A few weeks ago, I attended a gala fundraising dinner for a local chapter of a well-known, well-funded, national non-profit health care foundation.
We were invited guests of one of the event’s major corporate table sponsors. Although I knew nothing of the organization previously, I was ready to learn more, anticipating some fun, silent-auction bidding — all while visiting with old friends and eating delicious “master-chef-prepared dishes,” the event’s theme.
Little did I know I would have practically no time to visit with my friends, peruse the silent auction items, or discuss the food that was billed as the focus of the evening.
Instead, the event guests were trapped for over an hour, listening to numerous speeches by organizational insiders, followed by two presentations (complete with scientific data slides) on the latest medical research, and an award presentation where three relatives of the recipient spoke.
Long, less-than-inspiring “programs” are not a rare occurrence at nonprofit fundraising events.
Yet I’m still surprised when I witness it, particularly from well-financed organizations with (presumably) experienced fundraisers.
This is not to say that recognizing important players and educating the public about your cause aren’t important. They are.
But they need to happen at a separate time and place, not during an event that was billed as entertainment.
Fundraising events should be treated just like good fundraising communications; they must be donor-centered.
The #1 goal for your event, aside from raising money, should be to inspire enormous good will from your donors and guests, and endear participants to your organization.
Your priority should be an outstanding experience for donors and potential donors in attendance.
This means putting aside the desires of your board, event committee, and other inside players, to ensure your guests leave feeling…
- glad they supported your mission financially.
- proud of their association with your organization.
- they had an enjoyable experience.
- greatly appreciated.
- excited to attend the event next year.
- compelled to tell others about your event.
Here are some tips to make that happen:
1. Keep the program brief.
No doubt, there will be a long list of competing priorities for your event. The bigger your event planning team, the more you’ll be tempted to add to the agenda. Prior to the event, sit down with your team and decide on the most crucial things to communicate.
Whittle down that list, keeping your guests’ experience in front-of-mind. In addition to important event sponsors, you may feel it necessary to thank an organizational VIP, board members, volunteers, and staff. But most of this should take place behind-the-scenes.
Select only your most important honorees to acknowledge during your event. For any others who need an acknowledgment, either print their names in a handout or simply extend a personal thanks after the event.
2. Share a mission-related, inspirational story.
Just as you would in a well-crafted fundraising appeal or newsletter, share an emotionally compelling brief story or testimonial from someone who has benefited from your work. Tell their story either in person or through a short video presentation.
Make sure your story packs an emotional punch, and most importantly, attributes the success to the donors in attendance, rather than attributing it to your amazing organization.
Again, keep it brief!
3. Manage and respect your attendees’ expectations.
Consider why guests are attending your event in the first place.
If you’ve centered your invitation around food or wine, make sure food or wine is the focus of the event (and that it tastes great, too). Give them time to discuss the food, drink wine, and spend lots of money on auction items.
If your event is a golf tournament, remember your guests are there to play a round of golf with friends or colleagues. Most will expect a brief welcome and to be thanked for their attendance and financial support. They’ll be happy to hear about your work and will have planned to make an extra donation.
But don’t damage good will and abuse their generosity by making them endure a long, painful speech, particularly if they weren’t expecting one.
Rather, if you plan to spend a significant amount of time presenting awards, recognizing organizational insiders, or presenting an educational talk, you should bill your event appropriately as an award ceremony or lecture.
4. Follow up with attendees after the event.
Many nonprofits fail to follow up with attendees after the event. This is a huge wasted opportunity.
For many guests, your event was their first exposure to your work. Perhaps a friend invited them. Perhaps they were fans of the band you hired. Reach out to them personally, thank them for coming, ask what prompted their attendance, and invite them back next year.
Other guests may have been supporters for many years. Whether they are small-gift, peripheral donors or long-time major donors, its the perfect time for a phone call from your board. Thank them for attending, thank them for their ongoing support, and ask about their experience at the event.
Reaching out personally to your guests after the event will cement their connection with you and make them more likely to become or remain loyal annual donors.
5. Attend other organizations’ fundraising events.
Remind yourself what it feels like to be a guest at a fundraising event by attending similar nonprofit functions in your community.
You’ll leave with a fresh perspective and new ideas to incorporate into your organization’s event. You may even have a renewed understanding of what you don’t want your guests to experience.
Exactly one week after my aforementioned master-chef gala, a friend regaled our book club with stories of her amazing experience at a similar chef-focused fundraising dinner she recently attended. She couldn’t stop talking about the fun night and the delicious food.
Not only had she already made plans to sponsor a table the following year, she felt the original ticket cost wasn’t enough based on how much she received in return. She made a substantial additional contribution after the event.
Now that’s a perfect example of what you want for your nonprofit’s event guests.