How to Cultivate Event Attendees Into Major Gift Donors
Events are more than a one-time fundraiser. Nonprofits should use them for stewardship, moving donors up the pipeline. After all, events are a great entry point where you can make a donor want to be part of the community your nonprofit is building around your cause or mission.
“I have a lot of personal feelings about how events can be effective — how it’s a great way to introduce people to your cause, your mission, your leadership, etc.” Dennis Cheng, executive vice president of the Clinton Foundation, said. “And there's no right or wrong way to do it. You have to figure out what works best for you and your organization.”
Cheng; Rebecca Wasserman, managing director of development and regional events at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation; and Lucretia Gilbert, chief philanthropy officer at Elton John AIDS Foundation, spoke on the topic in their session, “Cracking the Code: Events and Major Gifts,” at AFP-NYC’s Fundraising Day in New York City on Friday.
Before you can even begin, your nonprofit must stop viewing events in a transactional nature. Yes, some attendees might be there for the meal or as a guest with no interest in your cause, but don’t be too quick to judge. As nonprofit leadership and boards continue to push for diversified revenue, events are actually a great cultivation tool.
“Although events may feel like you come in, you have a nice dinner, you have a lovely evening and then that’s it, they’re really an opportunity to create relationships with the people in the room,” Wasserman said. “If you’re strategically using your leadership and your board and your staff, it’s just a touch point in an overall strategy for engagement.”
It’s hard to overlook that event costs are rising, and attendance may not be as good as it was prior to the pandemic. The panelists admitted that not all events are worth doing in-person now, but having specific goals in mind, like cultivating major donors, can help your nonprofit to make the most out of an in-person event. A donor’s journey from event attendee to major donor isn’t uncommon. Cheng, shared a story of a donor who won an event auction to join Bill Clinton on an Africa trip with a seven-figure bid.
“Fast forward a year or two later when we launched a capital campaign, they then came in at a seven-figure pledge for that capital campaign,” he said. “Rewind three to four years before that when they were ticket-buyers to the gala, I never would have known that that would end up being the journey of that donor, but I’m so glad that it was.”
Here’s a look at their guidance on how to cultivate event attendees into major donors at your organization.
1. Involve Key Prospects in Event Planning
Having face time with donors is always important, but it doesn’t need to be limited to formal asks or events. Invite major donors to participate in event planning — even joining the team for the gala’s taste-test. While your donors will be flattered that you asked them, the time spent serves as further engagement and possibly an opportunity to learn other ways they can help with the event.
“We have donor meetings where people say ‘Hey, you know what? I know someone who can donate the wine,’ and that creates cost savings for the organization,” Wasserman said. “Or, ‘ I know someone who can donate this auction raffle.’ Well, that’s more revenue for the organization. We don’t know what people can do until we’re brainstorming a little on that.”
2. Know Who Will Be in Attendance
There will likely be a combination of new attendees and known donors. Here’s what Wasserman suggested to guide your research for each type of event attendee.
If your attendee is new to your organization, do some baseline research to determine:
- Who is the person?
- What are their giving motivations?
- What does their prior philanthropy look like?
If your attendee is a current donor, take a look at their giving patterns to help you make a donor-centric ask at the event:
- Did they increase giving in the past year?
- Are they participating at a higher level this year?
- Did they give in honor of someone?
Though preparing in advance is a best practice, for smaller teams that don't have that luxury, a tactic could include making notes of small talk or personal details learned while seating individuals and doing on-site research, Gilbert said.
“Any little tidbits of information that you can do as you’re going through the process is super, super helpful,” she said. “And then just collaborate with your colleagues to see who can look up donors, do some Googling. If you can only look at your top 10 tables, then look at your top 10 tables. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
3. Pinpoint Best Prospects From Event Attendee List
Your team likely can’t chat with each attendee, so prior to the event it’s important to make a game plan. Cheng advised utilizing all internal stakeholders, such as board members or table hosts, to help devise a plan.
“If someone puts together a table of nine people who are new — first time coming to an event, first time learning about your organization — spend some time with the table host to really strategically pinpoint,” he said. "Alright, of the nine people coming, who are the three with the largest giving potential and the most potential interest in the mission of your organization? And really craft [a] strategy and plan around that,” he said.
4. Devise a Plan for How to Reach Best Prospects at Your Event
Cheng may do the heavy lifting of planning out with whom the organization must interact that night; however, he delegates a lot of the actual conversing to board members, senior leadership and even the CEO. This might include 10 to 20 individuals per person.
“Maybe 24 hours before the event, I’ll send each of those people a list of who’s at the table, some talking points on a couple of people who they should really interact with, especially the people who are going to be on their left and right sides,” he said. “And then throughout the evening a number of other individuals at tables that we want them to approach to thank or introduce themselves or some kind of touch point. And I do the same for myself.”
Even after looping in colleagues, it may not be physically possible to reach every prospect in a single night. That’s where simple gestures can go a long way. Devise a master thank-you plan in advance. How will attendees be thanked after, but also appreciation for those you may not be able to talk to in person that night. Gilbert suggested a note that says, “Thank you for joining us. So glad you could be here.”
“If Dennis can only get to 20, but he’d really like to get to 30 people, the 10 extra people that are on the peripheral sides of the room that he might not physically make it to, or your CEO won’t make it to, just drop a thank-you note on their chair,” she said. “You can never say, ‘thank you’ enough.”