid advertising, if targeted, can help you reach new markets. Consider targeted Facebook advertising, local print publications (choose topical publications and best-read issues and months — timeliness is key), and trade or place banner ads with natural partners.

Making Our Plan

With these rules and guiding principles in mind, our BIG goal and key drivers determined, we can develop a targeted, actionable marketing strategy and plan.

Returning to our hypothetical goal to increase ticket purchases to our annual fundraising dinner, our simple, results-driven marketing plan should address these key elements:

Our simple, results-driven marketing plan should address the key elements shown in this table.

Our simple, results-driven marketing plan should address the key elements shown in this table.

Remembering that our challenges included limited reach on Facebook and a lack of new prospects, our plan would need to include strategies to mitigate these challenges. We might ask our featured talent (the chef and the band) to promote the event on their page. We could experiment with Facebook advertising to reach high-net-worth individuals in our local zip codes, or who share an affinity for supporting nonprofits, great cooking, or local bands.

To build our list of prospects, we might invest time in reviewing the donor lists for local nonprofits, particularly those donors who might support benefit dinners. We could also consider list rentals or trades with organizations similar missions.

Measure, Evaluate, and Recalibrate

Now that we have narrowed our focus on specific calls to action, we must measure activity, but also measure actions. Yes, we should measure how many emails were sent, but we also need to know how many were opened and what is our click-through rate. Which emails are more or less effective, and why might that be?

Of course, we will ultimately measure our success toward achieving the BIG goal, that is, how many tickets did we sell to the fundraising dinner. We might evaluate how many sales came from current donors and/or past attendees. How many new prospects attended? And how many of those made a gift at the event, or within the next six to twelve months?

Final Thoughts

To create a results-driven marketing plan, you must prioritize and clearly focus on the results you seek. What actions will be taken and by whom? What internal and external factors will motivate “actors” to take action? The more specific your goal and your understanding of who needs to do what , where and how your different audiences get information and why they choose to take certain actions — the more successful you will be.

Messaging is most effective when it is audience-focused and not focused on your organization. The magic word is “you” and is never “I” or “we.” Don’t “we, we” all over your copy. Share your successes, your strengths, and your needs as specifically as possible and make your call to action specific, urgent, and compelling.

Finally, coordinated and intentional repetition of key messages works. It creates a sticky, memorable brand association and through its consistency, builds trust and credibility. Be consistent, coordinated, and give messages and calls to action time to take hold before you mix it up again. Everything from your choice of color to the tone of voice, images, and logo establishes you as a brand. And donors are no less susceptible to the power of branding — yes, they support causes, but they also choose to align with your organization and all that it stands for. The deeper their affinity for your brand, the more you engender trust and loyalty. You’ll create avid brand ambassadors who will help raise awareness of and support for your organization.


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