01 Jun Is it Time to Drop Fundraising Events?
1 June 2021
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
As a broad generalization, organizations that were dependent on fundraising events did not fare as well in 2020 as organizations that were not. For some, this was related to the transactional nature of events – when the event didn’t happen, sponsors and donors didn’t necessarily give anyway. For others, the specific event suffered in a virtual environment (runs for example).
There were certainly some exceptions – several organizations reported tripling participation (or better) when they went virtual – but the additional time invested in learning how to operate in a virtual environment may have tripled as well.
I think the pandemic has interrupted our business-as-usual approach to fundraising and to fundraising events in particular. It has given us a chance to evaluate the role events play in our long-term fundraising plans.
So, let’s talk about that.
Most professional fundraisers will tell you that events create a distraction from fundraising – or at least from the part of fundraising related to building relationships with donors. First, and most obviously, because it takes less organizational energy to ask five people for $25,000 than it does to net $25,000 from an event – and you will almost certainly raise more money in the long term! The quality of the interactions also suffers – the relationships built are shallower and more transactional. If there are competing galas, or runs, or triathlons, or whatever, why would they choose yours? And most importantly, fundraising events tend to set a bar for individual participant’s giving. Event participants leave the venue feeling good about having supported the organization at whatever level they participated and may be reluctant to support programs or projects at a higher level.
I don’t mean to say that it’s all negative. For some participants and for most sponsors, the event is HOW they support the organization. Without the event, they may not support the organization at all.
How should we rethink these dynamics? I’d love to hear from you on this question – please leave your thoughts in the comments section. Here are a few of mine:
- Consider outsourcing: Hiring an outside firm to handle your event might put a substantial part of your net return at risk. On the other hand, it’s possible that a professional party-planner might help you raise more money. And if 75% of the work is handled by someone else, you could use the time and energy raising money in other ways.
- Establish clear goals for every event: How much money, how many people, how many new people, how many major gift prospects – even how many Board members. And then evaluate every event immediately afterward against those goals.
- All Board members attend without cost: I would even extend this to former Board members, non-Board members of committees, and members of an advisory committee. WHY? To be ambassadors. To wear the organizational colors. In other words, to WORK. And you should definitely put them to work – greeting people, serving as table hosts, or volunteering in a myriad of other ways. They should not have to pay for this service. (And they shouldn’t use the event to set a bar for their own giving!)
I think it’s also worth considering dropping fundraising events in favor of donor engagement events.
I differentiate engagement 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. Multi-channel engagement, including events, is an important strategy for attracting and retaining donors at all levels.
Engagement 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.
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.
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?
In each case, the work of the event is not done 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 program 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:
- Plan ahead for diversity. Consider the events you will host at least a year ahead and perhaps two. Identify hosts for each event and host committees when appropriate. Offering a diversity of events will appeal to a wider range of participants. For example, other land trusts have hosted sunrise yoga on their preserves, various harvest events (strawberry or blueberry themed events) to focus attention on rural land preservation, fly-fishing lessons, fun ice cream events, bio-blitzes, family fun events, and so on.
- Aim each event at a specific audience. I even like the idea that we pick a poster child for that audience and aim the event at that person. Understand where they are and what we need to communicate (messaging) to “move” them closer. Keep in mind that what we need most may be related to listening to them. Articulate specific goals for each event.
- Start with your top prospect list, however you may define that. Work with a host to invite those THEY want to invite, but preferentially select people off a list that you prepare also. 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.
- 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. In general, I suggest avoiding the temptation to seek donated food and beverage, unless you feel comfortable with your control of the quality. Bad wine is still bad if it’s donated.
- 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.
- 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 to ensure it gets done. Try to get at least one picture of everyone there. The pictures can be filed to help future Board and staff members identify specific individuals. Make sure the name tags can be read in the photos!
- Record what you learn. Take notes and file the notes in the office.
- 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.
- Formally evaluate each event against the stated goals. Do this immediately afterward and repeat each event at least three times before evaluating it too harshly. That said, be quick to abandon events that are not achieving their stated purpose. Don’t fall in love with one specific activity. Some events may be very popular for a while and then begin to die off. Measure the success of an event not only by how many people come but also by who comes. Small events that attract the most influential are often more valuable than other events with many more participants.
- Evaluate the engagement program as a whole as well. What percentage of the membership are being served? How can we increase that percentage?
Finally, a reminder that the best time to renew event sponsors is immediately following the event. Thank them profusely for their support, report on the outcomes, and ask them to do it again next year.
What have I missed?
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 World Wildlife courtesy of Stocksnap.io.