Liven Up Fundraising Events

Cutest cake? And made by the bride...

This past weekend I attended a wedding – a former co-worker and friend of my husband and me. It was an intimate celebration with many sentimental and delightful touches (including this cake, made by the bride).

One of the fun touches they added was asking guests to use Instagram to document the reception and dinner. Here is part of the email from the groom:

We are going to try to have some fun with any photos you take on your mobile using Instagram.  If you do not already have it, go to or the App Store to download and set up an account.  Become familiar with taking photos and adding captions or comments.  We will have a special hashtag that will allow us to share photos taken during the evening.  Not familiar with it?  No problem.  We’ll have technical support on hand.

When we arrived at the reception, we were given the hashtag to use: #GregSharon.

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Working the Room – When it’s a Challenge

Recently I’ve been talking about Working the Room – how to get the most out of donor relationships during event. Then I wrote a post about getting the right people to the event.  The posts outlined practical steps about how fundraisers, board and staff can focus on the donors and not the event.

As fundraisers, we are always looking to more deeply engage our donors as supporters of our nonprofit, and one easy way is by leveraging the time they are with your nonprofit at events. Rather than just enjoying the auction or golf tournament or stewardship luncheon, you can connect donors to important people, hear the gratitude from the front-line staff, and meet leaders or those your nonprofit serves.

But even the best laid plans go awry. Let’s talk about how to overcome challenges you may encounter when working the room.

Challenge: Board members stick together and don’t circulate. After my first post, many expressed frustration at this. And it perhaps board members only get together at meetings and therefore find events a great time to catch up or talk shop. But that doesn’t help guests feel included, nor does it help build relationship bridges with donors and prospects.

Solution: Break them up yourself by bringing a donor over to meet them, “Ari! Have you met members of our board yet? This is our Chair and immediate past Chair. They have offered crucial leadership during….” Or go to the group, select one and ask if s/he has been able to meet Donor A (as agreed). “Donor A is over here and introduced that new prospect to us who made a new major gift. Donor A, have you met Maria, a member of our Board of Directors?” Don’t berate them, just show them what needs to be done and introduce a donor or prospect to them.

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Working the Room – Getting the Right People

In my last post, I offered some practical tips on  ensuring that your nonprofit events maximize donor, volunteer and prospect relationships and help move them forward (and how to deal with challenges here).

CSF 10th Anniversary Bash

CSF 10th Anniversary Bash

But much of this can start even earlier – at the invitation stage.

What typically happens for an event is that we invite those who invited last year (or maybe even up to five years back!), generous donors, faithful supporters, board members – what we might call the “usual suspects”. This could be for a gala, golf tournament or other event with an invitation and where you are creating an invitation list.

When it is time to pull the list together

  • Take a look at the list of prospects and lapsed donors – Whether you have a major gift team or are in a one-person shop, you likely have a list of  lapsed donors to re-engage and prospects to try to engage. Who among these people might be interested in attending this event? Is there someone who could be invited by a board member, Ambassador or other key volunteer to join their table or foursome? Use a critical eye. Of course, you should have a strategy for each of these people, but perhaps you haven’t yet had time. For some, attending an event with peers may be preferable to accepting a meeting request from a fundraiser. Be strategic. Personalize. Think about choosing from these lists, but no more than 5 – 10% of your total invitation pool.
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Working the Room

I had a colleague who told me, as we prepared to attend a pre-opening donor event at an art museum, that these events were very difficult for her.

“They aren’t hard for you, you like talking with people,” she said. “For me, it is different.”

Yes and no. There is no question that I get energy from the people around me. But as a development officer I have to prepare to be “ready” for these events. Each time you extend your hand — literally or figuratively — to anyone, there is the opportunity to be rejected. And we all fear that. But as a fundraiser, we must push those fears aside, as we have important work to do.

Some fundraising events, more than others, offer easy opportunities to introduce yourself and talk about how your nonprofit is changing the world. But you must always be prepared — to be welcoming, to speak with donors and prospects, to talk about your cause and to move the relationships closer. And sometimes to squelch those feelings of nervousness.

At an Alexis de Tocqueville event for United Way of King County.

At an Alexis de Tocqueville event for United Way of King County.

When it comes to a fundraising event, you should be planning before the event to maximize your efforts. The event is an opportunity to do more than enjoy the show. Sure, it might feel like a party but your organization should be leveraging the event by making key introductions, connecting donors to each other, and working the room to the best advantage for your cause. Here are some of my tips (and my follow-up posts here and here):

Before The Event

Who will be there? Whether the event is for cultivation, prospecting, or stewardship, if there is an r.s.v.p. list, you know who is planning to attend. Three days before the event, set aside one to two hours depending on the number of guests (this is important cultivation work!) to review the guest list with your fundraising team (in a one person shop that might be you and the CEO/Executive Director). The guest list should note current supporters and prospective supporters. Who are key individuals (donors or volunteers) who should meet the CEO for a personal thank you? Who has made a recent or special gift of note? Who are those you wish to bring closer to your nonprofit? Reviewing the list may also surface important or new information about your guests. If there are moves to make with your donor, this event may be the time.

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I never thought I would see one of our donors – a seasoned attorney – jumping on a trampoline with a Gates daughter. But at this event, I walked into the room at just the right time. 

The InvitationAt United Way of King County, we successfully employed “donor appreciation events” to thank our current donors and invite some prospective donors to hear about our work in the community. We were fortunate that some very wonderful donors opened their  homes to this type of “ambassador” work and became more deeply engaged. These Alexis de Tocqueville Society events, held about twice per year, usually had between 60 and 80 guests.

Another donor event, the Mary Gates Circle, was held in the late summer and thanked donors giving $25,000 or more annually (named after the long-time board member, Seattle philanthropist and mother of Bill Gates). On the 10th anniversary of the founding event, Bill and Melinda offered to hold this event at their new home in Medina, Washington. The event offered the perfect opportunity to re-engage lapsed donors and talk to current donors about their giving for the year.

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