Fresh Thinking About Donor Engagement Events

Fresh Thinking About Donor Engagement Events


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Your land trust probably uses events for all sorts of reasons. You might have an annual “olly-olly-oxen-free” member meeting. Maybe an annual fundraising event, gala, or auction. Maybe an event just to show donors how much you appreciate them.

And then there’s a whole class of events that we commonly call “outreach” events. Field trips, lectures, guided hikes, and the like. Their purpose is sometimes convoluted: Are they for members and donors? The general public? A little of both? Are they free? Should we charge a little or a lot? Is the cost different for members than it is for non-members?

All events are important. Indeed, research supports the idea that the more ways someone is engaged with your land trust the more loyal they are. The more money they will give and over a longer period of time. The more likely they are to become volunteers. Donor Engagement is a good thing. Right?

So here’s my question: How should we measure the success of these events in general, and how should we measure the success of donor engagement (outreach) events specifically?

Because here’s what I hear a lot and what I’ve also noticed personally: The people who attend land trust events – annual meetings, field trips, even volunteer events – tend to be all the same people!

It may be time to re-think our donor engagement strategy.

Here are several ideas I like a lot. See if you can add to the list:

  • Use the LAND. The land is the one thing land trusts have that other nonprofits do not – meaning that anything we can offer on the land will serve to differentiate us from other competing nonprofits.
  • Aim for diversity. The more different kinds of events you host, the more likely you are to find something that everyone on your list can enjoy. Different land trusts have hosted sunrise yoga on their preserves, various harvest events (strawberry or blueberry themed events) to focus attention on rural land preservation, ice cream socials, bio-blitzes, family fun events, and so on, in addition to a wide variety of guided hikes, paddles, and birding trips. The idea is “something for everybody.” Success is measured by how many different people are thereby served.
  • Have a well-articulated purpose. Each event you host needs a SINGULAR purpose. Write up a formal plan. Include what you will do, how you will market it to your target audience, and what you expect will happen. Measure your success against these expectations.
  • Write up a budget. Budget both in terms of money and in terms of time. And then compare it to what really happens. It may help you decide not to do the event again. Or it may help you budget better for next time. Either way, it’s a good thing.
  • Formally evaluate each event. Immediately after the event and in writing. Include a specific recommendation about whether or not to do it again. In making this recommendation, keep in mind that it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions after just one try. If an event is worth trying, it’s probably worth running at least three times. Probably.
  • Know who comes. This can be tricky, but worthwhile as an organizational habit. Sometimes an event is successful because of WHO comes even more so than HOW MANY come. One option is to request advance registration even if the event is free. Online services are often free, and especially if the event is free. Or require a sign-in form. If you do this, make sure that there are enough stations to handle the crowd you expect without lines getting too long. Organizing a giveaway can sweeten this step for participants at large events.
  • Ask for money even if the event is free. From non-members especially. Use a fishbowl or a volunteer squad with IPads and card readers. Call it a “suggested donation.” One event I attended funneled everyone through a single exit – lined with volunteers holding buckets.
  • Use a Host. Or a host committee with a designated Chair. Someone with bottom-line responsibility for making the event happen. Someone to whom you can turn for plans, budgets, status reports, and evaluations.
  • Use an Events Committee. Sometimes called an Outreach Committee. Chaired by a Board director, but not limited to Board directors. This committee has three mandates:
    • Approve a slate of donor engagement events each November for the following year’s events. Ensure that each event has a host, a plan, and a budget.
    • Measure the events as a slate based on how many different people – members and non-members – participate.
    • Receive the formal evaluations and recommendations for continuing each event.


I like the idea that Board directors serve as hosts, even for staffed land trusts. Board directors represent their communities (hopefully) on the Board, but they also have a responsibility to be Ambassadors back into their communities. To help make the land trust and its work relevant back where they come from. Donor Engagement activities are a perfect venue for this ambassadorship.

One organization I like a lot in this regard is the Bolton Land Trust in Bolton Connecticut. They do 6-8 donor engagement events each year. Here is their 2019 slate of events:

  • Plant-Based Snacks on the Go – Learn easy, healthy recipes to nourish your body on the go.
  • Spring Bird Walk – Learn and identify birds of Spring by sight and sounds.
  • Artists of Bolton 13th Annual Art Show – A weekend event beginning with a musical reception on Friday night. Bolton artists showcase their new original two-dimensional artworks in the beautiful setting of Early New England Homes.
  • Laurels and Lyrics – Hiking with poetry on the Mohegan Trail.
  • Sunset Yoga – Experience a breathtaking view of the Connecticut River valley during an all-levels yoga class.
  • Don’t Miss a Beat! – Enjoy an uplifting family drumming experience deep in the woods.
  • Walk of Thanksgiving – Take a walk with family and friends to give thanks for the wonders of nature.


Note the diversity. Something for everybody.

Each event is created by a Board director. It’s written up as a proposal, complete with a budget. It is approved by a Board committee. And formally evaluated. The slate is marketed to every household in the township at the beginning of each year while individual events are marketed just to members right before they occur.

Here’s their purpose statement:

The land trust communicates its mission goals, and/or programs to members, donors, landowners, the general public, community leaders, conservation organizations, and others in its service area as appropriate to carry out its mission.

Events will be successful when they:

  • Bring diverse audiences out to preserves and easements,
  • Encourage those who are not members to become members, and
  • Build or enhance relationships with landowners and members.


Love it.

Something for everybody.


Cheers, and Have a great week.




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    Posted at 09:17h, 11 June

    Thanks, David…. events can be challenging especially when the question is asked about how much money we raised… which isn’t always the best measure of success… events are really friend raisers which hopefully leads to fund raisers!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:33h, 11 June

      Thanks for your comment, Kimberly. I think it’s important to start each event with a clear idea about what you expect the outcomes to be. If it’s a fundraising event with a fundraising goal, then the measurement is clear. But if it’s a friend-raising event, I still think having a goal is important. Are we building it around getting one person there or several specific people? Is it just about getting lots of people there whom we don’t yet know? Will we follow the event with fundraising letters?

      The fresh thinking here is having an overarching goal of using events to engage a much larger audience. In that sense, evaluating all the events taken together is more important than evaluating any single event alone.