Events? Or Major Gifts?

A reader writes:

“Rob, one topic I would be glad to hear more about is special events.

“I recently relocated from a large university setting to a much smaller development shop.  Special events occupy quite a prominent place in our fundraising strategy, and I’m constantly being asked to work on them.

“It’s been quite a challenge.  I do see some benefit, but it takes away from my capacity for visits, proper follow up and strategy.  Should I be expected to do both visits and events?

“If I may, two underlying topics here are, one, what is the role of special events in growing a major gifts program? And two, what’s the best response when less experienced senior leaders (often not fundraisers) perceive special events as the best way to raise money?”

Yikes.  This is a tough one, and not uncommon.

Let’s begin with acknowledging that we all crave reinforcement of our feelings.  A movie we like is a big hit.  We’re part of the “in” crowd.  We like that.  The cheering throngs at a sporting event reinforce that rooting for the team is a good thing.

Being surrounded by a crowd supporting a cause or an organization you admire reinforces your own good feelings for that cause.  That’s true for our donors, too.

Donors who bring their friends to your event are conveying their pride in what you do.  They’re also expecting you to “stop by to say hello so I can introduce you.” You’d better make sure that’s on your dance card!

My campaign chair once invited 84 of his friends to our Gala, as his guest!  You can’t match that kind of commitment.

I really like events as a non-threatening way to introduce new friends to your organization.  Meeting Susan and Jerry in a fun setting and asking, “May I call you next week to find a time for coffee?” is an easy way to get that first visit.  They’ve been introduced to you by someone they trust and have a good first impression of you.

If the event goes smoothly, your major donors feel you have your act together.  A special event is one of the very best chances you have to communicate your message and to create an emotional connection to that message.  The Susan G. Komen walks are masters at that.  Many campaigns are announced or concluded at big events, and many are the awards given to major donors at every kind of event.

Events are a prime occasion to obtain corporate support.  And many donors like events because they can express their support with the buffer of the crowd; i.e., without having a fundraiser call upon them in person.

But my friend’s note touched on some very sensitive points.

Institutions with less mature development programs may favor events because they have not invested the time to develop strong relationships with potential major donors.  It’s viewed as the “quicker and easier” way to raise $100,000.  Nurturing a relationship and sitting down with a prospect to ask for that gift? That’s more time consuming, and more intimidating.

Events should be seen as a part of a balanced development portfolio, alongside the annual fund, planned giving, major gifts and the like.  Just like with any investment portfolio, being too heavily weighted in one area is not a good thing.

“Can I do both?”  That’s the crucial question.  Lots of time the boss wants to be oblivious to what your job description says you should be doing.  We all want to please the boss, but we really should be saying, “I can either make visits or work on the event, what’s your priority for me?”

Obtaining, making, and following up on five visits a week, the gold standard, will take at least 80% of your time.  “Can I do both?”  Well, you can do a little bit of each, but not all of both.

What to do when less experienced senior leaders perceive special events as the best way to raise money?  I suppose that in the very early years of a development program, to build a donor base and build community, events may be more heavily weighted in a portfolio.  But any program that does not invest the time to develop deep relationships with its top 40 donors or prospective donors will find its fundraising results limited to the number of events and the price of the ticket.

That is not the investment in your organization that your major donors want to make.

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