Kristin Steele of Swaim Strategies recently joined us for a webinar in which she explained how to choose an effective story for the biggest potential fundraising moment at an event: the special appeal, and tell it in a way that compels donors to lean in and emotionally connect.

In case you missed it, you can watch the relay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right, Kristin, is it okay if I kick things off officially?

Kristin: I would love it.

Steven: All right, well, on that note, good afternoon, everyone, if you are on the East Coast, and good morning if you’re on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for joining us for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “Focusing Your Special Event Appeal Story.” And my name is Steven Shattuck and I’m the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s session, as always.

Just a couple of housekeeping items before we begin. I want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation, and we’ll be sending out that recording to you, as well as the slides, just in case you didn’t already get those. So have no fear, if you have to leave early, or if you perhaps want to review the content later on or share it with a friend, you’ll be able to do that. So just have patience for that recording. You’ll get that from me this afternoon without fail, I promise.

And as you’re listening today, please feel free to chat in any questions or comments for me or our guest. We’re going to take some time at the end for Q&A, so don’t be shy at all. We’d love for you to ask questions, and we’ll try to make this as interactive as possible.

You can also follow along on Twitter if you’re into that kind of thing. You can use the hashtag #Bloomerang and follow along on @BloomerangTech is our username.

And if you are listening today via your computer, if you have any problems with audio, it’s usually a little bit better quality if you don’t mind dialing in by phone. There’s a phone number that you can use in the email from ReadyTalk that came out earlier today. These webinars are usually only as good as your own internet connection, and using the phone is kind of a good way to get around that, so don’t be afraid to try that if you have any trouble listening through your computer speakers.
And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I want to say a special welcome to you folks. We do do these webinars just about every Thursday, and we bring on a guest speaker, have a great really educational presentation for you. We’d love to see you on future webinars. But if you’re not familiar with Bloomerang and Bloomerang is also new to you, we provide donor management software, so if you are interested in that and want to learn more, you can check out our website. You can even download a quick video demo if you want to get a sneak peek at the software.

But for now I am super excited to introduce today’s guest. We are honored to have Kristin Steele on with us. Hey, Kristin. How’s it going?

Kristin: It’s going great. How are you?

Steven: Good, very good. Kristin is joining us in between some travel, so we really appreciate her carving out some time to hang out with us. I’m really excited for this presentation. You may have heard me say earlier that, fundraising events are something near and dear to my heart. Going to be a great presentation. I had a chance to peek at the slides. And I just want to brag on Kristin real quick before I kick things over to her. If you don’t know Kristin, if you don’t know Swaim Strategies, you’ve got to check these guys out. She’s the owner and Director of Operations and Communications over there. They’re out of beautiful Portland. Kristin’s been teaching workshops and helping nonprofits for over 20 years. She’s been with Swaim Strategies since ’04 when she founded it. She’s a writer and a teacher by trade, and she loves helping people raise more money at their fundraising events. And that’s what we’re here to learn about, so Kristin, I’m not going to take any more time away from you. Why don’t you go ahead and get us started, my friend?

Kristin: Great. Thanks, Steven. Thanks for that amazing tee-up.

So at Swaim Strategies, we believe that our events are beautiful, dynamic opportunities to connect donors and organizations doing amazing work so that we can all change the world together. We also think events are awesome, so my hope is to continue to reinforce that idea for everyone on the call today.

But we know that events are tons of work, and so our goal today is to help you focus on an area with loads of potential return on investment for you, and that’s the special appeal. So we’re going to take a look at the appeal kind of in detail, both how it goes in terms of your event, but also the appeal story itself and how human beings and stories go hand in hand, and how donors can snag those stories and get more connected and more deeply into the work that you’re doing. So it’s a great piece for you to think about as you’re looking at your cultivation cycle.

So when we look at giving at an event and the opportunity that that presents, the Chronicle of Philanthropy did a story, and they asked major donors, how do you prefer to give? What channel? And 87% of them said they wanted to give at events. And if your major donors prefer giving at an event, you have an opportunity to create an event that they want to give at. That seems really basic, but it’s something that we need to kind of keep in mind, that we need to provide them the opportunities that they want to donate.

And when they talked to major donors about why events, it has for them an opportunity to be seen giving, and for them to be a part of an organization and also a community of generosity. So when you think of yourself as a donor and think about those buttons that you have, those warm feely buttons that you have for making you feel really good about giving, events take care of those major pieces for donors.
Your event itself has multiple streams of revenue that you, especially in the development department, are tasked with both staying on top of and managing. We want to take a look at the piece at your event that has the highest potential for returns. So if you are building an event where major donors can give, it makes sense for you to be focused on their giving through the most respected channel, and at your event, that’s the special appeal.

We talk to a lot of folks that are super engaged in giving things for their silent auctions or their raffles, or they’re chasing, selling individual tickets before the event. We really want to get people to get strategic about looking at where the money comes from at your event, and today we’re going to look at the height of that, which is your special appeal.

I know there’s a lot of different language around special appeals, so I want to kind of ground you in where we come from with regards to language around special appeals so that we all feel like we’re talking about the same thing.

So very simply, the special appeal is that moment at your event when you tell a story and someone gets up on the stage and says, “Please give.” It’s called a bunch of different things by different folks. Some folks call it a paddle raise, a mission moment, a moment of giving. But it’s that piece where you get up and ask for cash, and donors are not getting something in return. They’re not buying a live auction item or a raffle ticket.

And the special appeal then sometimes looks like paddles up in the air like you see here. Sometimes it’s envelopes. And we’ll talk a little bit later about how passive and active forms of engagement through your special appeal can really increase the amount of money you’re able to raise.

People want to know why to do a special appeal. Of course we’ve been to those events where you feel like you’ve been teed up perfectly. You’re like, wow, they’re telling me amazing stories. This organization is so great. The change that they’re making and the people that they’re serving are really moving our community forward. And then they say thank you and good night, and they’ve never asked you to engage as a donor. So what we want to do is advocate that when you have those people in a room emotionally connected to your work that you ask them to become a donor or to continue their donation to your organization.

So a special appeal is turning your events into a fundraiser versus just a party. And a special appeal is also a really amazing opportunity for you to raise unrestricted funds. We all know sort of in revenue streams, grants, certain foundation gifts, that sort of thing, they target sometimes very specifically restricted pockets for you to use in terms of programming or equipment. Your special appeal is an opportunity for you to raise money to pay salaries, to keep the lights on, all those integral pieces for you to be able to do the work.

So it doesn’t do you any good to get up on stage and raise money for a pool if, in fact, you have to lay people off or close the building because you’ve locked the money up in restricted funding for that pool. So look at the special appeal as a really great opportunity to raise unrestricted funds.

You don’t have to run around to every restaurant in town and get gift certificates for your silent auction with a special appeal. You’re appealing to the major donor base that you’ve already got in house and are cultivating and encouraging them to give in a way that fulfills both the social and the ego components that they’re looking for.

It’s also a cultivation piece. If you’re in a moved management model, the special appeal at an event is how you support the cultivation plan by allowing major donors to give. It engages them in donations now.

So when asked, multiple studies asked why do people give, right? Why is it that we are philanthropic? Major donors came up, they fell into three buckets, their reasons for giving. They want to be a part of something. They want to be known, they want to be seen, right? That’s that major donor piece. And they want to change the world. And what’s amazing about a special appeal is it gives you the opportunity to target all three of these things for your donors at the same time.

So let’s take each of those reasons and kind of break them down a little bit and talk about why those may be resonant for donors. So as a species, being in a community is important to us. Human beings like to travel in community, be a part of community. That’s part of how we’re hardwired. And so giving gives them a way to be a part of your organization. I like giving to organizations that treat me like I’m a part of their organization. If we’re in community together, we have needs, we’re offering things to each other, and we’re moving things forward and creating change.
The event is also an opportunity for people to be a part of something. When they walk into a room and don’t know anybody and don’t know anything, it’s hard for them to engage. But when the event wraps its arms around them and brings them into the organization, they feel like they’re a part of something.

And this is the social piece that we were talking about earlier when major donors were talking about why they give at events. It’s a social piece. They want to be seen a part of things and as a donor at this event.

When we talk about their want to be known, this is back to that ego piece. And I think sometimes we get hung up on the fact that when we use the word “ego,” it has a negative connotation, but that’s not really the intention here. If we sort of can resonate with the fact that ego is a driver of behavior, then we can also line that up with the fact that the best donor cultivation takes that ego piece into account. They want to be known. They want to be seen giving at your event. They want to be recognized giving at your event, and they want to be a known supporter to your organization.
My guess is if you go back through your donor database and look at how you cultivated people, the people that you move along your cultivation cycle are because they’re known donors to you. They feel like they’re seen in their generosity and in supporting your organization.

And then the piece about wanting to change the world. Don’t we all want to do that? I mean, I think we work predominantly in the nonprofit sector, and often that is why nonprofits exist. If you sort of drill down to the base of each nonprofit mission, it’s because there was something in the world that wasn’t getting addressed that the nonprofit has stepped in to address and to change, to create different results for folks. And nonprofits feel that way, and people feel that way.

And so make your donors a part of your story of changing the world. I think it’s fine. I think sometimes we step away from the altruism of philanthropy, the altruism of our work, the fact that we’re out there doing amazing stuff. And I think we need to be proud of that and we need to bring our donors into that and make them a part of that story.

And if we can create emotional resonance between our organizations and our donors, we’re going to evolve out of the transactional relationship that we have with them, which is also so much of a limit to how people engage. When people feel like they’re a checkbook and are treated like a checkbook, eventually they’re going to move on to someplace where they’re seen as a person taking action to change the world.

The why. The why, the why. You’ll notice I started today with an “I believe” statement about what we believe to be true about the work that we’re doing. Simon Sinek, who has an amazing Ted talk about the Golden Circle of Why, and also a book about starting with the why, is a really great resource in terms of thinking about how you talk about your work and how you talk to your donors in terms of engagement.

And when we talk about talking from the why, we’re talking about talking from the heart, the place of belief, the place where we create emotional connection with other people. And when we do that, people move into that space because they go, yeah, I believe that, too. And so we want our donors operating from that space of why, because it makes them more emotionally engaged and connected, and connected in a way that’s different from how we’re groomed to function in our everyday. Our emails, our phone calls, our work, this or that don’t necessarily operate from a place of why, right? We want to connect, and those things sometimes work against it.
And so if you’re creating a space that’s grounded in emotional belief that people can move into, it kind of serves as a magnet. And so the most direct route to grounding your work in belief is to move away from starting talking about the work in terms of specifics. I think a lot of folks think, well, I have to build a case for why we exist. I have to build a case for our effectiveness. And they start with statistics instead of people getting on board the emotional train and the real heartfelt reasons for why your work exists and why your organization exists.

So let’s take a look at Simon Sinek’s golden circle of why in a little more detail. So the world talks to us usually via the what first, and then the how, and then if we still have time, we get to the why. Sometimes we don’t even get there. Sometimes we just hear the what and the how, and we get hung up in that, and we kind of bounce back and forth there, and we never really get to the heart of things.

Sinek says, what if we started with the why? What if we started with the “I believe,” “we believe,” the piece that grounds us in why we do what we do, and then we move into the actions that we’re doing to make that belief come true, and the what being the result of those actions.

He uses this really great example of who really knows when they are being marketed to by a computer company what a 1.1 gigahertz dual core processor with 8 gigs of 1500 megahertz RAM is? I don’t. I’m sure there are some folks who do. But hearing that, I get overwhelmed, I don’t know what it’s going to do for me, and I tune out.

And then he presents the example of Apple. And Apple steps up to the plate and says, we believe that computers can be beautiful and elegant and make your life better. Don’t you believe that, too? Automatically I’m in. I’m like, yeah, I want technology to make my life easier. Look at how beautiful these things are. They must be easy to use. And all of a sudden I’m operating from a different space than a space of confusion about what’s inside the computer actually doing the work.
And you’re engaged to start with that why, that “I believe” piece because literally of how the human brain is hardwired. So if you were to take the top off of your head and ignore all the gross stuff that may be underneath and start to look at the functionality, when you look at the brain, we are relying on donors to operate from a couple of different spaces. So the limbic brain is where feelings exist. It is also the decision-making center. The neocortex processes a how and a what, is your rational, analytic language center.

So what I want to talk about here is how we can start shifting messaging to modify some behaviors in donors and amplify others. So if we look at the limbic brain, which is the part that’s engaged by why, which is the part I’m advocating that we continue to start from, a funny thing can get noticed, and that’s that our decision-making center is not where our language is housed. So you actually have an opportunity here in how you craft a story and messaging to have a donor decide something before they have the language to tell you they’ve done it.
Statistics, on the other hand, engage people in their rational brain and in their language center before you get them to move into the space of being emotionally connected in making a decision about that. So often people talk about, “I don’t know, I just have an intuition about it. There’s just something in my gut.” It’s because they were in their limbic brain first, making a decision about something before they had the language to explain it.

So this is going to keep coming up for us again and again today, and I would certainly implore you to take a look at Sinek’s work in more detail. He goes into a ton more detail about this than we have time for today. But it’s a really crucial difference to think about engaging people from where they feel when they’re making decisions versus where they’re talking about it and processing information, if that makes sense.

So the other piece I want to look at today before we sort of get into the story of your appeal that’s sort of a crucial piece is the study that we’ve done about why donors give. And there are lots of studies out there on giving behavior. I would encourage you to go start reading them. They echo a lot of the same similar ideas.

And so this is a study from Paul Slovic out of the University of Oregon, and he took a group of donors and he told them three different versions of a story, after which he asked each donor to give after each story so that he could measure the results of the story and how it impacted giving.

So in the first story on the left there, he told the story of Rokia, a starving child in Malawi, and talked about how her not being able to get food impacts her daily life, impacts her education, impacts her ability to be a part of the community she lives in. Built a case that Rokia needs food, you can help, please give, and he asked the donors in the control study to give.

And then he told them a second story. He told them a story about starvation throughout Africa, where millions are impacted in their ability to access education, be a functional part of their community, is completely debilitated by their inability to access food. Please help, and asked the donors to give.

And then in the third case, he blended the two stories. He told the story of Rokia as an example of the millions in Africa, and then he talked about the millions in Africa. So he made her the example, one of the many, and told that story, and then asked the donors to give.
And what he found was donors gave the highest amount of money to the story of Rokia alone. The lowest giving in the study was given to the whole picture story, the second story, where he just told the story of starvation in Africa. And then the third story, still less than Rokia’s story alone, gave a little bit more than the story of the mass.

And so let’s take a look at why that is. And this is true for your event appeal, your written appeal. Donors, when asked, “Why did you give the most to the story of one?” said, “I felt like I could make a difference in her life. I could make a difference in one person’s life. But I’m not rich, and so when you told me that this was an epidemic of massive proportions for millions of people in Africa, I got completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t save millions of people. I became paralyzed as a donor and just didn’t feel like I could do anything for them.”

And so what’s operating here in that sense of donor overwhelm is that the use of statistics in the second story moved donors into that part of their brain, again, right, the neocortex, that works against the emotional connection and impulse for decision, which is in the limbic brain, the why, right? Donors want to stay connected to the why of the story, the story of one. Donors are smart. They know that Rokia is not the only starving child living in Africa. They’re able to extrapolate a larger story. But they felt like they could have more impact.

Statistics don’t activate our moral emotions, and the numbers don’t actually give your donor any agency about your impact. So I’m going to bring that thread through later, but I want you to think about how are you talking about your work and your impact, and are you using statistics to do that?

So the keys here are to think about, when we’re starting to think about how we’re framing the story for our special appeal, is that the story of Rokia here also presented the Hero’s Journey, which, if you know Joseph Campbell’s work at all, he took a look at stories across every culture, every time period in human existence, and found that they, there’s a common template in stories that works for human beings. In its simplest form, it’s the hero on a journey, and it talks about who they were before the journey, the change and the conflicts of that journey, and who they were after. And that’s a common human template for stories, so I’m going to encourage us to work within that framework.

And if you think about your organization and the story you have to tell, it’s who your client was before they came into contact with you, the impact as the change agent that your organizations had on them, and who they are now, the place they are now that is different and better than where they were before.

So when we take a look at that study and Sinek’s circle of why, I want to talk about how you pull those into how we tell stories for an effective appeal. At their core, stories that we tell at our events should tell our donors something about us, and on a higher level, it should be us telling each other something about our ability to impact one another, right? If we talk about changing the world on that sort of higher emotional place, it’s that we have the ability to impact one another and create change. So you as an organization are making impacts for people, and donors as a part of your organization are making impacts on people.
So the best kind of appeal stories happen through the framework of storytelling we’ve been talking about that already exists, that’s a common language among us. The most common, resonant story format is something you learned a long time ago, usually in grade school, when you start talking about stories and how it is we write essays. We learned that there needs to be three things, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

And if you think about when you’re in conversation with people in the world, a friend in your life or your family, you know how you feel when one of those pieces is missing. We’ve all had Uncle Bob start telling his story that seems to go nowhere, that has a really long, protracted beginning, then you’re not sure what happens in the middle, and then he just kind of trails off at the end, and you have no idea where the characters went or what happened to them. We know how you feel and how that lostness is created when we don’t have those three touchstones to land upon. So don’t underestimate getting really simple with your story and making sure that the story you’re looking at to tell the impact of your organization has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

And the most effective special appeals themselves also have a beginning, middle, and an end. The story is one piece of your appeal. You have to tell your story. And then you also have to then, after the story, ask your audience to give. And then you have to ask them to give you their money in a way that they can get it to you. We don’t want to say “please give” and then let them walk out of the room. We need to collect their money. So three pieces. The story, the ask, and the collection.

So the story is the client’s story, and this needs to happen in the room. It can happen with your client on stage reading their story, live and in person. And as Steven was talking about earlier, we super advocate the use of video. Video is awesome. Video has all the other storytelling pieces in place, as well. You can use visuals. You can use music. And the biggest piece, you can control the message that’s happening from the stage and edit it down to a very precise format that is orchestrated to work on your audience in a very specific way.

When you call, when you ask for money, that second piece, the middle, you need to call on your donors to take action. Don’t tell a story and then just get up and say, “Thank you and good night.” You actually have to say, “We are asking you to give and give generously.” It doesn’t need to be long, it doesn’t need to be complicated, but you need to give your donors the opportunity to act. You need to ask them to act.
And then you need to get the money. The commitment of that money from your donors. If you don’t have these three pieces for your special appeal, you are leaving money on the table, guaranteed.

So let’s break down the three pieces a little bit more. So your story. If we remember back to Slovic’s study, the story of one person, your donor can extrapolate to build your full case. They don’t think you’re just working with one person. What they get to know very intimately is your impact on people and how you make that impact in a way that you can’t often explain when you constantly talk about your organization as a whole. So get specific, get focused, and build that case in the story, and your donor will create a bigger case of need that you’re fulfilling.

And I’m going to keep using the word “client,” because I feel like that probably has the most resonance across multiple organizations. This story for your special appeal is the story of your clients and their journey and how you impacted it. It is not a story of your organization. And there’s a crucial difference there. It’s the story of your client and how they intersected with your organization and it completely changed their trajectory.

So let’s talk about how stories themselves work on the brain and human behavior because I think that’s really imperative for us to think about when we’re framing up our particular stories. Stories are simply the connection of cause and effect, right? Something happened and this was the result. When we as human beings hear stories, we actually want to relate them to our own experiences. It’s a really great magic thing that the human brain is hardwired to do. We relate pain felt by others in the story to our own experience of pain, therefore minimizing the difference between us and them. And all of a sudden, we’re in a shared space where I may be hearing a story about somebody who is very different from me, who’s had very different experiences from me, the brain automatically matrixes through and tries to find a line of connection that we can relate to, that brings us into each other’s story.
Another cool thing about stories themselves is stories are information packets that we grow up learning from and sharing our experiences by. My guess is every time we get together with a group of friends and we start talking about, how’s it been? What’s been going on? We start telling that information in stories. It’s not a list. Grocery store, woke up, work, let the dog out. But it’s not a list of things. We go through our experience and hook in the story that we use to talk to other people to convey our experience.

It’s how we shape streams of random observations about the world. It’s also how we learn. I mean, if we think back to grade school, again, and the idea of fables, the whole idea of fables is to start teaching behavior and morality via a story, right? So it’s something that we’ve had throughout our life, and it’s something that as fundraisers, we can tap into as a really effective tool to move our needle forward.
Your event itself should be shared as a story of why it is that you’re here, of what you believe, of why your work matters. And if it’s not, I would urge you to take a look at your events and make sure that they do that. Because that why makes the case for your impact in the world. It should be about what you believe.

You aren’t the central hero in the story, however. The main character is those you work with and your donors, and the goal of your event story is to connect your clients and your donors in a really authentic way, with your organization as the conduit. If we think about our messaging at events from the stage, we do this, we do this, we do this, versus speaking out to your room full of major donors saying, “You make this possible. You make this change possible.”

Bring your donors into the story. Bring them into the room. Invite them to be a part of your change and your impact. If we remember back to why they give, they want to be a part of something. Invite them in. Think about your language and who the heroes in your story are.

So your appeal story is the first piece of the puzzle, right? The critical pieces, again, beginning, middle, and end. So it’s who they were before they came, then the middle is when they came into contact with you as the change agent and what change that precipitated in their life, and then the after is where they are now. And ideally, if we look here, the before and the after are different places and they look differently. We don’t want to tell a story of someone who’s gone back to where they were. We want to show change, and that change is fueled by donors that help them succeed.

So if that’s your story, and it’s got a very base template, if we look at it that way, where in your event you tell the story also impacts your ability to fundraise. So if you think of your event as a story, and your appeal story is within that bigger story, you have to think about where you’re going to tell it so that you maximize the energy in the room.

So we talk a lot about the event arc, and we build arcs on this very particular curve because there is a natural group dynamic. You can’t change it. You can’t make it something else. It just happens. People walk into an event, they don’t know what’s going on, they’ve been sitting in traffic, they had a hard day at work, they’re starting at a lower level. And then you move into your event, and ideally you start to let them know what you need them to do. You hand them a cocktail. You engage them in a silent auction. They see people in the room and start talking to them. And they pull into the event, and their energy starts to increase. They’re on the train with you.
And then you start your program, and they sit down to dinner at a table full of people they know, and you start talking from the stage about your work and how you’re creating impact. And then sometimes in there you have a live auction. You continue to build momentum. You’re still working in line with what guests are able to do.

And then you’re going to hit a height where energy in the room is as high as it’s going to go. That’s where you land your special appeal. That’s where you tell your special appeal. And then you do everything else after. Because eventually, people have been sitting there for two hours, they start to time out. Their energy starts to diminish. They have to get home to the babysitter.

Don’t do your appeal too soon or too late. You want to lay your event out so that it’s building momentum straight up into your special appeal, so that you’re maximizing the emotional connection of your donors to your organization and encouraging them to give. It can’t be the largest day of revenue component if it isn’t placed at the max of emotional connection for your donors.

When you work against this, again, you leave money on the table. So the goal in lining up your event is to line it up with the natural tendency of human behavior. Get in, do the fundraising, have the party, get out.

So let’s talk about the ask. This is the second piece, it’s the middle, right? Tell the story, tell it well, tell it at the height of energy in the room, and then have someone come out and ask for money. Please do not have it be your executive director. Often we’re asked, well, we could just have our executive director come out and talk to the donors about giving. Please don’t do that. It makes it look like you’re raising money for salaries.
In an ideal situation, the person who told their story or whose story was told in the video will come onstage and ask the room to give. Think about it. Why wouldn’t you use the person that you just built all of this emotional connection with to come out and ask the donors to give, to act? There’s this really great thing that happens in terms of momentum when you do it.

So let’s say you tell your video appeal story, and the crowd goes nuts because they just watched this person’s life change by what they’re supporting in the work of your organization. And then the lights come up, and that person comes to the stage, and the donors go, wow, because they’re like, oh my gosh, that person, they’re here. It brings it into the room.

And that person stands on stage, and the crowd may even support them, like, oh my gosh, they told their story. That was amazing. And now they’re here. It’s amazing. And then it gets quiet, and that person asks the room to give. And often that person has an emotional reaction to standing in front of this room full of people that they probably haven’t done before, and watching all of these people applaud their story, applaud their journey, their bravery to change. So they have a real honest, human reaction to the room. And then the room leans even further in and is like, oh my gosh, I want to support her.
And then that person asks for money. Simple. They should not retell their story. You just told it. It just happened in the video. Don’t tell the story again. Don’t talk about other programs. Don’t talk about next year. Don’t talk about any of that stuff right now. This is a pure, pure moment where it simply asks your donors to give and give generously. It could be two sentences.

And then you move into the end of your story, of your appeal, which is the collection. You will leave money on the table if you don’t offer donors a way to give that money to you, right? So there are passive ways to collect money and there are active ways. We are huge proponents of making your collection as active as possible. So in the most active form possible, what happens is you play your video or have your person tell their story from the stage. That person asks for money. And in the most active form possible, a benefit auctioneer then comes out and drives it home and does the collection.

Now, the collection should be strategic, in predefined levels that you have already gone through in terms of strategy, and that’s a whole other piece that we’ll have time for at some other point, but not today. But then they go through, and your bidders are allowed to raise bid cards, and those bid cards allow them to tap into the ego and social benefit piece of giving. They’re seen. They have a card that’s raised. And if you know donors in the room, give your auctioneer names and auction, and their bid numbers, so that that auctioneer can call them out by name. Oh my gosh, you’ve just raised their profile even more.

So ideally in an active form that’s happening. In more passive forms, you can do envelopes. Please don’t put envelopes in a stack on the table and hope people take them. You can at least make envelope collection more active by having volunteers deliver them to tables in the room after the ask has been made. After the ask has been made, someone from the stage can say, “And volunteers are coming around with envelopes to collect your donations now.”

There is a magic of psychology that happens. When I give you something, I increase the return rate. So if I hand you an envelope, more likely you will give it back to me than if I just leave it for you passively on the table. There are ways within envelopes to make them more active. Donors want to be known, so try and help them be known and be seen giving.
So that’s a lot of information in a short span of time. So what does all of this sort of lead us to? Often in events, events are not the most effective form of fundraising. They’re a lot of work sometimes, right? But they can be so awesome. They can be that ability to connect human beings in time and space and put them together to create change. But if your committee, your staff, all of those folks are focusing on the centerpieces, your silent auction gift certificates, and what the decor is going to look like for your event, you’re focused on the wrong fundraising tactic.
Hone in on telling your story, and hone in on finding a story that exemplifies the impact of your work, and really focus in on how you’re telling it. Because the same story can be told in an ineffective way and an incredibly effective way. Give it a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you’re the middle that has helped create change in this person’s life.

And then make sure at the event that you execute it with an ask for money, short and sweet, and that you collect that money in some way at your event, and that you do all of that at the height of energy in the room.

Steven, I think I can kick it back over to you, and let’s start taking some of these questions. Because that was a lot of information and I’d love to help folks get specific about it.

Steven: It was awesome information. I was, I’m feeling so cathartic hearing all this stuff. It was really great. And we have a lot of questions here, too. So I’m going to kind of roll through them. We’ve probably got about, I’d say 12 minutes or so for questions. So if you’ve been shy, if you’ve been sitting on your hands, now is the time, because obviously we’ve got a super smart expert here who can answer some questions about all this stuff.

So I’m going to kind of start at the top here. Here’s one that I was kind of assuming would come up, and actually, a couple people asked questions along the lines. Diane’s wondering about confidential-type information. So she’s got client stories that she wants to keep confidential. You know, maybe they have, they’re working with minors or people who have gone through, tough situations. Hard to share a specific story. But Kristin, what advice would you have in those situations to communicate those type of things?

Kristin: Sure. Sure. So we work with a lot of organizations that definitely fall into that space, and I think there are a lot of ways to get creative about it. While we’re asking you to focus in on one person’s story, I think you can have multiple storytellers telling that story, especially if you can commit to using video. Video is a great way to bring in other voices to tell that same one story.

So are there folks on staff that have worked with this minor who can tell their story? Can you talk to their parents or family members or people who know them that can speak to the change that that minor has experienced? Sometimes you can, you know, depending on if the minor is central or sort of a part of the bigger story, you can do footage from the back, there’s a lot of different ways you can do that. What I would encourage folks to do is to not use that initially to negate the story. Find the story, and then get creative about how it is that you tell that story.

Steven: Love it. Here is . . . we’ve had a question from a couple folks who have, they’ve never done this, so they’re planning their first event. What advice would you have for folks who, they’re maybe a young nonprofit or a small org, it’s their first time. Any special considerations for a first-time event?

Kristin: Sure.

Steven: Or do a lot of the kind of same rules apply?

Kristin: Sure. So this starts to get into talking about sort of cultivation cycles of donors, and I would encourage those young nonprofits to take a look at their donor base and what in their donor database, what information they have about those donors and their previous gifts.

If it’s that folks are building an event to get donors, that’s a different kind of event. So what I was talking about today was within the framework of a major donor event. What they’d actually want to look at is an acquisition event. And there’s a book called . . . it’s evading me right now. It’s by Kerry Axelrod, is the author, and it’s all about acquisition events. And they’re a different format. Usually it’s a free to low-cost ticket where you’re engaging, say, your 15 major donors to go and get 10 friends to bring in, and you’re actually bringing people into your cultivation cycle.

So I think you have to decide where you are with the kind of event. I would encourage you to have some form of ask at each event, but your return on it is going to look differently based on what kind of donors you have in the room and where they are in your cycle. That’s sort of a quick high-level. That has a lot more detail to it, but yeah.

Steven: Kristin, we’ve had a couple people ask about having the person who makes the ask actually be a person who actually receives services from your organization.

Kristin: Sure.

Steven: Whether it be teenagers or whoever. Any advice for weaving those people in, you know, directly? Any tips for helping that person, maybe be a public speaker for the first time, or anything else along those lines?

Kristin: Sure. I would say the biggest piece is work with them ahead of time. I think sometimes folks make an ask for people to tell their story, and then they just assume they’ve got it, and then they get to the event and let them get on stage, and haven’t heard it or worked with them on it, right?

So I think we need to see it, whether we’re doing a video or whether we have a live speaker, I think we need to see them both as requiring investments of time and energy in the storytelling piece. And so we do a lot of special appeals without video, where we’re working with the speaker, and we’re having the staff of the organization work directly with them, seeing the story ahead of time, helping them shape it, working with them, talking about the theories around it, how it’s going to happen, letting them practice. Have a sound check before the event to let them practice.

I think often we feel like that seems like micromanaging, but what I would really encourage you to think about is bring them into the process. Get them to understand what you’re trying to do, and help them do it. Often people, that’s not an innate skill for people. It’s something you can bring great relief to them as a first-time speaker to do. But you should always know what’s happening on your stage. You should always have everything fully scripted and know what’s going on so that you can really line things up and have them be the most effective.

Steven: Makes sense. Here’s kind of a unique situation from Mandy. Mandy is at a foundation that represents five hospitals, but they have one annual event that raises money for all five of those hospitals, and she’s sort of challenged with making sure all five of those hospitals are kind of represented evenly. She wants to tell a different story for each hospital, but wants to make sure they all kind of feel like they’re getting maybe equal representation. But obviously the event can’t be six hours long. So any advice for Mandy there, or working with organizations that maybe benefit multiple entities?

Kristin: Sure. Well, I think you can’t be everything to everyone, and I think that’s right, you can’t have a six-hour event full of a bazillion stories. So I think it starts to get creative about how you tell your organization’s story to start to incorporate the story from all of those facilities, and then perhaps creating a culture where you feature stories from the different hospitals over time. Meaning, if there’s sort of an egalitarian way in which this event is this hospital’s story, this event is this hospital’s story. Ultimately they should be connected in that they’re providing for sort of the same goal.

So I think often stage time and who’s speaking and what that is starts to get really political within organizations that have very different arms of programming or different facilities, and so sometimes that can become a bigger messaging conversation within the organization about what’s our story, big picture, what are we doing, what do we believe, big picture, and then start to drill down, where are those opportunities to start talking about it in different ways?

I think organizational videos, as a who we are and what we do lead up to the special appeal at that sort of first introduction part of an event are a great, great way to quickly move people into the work. So it may be that that organization really needs to invest in a video that can sort of tell that story in a concise, engaging way for the audience at the top, and then the special appeal story doesn’t become sort of a dividing line among them, and they work together to find that story that best exemplifies their collective work.

Steven: Makes sense. Kristin, we’ve had a lot of people ask about sort of a mechanism for actually collecting those donations, and I know you’ve got your hands in many, many events per year. What are you seeing? Are you seeing any sort of creative sort of mechanisms besides just that, you know, envelope and table captain? Or is that an okay thing, even though we’ve been doing it that way for years, and it works? What do you kind of think in there in terms of collecting the donations?

Kristin: Sure. I think that’s a great thing to do, an easy thing. I’m not sure if the collection’s specifically about how do I get a Visa number from my audience. More like how do I get their commitment. And the getting of the Visa number is sort of based on what technology access folks have. If they’re able to swipe credit cards at the event and do a bid card system, that’s the quickest, easiest way.

If they have a remit envelope they can have on the table where people put checks, cash, or credit card numbers on or in them, that’s also a great way to actually collect. We also, if you get down to a level of giving where you just want to make sure that you have all those people collected quickly, we’ll issue bid cards to people with actual tickets on the back, like, $100 donations, and we’ll send volunteers around just to grab those, and then they go into the computer, and you actually collect with the donor later.

So I think there are a lot of different ways to do that. What you want to do is make sure that you’re focused on capitalizing that momentum in the room and getting the commitment in the room. If you let people leave with an envelope to go think about it, you move them out of their limbic brain, which is where they made the decision, into their neocortex, where they go home and balance their checkbook and then forget about it and go “I’m going out to dinner instead.”
Steven: Yeah. Along those lines, Cindy was wondering if you should only be asking for a one-time gift, or can you ask for, you know, a recurring gift or a multi-year gift, some sort of pledge, in terms of that? Any advice for what kind of gift you’re getting from these people?
Kristin: Sure. You can do all of those. A special appeal, and this is the piece we weren’t, again, able to get into the weeds too much of. When you’re executing a special appeal in the room at a major donor event, ideally you have 40 to 50% of that special appeal pre-committed before the event. That means that your development team is out talking to donors before the event. So if someone is giving you a $2500 donation, and you know that in advance, you can say great. And they say, “I want to break it into five $500 payments,” that’s between you and the donor to have that conversation with, and it’s part of their cultivation piece.
We’ve also had organizations where they have incentivized at the appeal monthly donation amounts. So I think it depends on what makes sense in terms of your development department and what you’re specifically looking to do. Monthly donors are an amazing, amazing resource, because people go, yeah, sure, 35 bucks a month, put it on their credit card, and then they forget about it. And then who wants to be that person that calls the organization and says, “Yeah, I think I’m done with that now,” right? Like, dude, it’s 35 bucks a month. You’re fine, right?
Steven: Yeah.
Kristin: So I think knowing your donors, knowing what you need, and then going out and having conversations with people, that starts to help you tailor it to your organization, versus a cookie cutter approach.
Steven: Great. Well, we’ve probably got one, time for one last question. I’m going to pull out Alana’s, because I like it a lot. She’s wondering, how do you handle objections to all this stuff? So I think everyone listening, love your ideas, we want to do all these things, but what happens if you’ve got a board member or maybe even an ED who wants to give a 30-minute-long speech and doesn’t care about all this advice, and is resisting making some of these changes? How do you get buy-in for this kind of thing, Kristin?
Kristin: Sure. So your board members have signed a tactic agreement to be fiscally responsible for your organization. That is their function. So there’s that piece. And if they don’t understand that, that’s a conversation you should be having, as well. I think that drill-down needs to happen into what’s ego and what’s strategic fundraising.
Steven: Yeah.
Kristin: You can have a keynote or somebody giving a 30-minute speech, but please do it after you’re done raising money, right? It’s about sequencing, often. It’s not about you saying, “No, that’s a silly idea.” It’s about, I hear that. That sounds like an interesting idea. Can we figure out where to put it on the event arc so that we don’t disrupt fundraising?

Steven: Yeah.

Kristin: And it’s getting them to understand the mechanics of fundraising and how that works within the context of the event.

Steven: Love it. Great way to end it. Kristin, I know we didn’t get to all the questions. There’s still a lot here. Would you be willing to take some questions offline after the presentation?

Kristin: Absolutely.

Steven: We’ll share your contact information. Would that be okay, Kristin, if I shared your email address in the follow-up? Is that cool with you?

Kristin: I would love it. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Steven: Yeah.

Kristin: And on our website, there’s actually a great, we have a resources section that’s sort of posts and aggregated information about all this kind of stuff, and I would encourage folks to get on there and search their topic and take a look at what’s up there, and hopefully that’ll help answer some questions, as well.

Steven: Yeah, I’ll send that over to chat right now. Good website. There’s a lot of good stuff there. So definitely check out their resources section. Kristin, this was awesome. Thanks for carving out time to hang out with us. I think everyone really enjoyed it, surely as much as I did. It was great.

Kristin: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it, Steven.

Steven: And if you liked the presentation, which I know you guys did, Kristin will be at the nonprofit storytelling conference in November. It’s in Chicago. If that’s not on your radar, definitely check that out. Just Google Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. Bloomerang’s a sponsor of that. We’re going to be there. We’re actually giving away scholarships, so if the ticket price is prohibitive for any of you folks, let me know. Shoot me an email. We can get you a scholarship for sure. But there’s going to be lots of great speakers besides just Kristin there, and she obviously will be giving some great advice. So definitely check that out.
There’s lots of resources on our website, as well. Our weekly webinar series is going to keep on rolling. Got a really fun one one week from today. Sheena Greer is going to join us. She’s going to talk about copy writing. Now, Sheena is a really awesome fundraising copy writer. That’s her thing. And she’s going to share with you her 10 tips for making those things more humanized and more effective. So check that one out. That’s at one week from today, 1 p.m. Eastern. There’s lots of other webinars you can register for. We’d love to see you again some Thursday.

So thanks to all of you for hanging out. You’re going to get a little survey. I’d love to know your thoughts after the conclusion of this. And look for an email from me with the recording. You’ll be able to share this and watch it again if you need to.

So Kristin, thanks again. Thanks to all of you. We’ll sign off now, but hopefully we’ll see you again next week. So have a great rest of your afternoon and a great weekend.

Major gift fundraising

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.
Kristen Hay