Robin L. Cabral, MA, CFRE, MFIA
How to Turn Your Event Attendees into Supportive Donors
It might not seem like it, but the calendar-year-end fundraising season will be here before we know it. Along with it comes those special events that every nonprofit organization must host.
Have you considered how to leverage these gatherings and do more than just meet a revenue goal? Have you thought about donor engagement?
You know this, but it bears repeating: you should use these events to turn attendees into donors! Not just one-time ticket purchasers, but loyal, long-term supporters.
Easier said than done, to be sure. But come along with me as I show how I would do it, were I you.
Special events are typically held as a means of raising funds for your nonprofit. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t raise all that much money. After covering costs, not to mention the time and planning efforts by the staff, an organization is lucky to break even. On a positive note, though, these events are a good forum for raising awareness. It is this point that you will want to take one step further.
A fundraising event provides your nonprofit with a captive audience. Whether that audience is there in active support of your mission, or just enjoying a social event with family or friends, they are in attendance. This is your opportunity to engage them and encourage them to feel a connection to your cause.
I have learned many things throughout my twenty-five-plus year career in fund development. One of those lessons is that we all have some sort of fundraising event, whether it is a walk-a-thon or a gala.
For years during my career, I felt as if I was on a special-event “hamster wheel,” with one event finishing and the planning for another starting without ever really building a strong fundraising program. It was at some point in my career that I thought, “Well, since I must have this event, how can I make it work for my fundraising program and help to build it?” And, with this article, I share with you my personal learnings and experiences on how to make your special events do “double time.”
Even in my consultative career today, I witness far too many groups who are focused on event after event. When you analyze their fundraising metrics, in most cases you see weak growth—if any—in their development efforts year-over-year. This is despite the fact that they continue to hold events, sometimes with hundreds of attendees who engage with the organization in a highly transactional way.
Optimizing Fundraising Event Planning
During the planning phase of the event, consider what you can do to make the most of the guest list. Invite major donors to the event. Invite any new donor prospects. Encourage your staff, board, and existing donors to invite their family and friends. Request guest contact information beforehand and send a personal note to any new event attendee. Express your excitement about their attendance and use this note to share information about your organization.
Another good strategy is to tailor invitations with the goal of upgrading donors to contribute more to the event, such as purchasing a ticket for a higher-priced table. Carefully plan the seating arrangement. Strategize about guest placement. Assign a board member or staff member as an ambassador for each table. Research event attendees and create talking points to be used later at the event. Share what you learned from your research with the identified board and staff event ambassadors.
Throughout all of this, take care of your development staff. The time and focus required to plan a special event can sometimes result in other efforts being neglected. But there are ways to remedy this situation. One way is to ask another department (i.e., PR, Communications, Volunteer Coordination, etc.) if they would be willing to help organize the event.
Even before the event, you should already be planning your post-event stewardship. Be innovative and imaginative about how you will acknowledge your attendees after the event. Seek buy-in and ownership from the board ahead of time. It is very important to start custom tailoring your donor interactions early in the planning stages, so you can put your plan into action immediately—or soon afterwards.
I suggest considering the following for post-event donor stewardship: categorize and prioritize whom you plan to recognize (e.g., silent auction and raffle donors, first-time attendees). And, will the follow up be done by board members or staff with relationships? How will you steward your donors (e.g., with a hand-written note, a telephone call, a visit, an e-mail, or via social media)? Be sure to reach out soon after the event, and certainly within a few weeks. Predetermine your messaging strategy. What information should be shared with them? Also, think about the next steps, such as scheduling additional donor follow-up. Carefully determine what makes the most sense for your organization and the appropriate method for conveying your message.
Think carefully about the most efficient way for your organization to design and lay out your special-event structure and schedule. Ensure that the event is for the benefit of your organization’s mission, staff, donors, and overall fund development. The time you take beforehand to properly choreograph the event will pay dividends later.
Donor Interaction—Before, During and After Your Special Event
How many times during the event planning stage do we get caught up in the weeds, planning table centerpieces and napkin colors? I even remember one time, literally hours before the event, when I had to order a new Port-a-Jon for the hundreds of guests who would soon arrive. With so many fires to put out and decisions to make, I have learned through hands-on experience that the decisions with the highest potential for growing actual donations involve very strong advance planning around donor communications strategy, including donor outreach before, during, and after the event. While this not may seem like a top priority at first glance, I strongly advocate putting strategic planning around donor cultivation front and center before all else.
On the day or evening of the event, you need to have this cultivation and stewardship plan in place. Ensure that a board member or staff member ambassador circulates during the event. These ambassadors should introduce themselves personally to each table. Share what you learned from your earlier research with the identified board and staff event ambassadors. Have the ambassadors use these talking points to build their conversations with donors and prospects.
One of my clients and I worked to ensure that the seating plan was highly structured, placing board, staff, and event program participants at each table. We worked diligently to research those in attendance and provide bios and talking points for both board and staff members to facilitate the ambassadors’ conversations. As a result, we were able to cultivate some important donor relationships that led to those donors making significant gift increases at calendar year-end giving time.
Oftentimes I get asked, “How do I engage my board directors in fundraising?” And, to me, this is one of the easiest and most effective ways to engage the board and staff in fund development and start building a culture of philanthropy in which all understand, support, and participate in the fundraising process.
Further, you can engage your program participants in the event by having them share testimonials and the impact of event attendees’ attendance. Far too often, I see the organization’s beneficiaries as secondary, often being left off the invitation list when in fact they should be a VIP guest. The best example of doing this the right way is when one of my past clients invited all of the program participants to their gala event, and not only did these participants circulate amongst the guests, but they had their own VIP seating front and center and were recognized to resounding applause.
Stewarding Donors after the Fundraising Event
Okay, so now the event is over. The post-event stewarding plan noted above was already put in place. The board should be in agreement with the approach. Now it’s time to put that plan into action!
Again, this follow-up should be based on what fits your nonprofit best, but I recommend the following actions. These vary slightly according to whether you are addressing a first-time attendee, a donor who made a contribution, the level of the donation, or a donor who attended but didn’t contribute at this time. The recommendations below are based on natural attendee segments:
- New attendees— A call by a board member with a relationship or other assigned designee is preferred for all new attendees. The caller should mention the donation made, if any, and how the organization will use the money. The board member should also ask about possible interest in the organization.
- Repeat attendees who did NOT donate— A Board member with a relationship or the executive director should send a handwritten note. The note should include a “thank you” for their continued support, and ask about their interest in learning more about the organization.
- Repeat attendees who did donate— A call should be made if there is a relationship or the attendee donated more than a thousand dollars. Otherwise, a handwritten note should be sent. The message should mention the donation made and how the organization will use the money. It should also ask about possible interest in the organization.
- Donated but did not attend— A call should be made if there is a relationship or if they donated more than a thousand dollars. The message should mention the success of the event and how the money donated will be used. An inquiry should be made about their interest in learning more about the organization.
- People who donated significant auction items— A personal call should be made by the person with a relationship and a letter of acknowledgment should be sent. The executive director or board chair (or both) may send a note as well. The message should mention how the money will be used and ask about interest in learning more about the organization.
How to Connect your Event and Development Program
The critical point of all steps above is that you need to have a relationship-building strategy for the event. The event is not just about selling tickets or a social night out. It should be designed to focus attendees on your cause. Make the event work with your major-giving programs.
In order to do this, it is important to understand the difference between transactional and transformative giving: transactional giving consists of financial transactions, whereas transformative giving is a gift that is a reflection of a maturing, deepening commitment to the cause.
Transactional gifts can be reflected on a receipt. An example would be the event ticket purchased or a bid on a silent auction item. These gifts alone are quantified by donations received or amount of money raised, as opposed to relationships built or inspiring of donors. Transformative gifts are about so much more than money.
It is crucial to the success of your event that the focus be transformative. The event provides that opportunity to present a compelling message about your nonprofit’s mission. Take advantage of this unique opportunity! Design the event program with a cause-oriented focus. Ask for up-front giving by select major donors, maybe even a matching or challenge gift. Ask for gifts at the event. Engage the audience to connect to your cause and make them want to join in—not just for the night but for the future. Make those in attendance more than just attendees.
One of the most successful events that I have seen included a mission moment hosted by the live auctioneer. The auctioneer was well versed in auction tactics and the mission of the organization. The event featured a “fund a mission” moment where the auctioneer inspired giving to support the organization’s mission. A major donor was approached in advance to create a challenge gift that the auctioneer was able to leverage during the bidding process. It was incredible how quickly the bidding spiraled into a frenzy. Getting the combination of the right people inspiring strategy in advance made all the difference.
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