Five Ways to Maximize the Fundraising Events You Hate

Published on October 7, 2019

Brian Saber

President of Asking Matters
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OK, I know I’m projecting the hate, as I would rather attend a first-grade violin recital — in which my child is not performing— than attend a fundraising event.

Putting aside my distaste of large-scale gatherings for any purpose (e.g. weddings), it’s impossible to make all my donors happy at any one event and that frustrates me terribly. Whenever I’m in a room of 200 donors, my only thought is how much I’d prefer to meet with each donor individually so I can maximize their experience, engagement, and contribution.

Given those challenges for me, I’ve spent a lot of time focused on how to make fundraising events as productive and strategic as possible. Here are my top five.

1.Never Forget It’s First & Foremost About Fundraising

No question fundraising events have many benefits. They bring your donors together, which creates a sense of working for a common cause. They allow you to recognize people, spotlight (hopefully) your good work, and bring visibility to the organization. They give people volunteer roles. All of this is good.

However, all this can be accomplished through cultivation and recognition events. These events are far less expensive, easier to produce, and subject to less expectation and scrutiny. People don’t focus on the food nearly as much at a free cultivation event.

Your fundraising event must be worthwhile for the fundraising alone. If you find yourself justifying it based on its other merits, you should think twice about it.

2.Don’t Run an Event Primarily on the Backs of Your Board Members

Board members are often pushed to be major donors and fundraisers for fundraising events. Many buy tables, serve as sponsors, and invite/solicit friends and associates. This is often far, far less productive than thought.

Most board members would happily give those dollars outside the event, where they would go right to the bottom line. They’re only directing their funds to the event because event chairs and staff have guilted them into doing so. If they’d give those dollars regardless, they’re not incremental dollars as the result of the event.

Further, if they invite people to their tables as guests, the variable costs of those guests must be subtracted from what the guests might spend on raffles, auctions, etc. And if they ask friends to buy tickets, they often have to buy tickets to their friends’ events in return. This quid pro quo fundraising is painful and generally unproductive. Most of their friends will never care about your organization; nor will your board members care about their friends’ organizations. So now everyone is giving their money to causes they don’t care about.

3.Give Volunteer Fundraisers the Most Recognition

The top banana in the volunteer structure should be a volunteer fundraiser. The committee that gets the most recognition should be the committee that fundraises. If you have one big committee that includes those planning the program, addressing invitations, etc., you are saying those volunteers are equally important. They are not. Many programmatic decisions can be made by staff or one or two volunteers and are only made by committee as a means of giving people volunteer assignments. However, the fundraising cannot happen without volunteer support and it is the most trying of the work… so acknowledge and celebrate it appropriately.

4.Cultivate & Solicit Lead Event Donors as You Do All Major Gift Donors

Identify your lead event donors six months or further in advance and come up with a cultivation plan for them. Try to see them in person to get to know them better, and again to solicit their support. When you solicit their support, ask them for a specific event gift. After the event, steward their gifts (see below). Keep in mind if you try to cultivate everyone you will end up cultivating no one, so it’s important to focus your energy on those who will make the biggest impact. The Pareto Principle holds here. 20% of your event donors will make 80% of the impact, so spend 80% of your time on that 20%.

5.Spend at Least 10% of Your Event Time AFTER the Event

Events are so much work we often celebrate, catch up on sleep, and move on to the next project.

However, a common mistake in fundraising is focusing less attention on donors immediately after they make gifts than beforehand. Our cultivation plans tend to be more thought out than our stewardship plans. Yet donors are most engaged and invested immediately after making gifts, so that’s the time to get their attention, make them feel special, and bring them closer.

Make sure every event donor is thanked personally, more than once if possible. A call to every donor will go a long way and is a perfect job for board members and the event committees.

Then spend time figuring out which event attendees/donors have the most potential and make a stewardship/cultivation plan for each one.

Here’s to knocking it out of the park on your fundraising events!


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