When I started my gig at GLAAD, we had a $1.8 million budget. Special events represented $1.2 million of that total. But I was sure that our event franchise, The GLAAD Media Awards, if used strategically, could build other kinds of donor support and diversify our development portfolio.
I was excited. I reached out to the Development Committee. “So a month after these big events, we start asking attendees to become major donors, right?” “We capitalize on the good will the event created to engage them in a year round basis, right?”
Nope, they told me. “We try not to fundraise for several months before and several months after the event for fear of siphoning event revenue.”
It is at times like these that executive directors need to call upon their reserves of diplomacy. And so I did. I respectfully disagreed and I taught my board something very important.
The success of a special event is not about the money you make at it. It’s about the money that follows.
Here is my six-step plan for capitalizing on the power of special events. Try it on.
SPECIAL EVENTS ARE BAIT: HERE’ S WHY
- You have a captive audience. For several hours (hopefully not too many), you have the relatively undivided attention of hundreds of guests. You can feed them your mission Kool Aid.
- Your organization’s leader will speak about the importance of your organization. Hopefully it is an eloquent and charismatic executive director.
- Guests are surrounded by ambassadors – board and staff. Guests cannot escape the people most deeply committed to the organization.
- A $500 ticket buyer is a $1,500 donor waiting to happen.
- Most importantly, many of your attendees have come as guests. Let me make this very clear. They came to your party and made zero contribution. They are guests of corporate sponsors, guests of board members. You get the idea.
MY SIX STEP PLAN FOR CAPITALIZING ON SPECIAL EVENTS
1) Board members should contact guests within 48 hours of event. Thank them and garner event feedback. Be sure to ask something about what they learned about your organization. Judge their enthusiasm and interest.
2) Development committee should meet ASAP after the event. Not to talk about the centerpieces but to pour over the guest list and develop a list of all the folks who came as guests as well as ticket buyers with potential. Committee should assign organizational ambassadors (board or staff) to each. (Great way for board members without strong rolodexes to be engaged.)
3) Commit to contact everyone on that list within one week. See (1) above for talking points.
4) Commit to 3 touch points to each of them over a 3 month period. Staying in regular touch with them will be (a) impressive, (b) reinforce your commitment and (c) make a lunch date or a major donor event invitation feel organic and not out of left field.
5) Consider a Major Donor event within 90-120 days after the event. Assigned steward invites his/her assigned people along with other prospects. Invitation should make it clear that there will be an ask.
6) Ask a Board Member or friend of your organization to host the event. Great house, great vibe and a room filled with people who attended your event and were attended to in the interim. Someone makes a great pitch and then staff and board make major donor asks, hand out pledge cards.
The other great thing about this strategy? A good pitch makes it SO easy for a board member to walk up to a guest and ask for a $1,500 contribution. Great way for board members to feel success.
I’m not naïve. I know from special events and how hard it can be to get names and contacts of attendees (but far too few organizations work hard enough). I’m not suggesting that you’ll reach every single prospect. But a plan like this executed with the leadership of the Development chair and his/her partners on the Development committee can make a huge difference.
I speak from experience. We implemented this strategy with a client and a board member, in a debrief from the event said simply. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel.”
I told you. Special events are bait.