Getting More From Your Fall Donor Events

Getting More From Your Fall Donor Events


21 September 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


The organizations I am working with are generally going ahead with plans to host Fall events in person. Some have moved their events outside while others are requesting proof of vaccination for admittance.

I’d be interested in some feedback from your perspective.

Are you doing events this Fall?

Are you happy about that?

Are you seeing unbridled enthusiasm from participants?


Regardless, I still think the following ideas and tips may be able to help you get more from them. Note that I am writing this specifically from the perspective of donor events.

Think cultivation.

I differentiate donor events from fundraising events in that they are not necessarily designed to raise money in the moment. They are more for donor introduction, cultivation, and appreciation. The difference is in the level of intentional interaction, and donor events are generally kept small enough that this level of interaction is possible. Consequently their success is measured more so by WHO is there than by HOW MANY are there.

You can still raise money from these events, but doing so is not their primary purpose, and the events are not inherently transactional as a result. Their value is in your ability to use them to build relationships with donors.


Many organizations time their donor events for the fall months. Doing so entangles them with everything else normally scheduled for the fall. (Advance planning can save you the traffic jams.)

Donor events can take many forms, from field trips to coffees or luncheons, house parties, open houses at the office, and so on. In general, I separate them functionally as follows:


Introductory Events are used to introduce new donors to your work. The participants may know nothing about you or may just be new donors still needing very basic information about your organization and its programs. An important message to this audience is one of differentiation. How are you different from other, similar organizations – essential geography, board members, not part of state or county government, and so on.

Introductory events can also be used to help you meet major gift prospects for the first time. Perhaps there is someone you would particularly like to get to know (for any number of reasons, including the possibility that they have financial capacity to help.) These events tend to be smaller – perhaps hosted by a Board member, and perhaps used to introduce a new Executive Director or Board Officer.

Cultivation Events are used to dive a bit deeper into specific programs or projects, for example preserve stewardship, the importance of endowment, or a new project acquisition. The participants may be new or may have been around for a long time. As you plan, keep in mind the two primary factors that influence giving – that what you’re doing is worth doing and that your organization is one that can get it done.

In the best cases, cultivation events bring together people who are likely to be like minded. Birders for example, or prairie enthusiasts. Or perhaps it’s a family friendly event (or a dog-friendly event). In this way, they will tend to reinforce each other’s passion related to the land trust.

Appreciation Events are used to show donors how their financial support has made a tangible difference. Tell stories at each event, but particularly to this audience. What issue was addressed? What obstacle was overcome? What mission was accomplished? Whose lives were affected? And consider the story-teller. It could be a landowner, or an 8th grader. Often it is the unpolished heart presentation that carries the message farther than a more “professional” one.


In each case, the work of the event is not done just from the podium, but rather in the mixing and mingling. The program is therefore kept to an absolute minimum – 20 minutes would be a long program. This implies that staff and board are briefed beforehand on the objectives for each event and know the essential talking points. They are also reminded that the objective is as much about learning about the donors’ reactions to the material as it is about giving them information.

And in each case, consider the podium messenger. A partner talking about their relationship with you at an introductory event is better than you talking about you. A landowner talking about their dream for protecting their land can provide powerful testimony for an appreciation event.


Here are several additional thoughts:

  • Have a named host. I’m a real fan of hosted events. Larger events might have a host committee; smaller event could have a single host or co-hosts. Regardless, the invitations are not coming from the (faceless) institution, but from a specific person. Consider that these “hosts” could be the same each year, but could also be successional, with hosts for next year’s event being recruited already this year.
  • Start with your top prospect list. Work with your host to invite those THEY want to invite, but preferentially select people off a list that you prepare. Some appreciation events also allow participants to bring guests. This can be a good thing.
  • Make the invitations personal. Ask board members and hosts to personally invite guests with a printed invitation and a phone call, both. Phone calls absolutely will increase participation! They are not difficult to do, and short messages will work as well as conversations with those who answer.
  • Spend the money for good food. The food does not need to be lavish, but it can still be memorable. Spending a few extra dollars on food and beverage is a valuable investment. Instead of looking for food and wine that can be donated, look for donations of cash you can use to purchase good food and wine. (Bad donated wine is still bad wine.)
  • Know who’s coming and make board contact assignments. Brief your hosts and board members about the expected guests. Make assignments as needed to facilitate introductions and help make everyone feel welcome. “Come with me – I’d like to introduce you to the Executive Director.
  • Have name tags. Nametags help board members find people they do not know and help guests enjoy the company as well. Nametags can also be used to differentiate board members, current organizational members, legacy club members (planned giving donors), and so on using colors or colored dots.
  • Take pictures. Assign this task to someone. Try to get at least one picture of everyone there. The pictures can be filed to help future board and staff identify specific individuals. Make sure the name tags can be read in the photos!
  • Record what you learn. Take notes as soon as possible (like that same night?) and file the notes in the office CRM database.
  • Plan the follow-up. Cultivation of major gift prospects does not end with the event. It starts there. Communicate with everyone who attends immediately after the event, and ask board members to call their assignments within the following two weeks. In every case, ask what we learned and what the next cultivation step might be.
  • This follow-up explicitly includes event sponsors. Within several weeks of the event, circle back to all your event sponsors to report on what happened. Tell them how much you appreciated the role they played, and ask for another sponsorship next year. The best time to recruit sponsors for next year’s event is immediately after this year’s event.


What are you planning for this Fall? Stories, please.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



Photo by suju-foto courtesy of Pixabay.



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  • Sally Zaino
    Posted at 09:42h, 22 September

    Hi David, we are gearing up for a few virtual (Zoom) small gatherings (~10) for our special and legacy donors this fall. We haven’t gone to in-person events other than one education program, and some outdoor events (for the public at large). We plan a large outdoor event next year for an anniversary (I know you say no one cares about anniversaries but the organization, but any excuse to celebrate!) on one of our preserved farms. We are taking the in-person events very cautiously, especially for our older members, because we feel many people are still nervous.

  • Kay Carlson
    Posted at 12:57h, 21 September

    Hi David! This was an excellent explanation of the different types of donor events, which I am thinking of sharing with my Board, who often don’t understand the differences. And all of the steps you mention are absolutely critical to make the events worth doing.

    We just completed a 5-year, $6.1M capital campaign and held two celebratory in-person events in the last week. (Exhausting, but totally worth it!) Both events were held outdoors. One event was a campaign donor appreciation event for those who gave $500+ toward the campaign (approx. 300 invitees/130 attendees). It was held on Tuesday evening right after work (5-7pm), with food/bevs served in 3 different locations on the trails we just renovated and people were thrilled to be invited to such a special event and not be asked for more money! (In fact, we also included a few prospects, some of whom gave after the event.)

    The second event we held was a community celebration of our new trails and habitat restoration, which was free and open to the public. It was held on Sunday from 10am-1pm and we covered expenses through the campaign as well as sponsorships. We had no idea how many people would attend, but planned for 700-1,000. We ended up counting (conservatively) over 1,100 attendees! Again, people were thrilled to gather in person and simply enjoy the grounds and being outdoors together. We did not require masks or proof of vaccination because it was all outdoors and was spread out across our grounds.

    As you said, the work doesn’t end with these events. As we are shifting gears from capital campaign mode to focusing more deeply on operating support, it will be important for us to continue to engage these donors in supporting the day to day operations of our organization.

    Thank you for all of your sage advice! Always helpful.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 15:49h, 21 September

      Hi Kay – Thank you so much for your comments and CONGRATS! on your successful campaign – especially so in these trying times.


  • Creal Zearing
    Posted at 08:52h, 21 September

    Hi David! We just co-hosted an award presentation event with Madison Audubon Society. It was entirely outdoors and we requested attendees be vaccinated (although didn’t require proof). The one thing I wanted to mention is that everyone in attendance seemed really happy– they were excited to see each other, be outside on a beautiful night, and spend time together.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:37h, 21 September

      So good to hear – thank you!