When is a donor cultivation event more about building your organization’s profile than it is about fundraising? How can you be sure that your “friendraiser” is actually moving you towards the achievement of your fundraising goals?

Events can be great fun, excellent for networking and for catching up with people in the community, but sometimes I wonder how good some of the ones I’ve attended have been in supporting the organization’s fundraising objectives.  For example, some larger events, like fundraising galas, can struggle to raise funds above the costs involved in putting them together in the first place. When you factor in the time spent by staff and volunteers in organizing a gala, it could even be a money-loser. In such cases, is “raising awareness” of your cause at such an event enough?

The fact is, different events have different objectives.  Some are all about raising money on the night, while donor cultivation events, or non-ask events, can be highly effective in supporting your fundraising program in other, sometimes more significant, ways. In this two-part series, I share some of the ways to use these events to best effect.

Building an engaged contact list.  Depending upon the nature of the event and the guests who show up, you may or may not have people’s contact details.  I’ve been to a number of events where I was invited as a guest of someone else, so the organization didn’t have any way of contacting me afterwards. Nor at any point in the evening was I given the opportunity to provide my information. Other events I’ve been to were more open affairs, where people were able to just show up. Again, there was no effort to get my name so that they could follow up with me.  Worse, on some occasions, I was asked for my details, and I didn’t hear a thing from them at all.

At a time when building a database of supporters is becoming more difficult and expensive, not capturing names and contact details of people who have already taken the time to come to one of your events is a big mistake. You could be missing out on a valuable opportunity to bring on new supporters in the longer term.

Building engagement with your mission.  Some of the most powerful and successful events I’ve run have been mission-focused. These events are intended to move, engage and persuade people to become more involved. Unlike galas, where there are a lot of distractions and key messages can get lost, all the attention of mission-focused events are on the cause.

The key to making these events a success is having a good match between the people you invite and what you seek to achieve as an organization, a strong pull such as a good host and venue, and an opportunity for really powerful storytelling, where existing and prospective donors can hear first-hand how their support can make a difference. If possible, have people who can talk from their own experience of how the work has benefitted them, ideally in person but even by video.

Not unlike your Case for Support, and depending on the type of event, the evening should even have its own story arc, where people are taken on a journey towards a conclusion where guests feel an emotional pull to get more involved.

Don’t just focus on the money.  When people come to an event, they are looking for an experience.  At a donor cultivation event, or in fact, at all fundraising events, this experience should leave them feeling good about being there, and wanting to become more engaged in some way.

Therefore, when designing your event, you must think about the experience you want people to have and the feeling that you want people to leave with. When people are moved, excited and engaged, and when they can see what their role might be in changing the world, they are much more likely to be with you for the future, not just for the evening. Ultimately this will lead to people wanting to take out their chequebooks, and what’s more, they will feel good about it.

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Give people choices.  When you have a range of people in a room with different levels of involvement and different capacities to give, its important to give people options with regard to how and when they might like to support you. When you put everyone on the same level in terms of the approach, you could risk alienating some, while missing a great opportunity with others.

I recently worked on an event where we had guests who were potential major donors, people who were very influential in other ways, as well as those whose giving capacity was much smaller. We also had people there who had never heard of us before, while others knew us well. Because of this wide range of guests in attendance, we decided to give people choices that ranged from making a donation to simply asking people to agree to us staying in touch. As a result, not only did we receive more donations than ever before, we significantly grew our contact list. In addition, many guests offered to connect us to people and organizations who have considerable capacity to support the cause.

Have a strong Home Team. I’ve talked about this before, but this is a must for donor cultivation events. If the goal of your event is to get to know your guests better, for larger events in particular, it can be hard to speak with everyone there and give each and every person personal attention.

One way to get around this is to have a strong “Home Team”. These is a group of people at the event whose role, and only role, is to chat with the people that attend.  They could include Board members, staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and even other donors, and they would be people who were completely comfortable with interacting with guests, thanking them for their support and getting to know them better. Not only will this help guests to feel more valued, but it provides an excellent opportunity to understand your donors’ motivations and how they might like to get more deeply involved.  As a result, you will be able to follow up with the guests in a way that is highly personalised and appropriate for their level of interest.

Have a debrief, the SAME day. This is where you come together with all your Home Team members and talk about the conversations that were had on the night and take notes, so that you know exactly how to follow up later.  You might be looking out for details such as direct offers of support, where people have asked to meet with you or other members of the team to talk about getting more involved, or even just where they were clearly enthusiastic or talked about what moved them most during the evening.

Most importantly, the debrief should happen the same day, as it’s amazing how much is lost by the next morning, not just in terms of information, but the nuances in terms of how people said what, and how they felt about what they had experienced.  So even if its late, and you are all exhausted, ensure that you schedule some time at the end of the evening to make this happen and get people’s commitment to attend.

Identifying other opportunities. Whenever I organize a cultivation event, I’m never just looking for people who could be donors.  I am also looking for people who can help in other ways.  For example, I might be trying to identify higher profile people or current major donors who might be a good fit to host and sponsor the next event. I pay attention to who within the organization, from staff to board members, are turning out to be great champions of the cause and could play a more significant role in supporting fundraising efforts moving forward.  They might even be people who I would invite to join the Home Team at future events.

I also pay attention to which internal team members have a strong rapport with our donor prospects, so that we can determine who might be the best person to follow up with them later. By identifying such opportunities, I can increase my capacity, reach and the impact with regard to my fundraising program moving forward.

Follow up!  Talking of follow up, this is another must!  Of course, I know what it can be like.  Event organization is hard! Leading up to the event you have been working long hours to make sure everything is going right. Then there is the event itself, which is a high stress activity.  So naturally, you might think that you`ve earned a long break afterwards to recuperate.

Taking some time off immediately after an event can be a huge mistake.  Fundraising events provide a fantastic opportunity to really get up close and personal with your donors, who otherwise you might never have the chance to meet.  When done right, they put people on an emotional high, where they really want to do something to help. With cultivation events in particular, the follow up is even more important as you really don’t want to lose momentum, and you want to build on the connections that you made.  You also need to act quickly – ideally the next day –  before the enthusiasm that your guests might have felt at the event starts to fade as they get back into busyness of their lives.

So think about your follow up strategy with your guests, and how you are going to approach them.  Use the information that you have from the evening to ensure that you can do this in as personalised a way as possible, so that you can make the most of the enthusiasm and engagement resulting from the evening.

Download my free checklist to put together a great donor stewardship plan

Of course, direct fundraising events and ask events have their place in the fundraising spectrum, but by doing them right, donor cultivation events can an extremely powerful tool in your fundraising toolbox.  By being clear on your goals, by driving all your activities towards the achievement of them, and by understanding your audience, there is no doubt you can turn your cultivation event into a highly successful fundraising initiative that helps you to build a robust and growing fundraising program.

First published on www.charityinfo.ca

Related articles:

Activate your Stewardship GPS, help donors get from here…to there.

The Fundraising Tour: One of the best fundraising tools

Using events more strategically to engage donors

Developing a strong donor stewardship plan to increase giving and loyalty

Part 3: Building a donor stewardship plan – the key elements to success

From Galas to Garden Parties: Using events for more effective fundraising

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