The Prom

We talk a lot about “impact investing” in advancement.  If you really want to know what impact investing is all about, here you go.

The development director was walking down the hall when a member of his team stopped him.  “Here, you should see this.”  The staff member handed him a flyer with the headline:

“Help Send the Students in Our Children’s Program to Their Prom”

Students in the Children’s Program were profoundly disabled.  The flyer explained the older students deserved a prom at the end of the school year just like teens in other schools.

There were two columns on the page.  To the left, the itemized costs for sending a boy to prom; tux rental, shoes, haircut, prom bid, et al.  The total: $185.  The right hand column itemized the costs for a girl; hair, shoes, dress, flower and prom bid: $215.  The flyer asked for help sponsoring a student, or any of the individual costs.

The development director didn’t know what to say.  The dedication of these teachers to their students was overwhelming.

“What are they doing with these?” he asked.  “They don’t know,” was the reply.  “They have a whole stack of them.  I think they wanted us to see it.  They know we’re in the middle of a campaign and they didn’t want to bother us, but there’s no budget to do this.”

“Get 75 of the sheets.  And tell the development officers we’re meeting at one o’clock in the Conference Room.”

Stamps, pens, monarch letterhead and reply envelopes were rounded up.  A list of lapsed, higher-end donors was quickly pulled.  He cobbled together another list of donors who would be upset not to be included.  In what?  The team was about to find out.

The six frontline fundraisers filed in to the conference room – major gifts, planned giving, direct mail and corporate/foundation relations.  A copy of the flyer was at each place.  The development director sat down, folded his hands and spoke to his colleagues.

“Whatever you were going to do this afternoon,” he said, “or at least for the next two or three hours is going to wait.  We have a job to do right now that is much more important.”  Everyone read the sheet.  They nodded and smiled.  They understood.

Together, the team crafted a simple letter on the whiteboard:

“Dear Mr. and Ms. Smith,

“We are writing you and a small group of friends today to invite your help in sending some wonderful young people to their Prom…”

Knowing the ultimate piece of direct mail is a handwritten letter in a handwritten envelope with a live stamp, each member of the team wrote ten personal letters, addressed ten envelopes and stuffed each with their secret weapon, the flyer from the Children’s Program.  70-plus letters went out in the mail that afternoon.

The response?  Explosive.  Return envelopes poured into the organization.  Many had notes enclosed with the check: “Thank you for giving us this opportunity to participate.”  “Our family wants to send both a boy and a girl to their Prom.”  “I am honored to give.”  “We are so proud to be part of such a wonderful organization.”

In days, more than enough was raised to send every one of the older students to their Prom.  The teachers were stunned.  The Program Director came by and hugged the fundraisers.  Donors were invited to attend the Prom themselves.  Held at a local hotel, the students grinned from ear to ear all night.  Teachers, parents, donors and fundraisers smiled through happy tears.

A few weeks later, the development director was having a beer with a friend in his back yard and told him the story of the Prom.  “I can’t figure it out,” he said.  “It was such an outpouring.  I don’t know what triggered it.”

His friend looked at him.  “Are you serious?  I don’t know much about your business but the story you just told me?

“That’s what fundraising should be about, all the time.

“Let me be honest with you,” he continued, “People don’t really care about your annual funds or your capital campaigns.  Those are artificial constructions your business creates.

“Those donors?  They wanted to do one thing:  Send a kid to the Prom.  That’s what your letter said and that’s what people want to hear.

“When we give, we just want to make a difference.  You need to show us how.”

That’s what impact investing is all about.

What a lesson we can learn from the Prom.

Have a good day, my friends.

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