We’re not here to entertain people.
Every fundraising event I’ve produced has started from this basic premise. If your event isn’t bringing your supporters closer to your cause and engaging them in a compelling way, entertaining people – for sure an important and desirable by product – is pretty much all you will be doing. And frankly, who has the time? Ironically not major donors, many of whom are just looking for an excuse to decline yet another invitation they could well do without.
Too often the reason why charities put on events gets lost in the need to please and the razzle dazzle of the production. If showing people a good time becomes the overwhelming driver for your donor event programme, it will also be the reason why it has little or no impact on the level of your donations. Even with sponsorship or gifts in kind, this is going to cost you and in a far more precious commodity than just cash. It will cost you in the hours, days, weeks and months of your staff’s time that will get sucked into the black hole of logistics and rarely accounted for in the bottom line of an event budget.
But yet for all this, I firmly believe events are an important tool for fundraisers and they don’t have to sap all your resources if there’s an effective strategy in place. Below are some of the ways you can maximise their potential based on some of my own real life examples:
Find universal themes that get people talking
When I worked on the capital campaign for the Holocaust Galleries at IWM, I knew I had a challenge on my hands when it came to events. A bleaker and more nihilistic subject matter it would be hard to find. How to engage people in a meaningful and sensitive way with such darkness? How to get them through the door?
My answer came through looking at the wider themes of the Holocaust and by finding the points of light where people could connect and converse. I came up with three universal strands – human rights, refugees and the Nazis failure to repress creativity. From this came ideas for panel discussions on Kindertransport and the Nuremberg Trials and a concert of music composed in the camps with readings by leading Jewish performers.
The events used a combination of film footage, eye witnesses, experts and opportunities to see archives up close, but you don’t have to have all of these trappings. The best donor events provide guests with a unique and privileged window on your work and encourages discussion. This can be as simple an ‘in conversation’ evening with your CEO and a relevant opinion former discussing something with a topical hook. By all means, have drinks and canapes and opportunities to mingle, but the themed content showing why your cause matters and how guests can support it is the meat on the bones. It deserves the lion’s share of your attention and planning.
Beware the Gala
Galas. Just thinking about them makes me want to lie in a darkened room with my head wrapped in a wet flannel. Unless you’re UNICEF or World Jewish Relief and you can raise millions in a single night through collective, herculean (and make no mistake, all year round) efforts, think very long and hard. If the lure of holding a big, splashy event is too great, make sure you diversify the income streams on the night and above all, be strategic.
Always have a plan for your most prominent donors and prospects, giving careful thought to where and with whom they are sitting and what messages you want them to hear. Think about what they might like to buy at the auction, not what you want them to buy because it has the biggest price tag.
I’ve worked on galas where billionaire philanthropists have been sat at tables without a trustee or even a member of SMT in sight. With patience and tenacity, this person could transform your organisation’s services far more than the ‘refreshed guest’ bidding £2K for a spa experience in Malaga, so don’t neglect them and, delightful as they are, please don’t sit them with the cast of Coronation Street. Make sure they’re next to someone who can really engage them with the purpose of the night.
Incidentally I once knew of a charity who, for one year only, produced a very successful ‘virtual gala’ instead of their annual event. This was an ‘non-event’ where people donated a ticket price not to have to go. Yes, this is how much some people don’t want to venture out and sit in another ballroom. It’s worth mulling over.
Small (and exclusive) is beautiful
Small dinners with the right access can pack a powerful punch. The most successful events I’ve ever led on have involved a carefully curated group of donors having dinner somewhere unusual or beautiful in the company of a highly sought after host who knows how to advocate for you. It’s a simple enough formula, but I think it’s the best one fundraisers have.
The most perfect fundraising event I’ve produced was at Stonewall and it had only twelve guests. We held it in the walkway of Tower Bridge on a June evening hosted by three of its original founders, Lord Cashman, Matthew Parris and Sir Ian McKellen. It attracted sponsorship, raised £30K net – largely from first time givers – and took me and my events lead a relatively short time to put together. More importantly it galvanised some pretty significant relationships.
It’s true to say there was an element of fairy dust on the night. The bridge opened so guests could see the boats sailing underneath them through the glass floor, the sun set magnificently over the Thames and Sir Ian gave an impromptu Shakespeare recital at the table that any committed theatre buff would kill to see, but what made the evening fly was its exclusivity and its gravitas. It didn’t matter how wealthy you were, money couldn’t buy this access or this experience.
Whether you choose to get pledges on the night or whether you follow up later, using an influential figurehead and focusing your attention on a small group of individuals can be way more effective than having hundreds of people in a room who are not all going to hear or be affected by your message.
Bringing donors and beneficiaries together
I was lucky enough to work on the Heads Together campaign for mental health awareness in 2017. One of the things that Heads Together excelled at – and still does – was the idea of building a diverse community of people and taking them on a journey. It’s fair to say events played a major part in this ambition – after all what’s bigger than the London Marathon – but it was the events in the lead up to Race Day that allowed for those who suffered from mental health issues to share their stories and their commonality at panel events and receptions.
Royal protocol meant there was never a direct financial ask at these events, but interestingly there didn’t need to be. Because the single most powerful thing you can do with any event is to provide a space for donors and beneficiaries to meet and connect.
Never, ever ‘wait for the dust to settle’
This I know for sure. If you offer the right content to the right people, present it in an attractive way with an adequate lead time, the guests will come and they will engage with your cause. What happens after that is up to you, which leads me onto my final point. The most impactful part of an event is in the follow up. Timely and tailored communications mean personalised messages the next day based on real conversation and observation. If people have found your event stimulating and have had a good time, they want to hear from you and in fact, it’s bad manners not to connect with them. Would you do this to someone who’d been a guest in your home?
Meet up with your colleagues in the morning and compare notes. Add the notes to the database and make a plan about who is going to contact which guest and what the next steps are for the relationship. It might be a follow up meeting with one of your experts, it might be a link to donate to an online appeal or it might be just a thank you card, but for major donors it will be an individual approach.
Finally, if you have prospects who keep turning up to events, drinking your champagne and contributing nothing of value, do feel free to take them off the list.
Like I said, we’re not here to entertain people.