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Four key learnings to optimize your live fundraising events

on
March 1, 2022
Don Stewart, M.Ed.

In-person events are coming back.  After 2 years struggling under Covid and making the best of virtual events, more and more organizations are making the decision to return to live events including fundraisers. John Armstrong, president of the Armstrong Strategy Group sat down with some of ASG’s fundraising team, Carrie Zeffiro, Bill Hallett and Don Stewart to discuss “How to optimize your fundraising event.” This transcript has been edited for ease of reading and to remove specific examples.

 

Key Learnings 

  1. Events are expensive to put on, so when you begin planning your event, set a net fundraising goal and make your plans work to achieve that goal.
  2. Focus your event on fundraising.  For example, do not include employee and volunteer recognition at your fundraising event.  Because they are so special, do a separate event for them at another time.
  3. Make sure to fundraise in the room.  Organize the event around fundraising not when the meal is served.
  4. Fundraising events should be about donor cultivation and stewardship as well as raising funds. For example: 
  • Seat Board Members and/or staff at different tables, rather than have them sitting together.  This will provide Board Members and staff with the opportunity to thank and inform current and potential donors and sponsors about your charity.
  • Provide key donors and sponsors and prospective donors with preferred seating.

 

The Interview

John:

As we learn to live with COVID and the world starts to open up again, people are starting to have events again and they have the opportunity to think differently about events. We want people to take the opportunity to think differently and to optimize their events. So, the question I have for each of you is, what advice would you give to an organization that's looking to host an event to optimize it for fundraising?

Carrie:

One thing that I think people forget, or they don't think about is that, events aren't just for fundraising, it's for friend-raising and stewardship. And you have to have those components in your event. Because you can have an event, and raise good money, but the stewardship and the cultivation of donors, that should be an important part of any fundraising event plan. How are we cultivating certain donors? And what were we doing to get them there and to have them have a great night. And that was just as important as the fact that we were going to make $100,000. 

John:

So, when you say cultivate donors, are you talking about current donors, potential donors …?

Carrie:

Yes. All of them.

Bill:

Brand new ones, current donors, past donors.

John:

So, how do you do that?

Carrie:

First off, always make sure they buy their own tickets, but do things like a meet and greet with the guest speaker, as an exclusive event with only so many people allowed in. So, if you were a sponsor at a certain level, you got to come in. For example, if you sponsor an event at a certain level $5,000, you get two people who could come into the pre-event. Even make sure to invite important potential sponsors into the pre-event. And if there’s a special guest speaker, make sure to get a picture of them with the speaker and send it to them after the event. The donors will know it’s a perk and that’s okay.

John:

What if you don't have a special guest? 

Don:

Pre-cocktail party or something. There's lots of things you can do to make them feel special. And I would tie into that a little bit. Carrie said some great things about being a friend-raiser and a stewardship. I think one of the biggest mistakes of events that a lot of people do, is trying to do too much. I.e, they add in an employee recognition and a volunteer recognition night. And there's just too much. I think the event that is most successful is the one that really keeps it tight and touches hearts and makes it a friend-raiser, as opposed to trying to do everything. If you want to have an employee recognition or a volunteer recognition, that's not at your gala. That's... And it's completely different.

Carrie:

You can also do things like preferred seating. Making sure that people from your board of directors, you give them the seating plan ahead of time, and you tell them, "Please go to table number 12, and this is who's seated there". And you make sure that people on your committee, people on your board, your CEO, visits certain people. So little things like that, that you can do in your planning that make those people feel special.

Bill:

Yeah. One strategy is having a board member, for example, at every table.

Don:

What always throws me is when the event is positioned as a dinner with some fundraising. I think you have to focus on the fact that this is first and foremost a fundraiser at which dinner is served. 

John:

You make a good point, that rather than having a dinner where some fundraising takes place, have a fundraiser where dinner is served. So, what's the nuance difference that achieves that goal?

Bill:

That people know that they're coming to a fundraising event.

Don:

Yeah. And also, your timing of your delivery of food and things like that are built around the fundraising plan, not the fundraising built around the catering plan.

John:

Bill, you said by making sure that everybody knows they're coming to a fundraiser. So how overt should you be in the way that you position your invitation that it is a fundraiser?

Bill:

Well, the overt part, I guess, when you're paying $250 for a ticket, you know it's the fundraising event.

Carrie:

And the fact that a foundation is hosting it if it is a foundation.

John:

But it's the expectation. The $250 is one thing that you understand it's a fundraising event. But what we're talking about is, also the expectation that I'm going to be going there and spending money while I'm there.

Bill:

And a lot of people that go to those things know that.

Don:

Yeah. And they're expecting it.

Bill:

It's not about raising money, it's actually about spending money. When I was in a charity and they insist on an event, I say, okay, what is the net going to be? We’ve got to have a goal. And if our net's $100,000, you know you're going to spend at least at least $50,000 to make $100,000 total, with a net of $50,000. I always push, what's the outcome going to be? 

John:

What about golf tournaments? How do you optimize a golf tournament?

Don:

And again, I've been going to golf tournaments for years. And they have... Except for during COVID time, they have a captive room of, I don't know, 150, 160 golfers, maybe more, and at too many golf tournaments the only thing is sell tickets for a booze basket or something like that. And yet they have a lot of people who are there for a fundraiser for the cause. And they've put a lot of time and effort and staff time into hosting that golf tournament. And they're happy, or they're satisfied with their $25,000 that they make on their golf tournament. Whereas I look at it as a participant and someone who has some knowledge going, this is a lost opportunity that they're not bringing in $200,000 by making it an ask. If you're going to do it, optimize it. Fundraise in the room. Do the auction.

Bill:

The thing is, if you're going to do an event, number one, know what the purpose of the event is. Number two, do it well. So, there's events for fundraising, there's events for recognition, there's events for making your cause known. But if the focus is on fundraising, that's what the focus should be. 

John:

Our advice is to... If it's not a specific fundraising event, don't do any fundraising. Know what your purpose is. And if it is a fundraising event – optimize it – cultivate and steward donors, make it special for them, and fundraise in the room.  The people are there for the cause, let them help.

_

The Armstrong Strategy Group has decades of experience in fundraising events; but unlike other fundraising firms that only do fundraising, ASG’s event experience includes recognition nights, awareness raisers, and education events. ASG’s advice is to know you’re the goal of your event and don’t try to do too much. We can help you sort that out, structure your event strategy and integrate it into your organization’s over all strategic priorities. 

There's always a strategy.

Please call or email and we'll be in touch.

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