How often do nonprofit events that aren’t billed as fundraisers turn into passive “wouldn’t it be convenient if you re-upped your membership/made an additional donation/took care of the next couple years’ worth of pledges?” conversations with coy development staff? Hard data is elusive, but it’s probably pretty often.
As fundraisers, we joke that the upcoming dinner, gala, or corporate partner event would be even more successful if somebody cut a check for $100,000 and slipped it into the guest book. As attendees, we’ve felt an unspoken pressure to contribute money at occasions that don’t appear to be fundraisers at first blush. The presumption on both sides of the equation is the same: nonprofits’ collective’ hands are outstretched (if not reaching into pockets) at all times, even when they aren’t connected to fundraisers making a specific ask.
That sort of passive (or, if you’re like us in the Midwest, passive-aggressive) fundraising flies in the face of strategic and tactical fundraising best practices. We need to have a plan, and, as much as we need to be able to improvise at times, maintaining the integrity of that plan is fundamental to long-term donor relations. At its core, our plan is a deliberate combination of action and reaction as we continually build trust, respond to donors’ questions, and help demonstrate the alignment between our donors’ interests and our organizations’ missions.
Non-fundraising fundraising cuts against the plan because it introduces an unpredictable third party to the donor-fundraiser relationship and may undercut the fundraiser’s overall stewardship strategy. Donors may feel ambushed by the non-ask pressure, and may not be ready to give at that time. Even worse, they may resent feeling treated like a piggy bank, and that puts everyone in an uncomfortable position.
We propose an alternative to assuming that donors won’t feel pressured to give at events that aren’t specifically aimed at collecting additional donations. They probably will. Instead, fundraisers should work with their program and operations counterparts to ensure that all messaging around non-fundraising events is crystal clear on two fronts: 1) that the purpose of the event is NOT; and 2) the actual purpose of the event. Our suggestion relates to that second part: consider hosting periodic events whose sole purpose (really!) is to keep donors in the loop regarding the organization’s work and impact.
There is power — magic, even– in giving without an expectation of a tangible return. Our donors do it all the time. We can do it, too, and pure donor appreciation events are a perfect analog to the philanthropic spirit and action we ask of donors. By hosting donors in an environment that is strictly for them, with a simple, straightforward message that no giving is expected or required, we build trust, demonstrate gratitude, and deepen our relationships with donors. However, there are some risks to this approach.
Nonprofits aren’t usually flush with extra cash to spend on events that don’t have some return on investment, whether it’s increased membership, additional pledges, or other positive financial outcomes. On paper, “state of the nonprofit” events are loss leaders at best, and significant unrecouped expenses that could otherwise go to program or fundraising costs. But that’s where the magic comes in. These events may indeed generate fundraising dollars, with the added benefit of having been given without pressure or presumption.
One nonprofit executive, shortly after joining the organization, decided to host a “state of the nonprofit” event — just one, not a dozen to accommodate his donors’ busy schedules, not one per quarter, just one annual event — where donors could come to the facility and get a tour, talk to program staff, interact with volunteers, the board, and other donors, and hear from the executive director about the impact of their gifts. The organization deliberately billed it as an update, not a fundraising event. In the first year, all the usual questions were asked and objections were raised: will anyone show up to an event that taxes our already limited resources, might cost a lot, uses our volunteers’ time, but has no built-in ask?
But people did show up, and they loved it. The third year of the event, the executive director had several encounters with donors who approached him and said things like, “This is incredible. If you had another $25,000, what would you spend it on?” and, “How much to double your capacity to do X?” That tangible connection to the mission, the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers, the accessibility of the executive director, and an open and honest account of donor impact yielded multiple, unsolicited five-figure gifts.
Now, not all nonprofits will have a site that can both accommodate a group of people and showcase the mission. Not everyone has convenient parking and a group of donors who live or work close to the facility. But this organization didn’t cater or decorate, didn’t rent a space, didn’t contract out for a heartfelt video, didn’t buy trophies to hand out, didn’t hire an emcee, and simply leveraged the enthusiasm of staff and volunteers and the compelling nature of their mission.
The cost to the organization was a few hours of extra staff time (less and less as the planning becomes more automatic) and the emotional toll of making Janet* clean up her desk. Kudos to the staff and volunteers for telling their story well, and also to the executive director for having ready answers to those questions from donors, but we submit that if you don’t have enthusiastic staff and volunteers, or if you’re not convinced about the compelling power of your mission, you’ll need more than this post to keep your donors happy. This low-cost, non-fundraising event proved to be enough to make the organization’s major donors feel plugged in and like their investment matters. That’s a formula that spells not just success, but good news for the thousands of people whose lives the organization impacts every single day.
Now clean your desk, and get to work showing your donors their gift made an impact!
*No Janets were harmed in the creation of this post.