Forget the yawn fest wine party. When it comes to engaging donors, a heartfelt, mission-centered event is where it’s at.

If you’ve ever felt like you missed the boat on a stewardship event, you’re not alone. But the good news is you’ll never have to feel that way again.

And neither do your donors.

That’s because Shanon Doolittle recently joined us for a webinar in which she showed us how to design better stewardship events. In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:

Full Transcript:

Shannon: Yeah, let’s get started.

Steven: Well, let’s get started. What do you think? All right, let’s do it. Cool. Well, good afternoon, everyone. If you’re on the East Coast, good morning. If you’re on the West Coast or someone in between, thanks for being here for today’s webinar, “Designing Better Stewardship Events.” My name is Steven Shattuck and I’m the VP of Marketing over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion.

And just some housekeeping items before we get started. I just want to look through and know that we are recording this presentation, and I’ll be sending out the recording and the slides a little later on this afternoon, so look for those to your email box a little later. And as you’re listing today, please feel free to send any questions or comments through the chat box right there on your screen. I know some people are already chatting in. I appreciate that.

Feel free to ask questions of our presenter, feel free to talk to each other. It’s always fun when I glance over and I see folks interacting with each other, so please just use that. And we’re going to save some time at the end for some Q&A with Shannon, so don’t be shy about asking questions. We’ll try to get to as many as we can a little later on. And just in case this is your first webinar with us, welcome, thanks for being here. In addition to doing webinars every Thursday, Bloomerang also offers some great donor management software, so if you’re in the market for that or you’re perhaps looking to change, we’d love for you to check that out. You can read all about it on our website. You can even download a video demo and see some of the software yourself. So with that being said, I want to go ahead and introduce today’s guest. She is Shannon Doolittle. She is joining us all the way from beautiful Seattle. Hey, Shannon. How’s it going?

Shannon: Great, thanks for having me here.

Steven: Oh yeah, I’m very excited. Thanks for being here. Thanks for taking an hour out of your day, not even including all the prep time, to share all your knowledge with us. In case you guys don’t know Shannon, although I would be shocked if you don’t, Shannon, she’s an energetic and inspirational fundraiser. She’s got over 10 years of experience. She’s been featured on CharityHowTo, you can see some of her short videos on Movie Mondays, and it seems like every cool thing — we were talking about this earlier — that is happening in the fundraising world, Shannon’s a part of it. She’s got her Stewardship School. She was one of the organizers of the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. She’s got some cool new things coming out this year, which I’m sure she’ll tell you about. She’s speaking at AFP in Baltimore. So this is a real treat.

We’ve got a lot of people signed up, and that’s sort of a testament to how awesome Shannon is, so I’m not to take any more time away from her. Shannon, why don’t you go ahead and get us started?

Shannon: Great, thank you so much. Welcome everyone, and happy Thursday. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day. As fundraisers it’s almost impossible sometimes to take an hour away, and I know some of you might be multitasking during the webinar, but today it’s all about you. It’s all about helping you create better stewardship events. I’m very excited to be talking about this topic because I am an events person, I love events, and that probably makes me a bad person to some people, but I love events because really in this day and age, it’s the only time we get to be one-on-one, face-to-face with our donors. And I think that opportunity is gold, and whenever you have the chance you want to make it work for you, and you want to make it work for your donor as best as possible, so today we’re just going to really dive into that.

The other thing I want you to know, real quick for those of you who weren’t kind of listening to the pre-call, Steven is a diehard Pats fan, I am a diehard Seahawks fan, so if you’re feeling a little bit of tension that’s probably what it is because he’s probably making mean eyes towards me during the webinar, so go Hawks.

So I would love to know, before we start off, please use that chat box, and I would love to know what’s your number one question that you have about today’s topic. Obviously, we’re talking about designing better stewardship events; I would love to know kind of what’s your number one question, and if you can go ahead and put that in the box, that would be great. People are saying, “How do I actually get them to actually want to attend?” but getting them there is key. I will definitely talk a little bit about that. “How to increase stewardship?”

That seems to be how to be fresh, for sure, and, “How do you keep them from going stale, driving attendance?” Yeah, awesome, so it seems like a lot of you are wondering, how do you actually get them there? And my entire approach to stewardship events is a little bit different, and I have a feeling that that is what’s going to help you drive attendance, is when your donors know that you’re actually creating something unique, something very different, and something that they won’t want to miss.

Okay, great, and then we’ll do some Q&A after. Let me just go ahead and get started and talk to you about what we’re going to learn today. I’m going to just start off by telling you the differences between fundraising and stewardship events, and I think it’s important that I talk about that real quick because it does matter. It changes the way you think about developing events.

I’m also going to talk about how you would develop and use an event donor persona, and this is really important. Just like a donor profile if you have them at your organization, I think it’s really important to create them before you start to create an event, and you’ll see why I like to use them. Then I’m going to talk about how to use mission moments to create a memorable donor experience. Some of you are asking, “How do we do programs? Are they short? Are they long?” I will cover that in this section, as well as tips to keep the good vibes flowing post-event. And that is all about a lot of times at these events we think the minute that everyone leaves, it’s over. Like, that was a feel-good, that was great, but I want to go ahead and tell you guys that that’s actually where the work is just beginning, so I’ll talk to you a little bit about that, and then we’ll answer questions too.

So let me just go ahead and start off and talk to you about differences between fundraising and stewardship events. So with a fundraising event, typically our approach is, the more the merrier, so we want to get butts in seats, we want our board members and everyone else to really turn on their email, get on the phone, and invite anyone and everyone to come to the event. That’s why you’ll have an event where you have hundreds and hundreds of people, because obviously we want to get as many people in the room to hear our cause, to understand the mission, and then to hopefully make a gift if they’re so moved. With an event stewardship or with stewardship events, it’s very different. With stewardship, actually it’s a very strategic and small invitation list.

Again, I’m good to probably turn a lot of your thinking on its head in this webinar, and that’s okay, but a lot of time with stewardship what we say is, “Okay, I’m going to do this event and then I’m just going to invite all the donors that gave to us within the last three months over $100.” Well actually, no. With stewardship events, the most meaningful ones are very strategic and who you invite. The reason I like to say small invitation list, because here’s what I teach my organizations that I work in and/or that I work with; it’s really important that if your executive director, board members, and/or you as a fundraiser can’t get around to at least five to seven people in the room and have five-minute conversations with them, there’s too many people in the room. The whole point of a stewardship event is so that you can talk and learn more about your donors.

If your staff and your board and other volunteers can’t get to everyone in the room, that’s a sign that your list is too big, so that’s the difference. With a fundraising event, also we know they’re expensive productions. I have worked on events where my budgets are close to a quarter of $1 million, and I’ve also worked on events where maybe my budget is $20,000 or $12,000. Regardless, in scale to what we actually have as an organization, it’s a huge chunk of money that’s going to fundraising of the events. We know they’re expensive. With the events that are stewardship related, my thought always is they’re low-key. They’re low-maintenance. You should not be spending tons and tons of money on a stewardship event.

They should be fun, they should be delightful, and the other reason why it’s a little bit of a red flag if it looks too produced is because if it’s a thank you event, you don’t want your donors walking in and thinking, “How much did they spend on this event?” Because that just defeats the whole purpose of your money going back to mission. So if it looks overly produced, donors might have a hard time, so it’s that whole perception versus reality thing. So I like to think that it’s more low-key, low maintenance and I’m going to talk about that. As Kathleen, you said, “Hey, how do you do that?” I’m to give you a bunch of examples of how to do that.

The other thing that’s different between a fundraising event and a stewardship event, is that at a fundraising event, there’s a formal program, and that program usually takes a long time. I’m one of those people that will always counsel and advise people to trim the speaker fat.

The majority of things that go wrong around a fundraising event and really not having people compelled to give is because you’ve spent too much time in their intellectual brain, that you haven’t spoken enough to their emotional heart. So at fundraising events we have a lot of formal programs, and there’s little social time. There is actually not a lot of time for people in the room to talk with people at their own table or travel around and meet new friends. It’s just feel heavy on “we, we, we” as the organization.

With stewardship, it’s so different. With stewardship, it really is an informal program. I’ll talk about this little bit later, but it’s a short program. I mean, it’s not even 10 minutes at the most. It doesn’t feel produced; you don’t necessarily have your executive director or board president talking. That’s just not needed at these kinds of events because it’s all about the donor. It’s all about “thank you.”

And again, with the stewardship, pretty much you’re getting people together so that they can be with peers and other givers, other generous souls, so that they can talk to each other and realize, “You know what? I’m part of something bigger. It’s not just me that gives to this organization. There are a lot of other cool, wonderful people that give too, and that’s why I want to stay part of this charitable family.” Again, we’ll talk about this a little bit more.

The other thing that’s a big difference is that events that are your fundraisers, they’re a time suck, let’s be honest. They’re high stress. When you take a look at any event, it’s a lightning rod because there is so much going on at that event that’s community facing and people get freaked out. There’s a lot of anxiety around it with leadership and board or other things, and it takes a lot of time.

Now with event stewardship, here’s my thing. If it feels like it’s sucking a lot of time or it’s high stress, you’re doing it wrong. Event stewardship should really be easy peasy lemon squeezy. It should be low stress. You shouldn’t have to be coordinating major logistics. We’re really talking about, and again, I’ll give you ideas about how you create something fun and different that feels more birthday party than it feels like a gala or luncheon.

And the last difference, and I think this is really important because this happens a lot of times with nonprofits, is a fundraising event, you’re going to ask for money. That’s part of the event, that’s why you’re there. At a stewardship event, there is no ask, and by no ask, I mean no ask. There is zero ask, there is no bait and switch of, “You here, we want to say thank you, but guess what? We’re going to ask you to give money, or we’re going to follow up with an ask.”

That’s not what you do, and I see nonprofits getting this wrong all the time because a board member or somebody will say, “But we have to give them a chance to give.” No, you don’t. You don’t want to do that. Do not send a thank you letter and then include an envelope or a BRE in it. Do not send a thank you letter then do a PS with an ask. It works, but that doesn’t mean we should. This is really about gratitude and having a grateful heart.

So the only thing that I want to say about this, which is really important, and have I said it already — no ask. This is all about gratitude and saying thank you. Somebody said, “How do you separate that?” We’ll talk about that at the end; please bring it up as a question. So those are the differences, and it matters because as you can see, events there are fundraising-related or high production, very formal, big program, your stewardship events . . .

And actually I would say this; the majority of nonprofits doing events out there are also focus on the organization. They are not donor centered at all, which is why I work with a lot of organizations to teach them how to be donor centered so you’ll actually raise more money at your event. But with stewardship events, they are totally donor centered. The first question that you ask yourself is, “As a donor, would I want to come to this? As a donor, is this going to add more delight to my donor journey?” and you create something around that.

So before I talk to you about examples so you can kind of get a sense of, okay, but what does this look like, Shannon? Let me talk to you about why I developed and use an event donor persona anytime I’m planning in the event. Whether it’s a fundraising event, a cultivation event, or a stewardship event, I always create an event donor persona because it helps me and my team think strategically about how I tailor the experience to speak to that specific donor profile that’s going to be at the event.

Actually, I want to go back here for a second. I want to say this, because when I use the word “event,” event is the trigger word for a lot of people in fundraising, because event can automatically give you a panic attack. It can automatically give you an anxiety attack, or you’ll go to a place where you’ll say, “Oh, I do events.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I hate those.” Yeah, okay, great, that’s fine, but we have to do them, right? When I say events, I am talking about a gathering. I’m talking about a moment in time, again, that feels like it’s just a bunch of really cool people coming together where we can have a love fest. Where we can be grateful and we can say thank you.

It can be teeny tiny, it can be five people, it could be a little bit bigger, it could be 40 people, but an event, when I say that I just want to sort of . . . that an event could be teeny or it could be a little bit bigger, but don’t feel like it’s a high production when I say “event” when I’m using it during this webinar.

So stewardship events, and I talked about this earlier, when you’re talking about a strategic and small invitation list, your stewardship event should be designed for a specific donor segment. So what we typically do is we have donor clubs or we have donor giving levels and we say, “Well, everyone at this level is going to get invited to a family luncheon, or gets invited to something.” That’s fine if that’s what you want to do. However, you want to create meaningful experiences as a fundraiser; that’s what’s going to get people to stay loyal to you and to keep giving.

So I always design stewardship events around a specific donor segment, and I’ll talk to you about what that could look like. And when I create that or when I know what that donor segment looks like . . . and actually no, I’ll go ahead and stop now. Perhaps that donor segment is a group of donors that gave to a program. For instance, I know Josh is on the line. Josh had a big donor that gave at his school to open up a new technology lab. Perhaps he does a stewardship event tailored to the donors that specifically gave to launch the technology lab at the school. Or for instance, I have a program that I have in Nepal, and I have a number of donors that only give to my Nepal program, but they’re actually not giving to my program in Africa that I also have, so I’m going to have strategic donor stewardship events to the ones that are giving to me in Nepal.

Or I have a number of mid-level donors that I haven’t loved on in quite a while. I mean, they don’t get a lot of love from me, so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to create a stewardship event that tailored to that mid-level donor. Not the major donor, not the annual donor that comes . . . a lower amount, but that mid-level donor that has been giving to me for three to five years that I think is ready to make another gift. That’s what I mean by segmenting.

So when you do choose what your segment is, then you want to create a donor persona to represent that segment so that can help you in your event planning. I’m not going to go deep into a donor persona is. I mean you can Google that or even email Steven. Steven is a marketing pro; he could tell you what that looks like. But basically a persona is a semi-fictional representation of your donor kind of based on what you know, and so let me walk you through what this looks like and how I use it.

Typically, these are the things that I want to know about my donor segment, and then I want to create a donor profile. So kind of what’s the average age I’m looking at? What’s typically the gender? What is their family status? And kind of what are some attributes or some personality traits, some lifestyle traits about them and that can help me in the planning? And you’ll see why these are important.

For instance, this is a donor persona, okay? So let’s say that I am looking at donors that just gave to my life sciences program at my university, and so I’m taking a look at . . . This is the life sciences building that just opened, our greenhouse just opened, and I want to make sure that I do really nice stewardship event, to come back to these donors and say, “You mattered, and now we want you to see what your dollars actually went to. How you’re actually having an impact. We want you to see that with your own eyes.”

So I put together a profile based on the donors that I know. This is Julianne. Julianne is 53, she’s a female. What do I need to know about her? Probably her family status, since she’s married with college aged children, and that she works part-time, she really enjoys attending social and charitable events, and she also lives in the Laurelhurst area. Why that’s important in Seattle is because that’s a very affluent, high wealth community. So I will take a look and just develop a donor persona, which is going to help me then develop a stewardship event based on this profile, and I’m going to show you what that event looks like for her.

Let’s take for instance, Steven. Hi, Steven.

Okay, like I said, Steven is a diehard Patriots fan, we all know the Super Bow’s this Sunday, and I just had to be able to do this to him. Everyone’s laughing. I love it. Okay, so this is Steven, and if you actually don’t know what Steven looks . . . This actually is Steven, who is the Bloomerang guy. Steven is 30, he’s a male, and his family status, he’s married, he’s got a toddler-aged child who’s just adorable — that’s all true — and I know that he works full-time, he enjoys the outdoors, and he’s a diehard Seahawks fan. So the thing about this, let’s say that what I already know about Steven is that Steven gives to my program which refurbishes bikes for inner-city youth. Because he loves being outdoors, he loves riding bikes, so that’s how I already know Steven because he’s the donor to that particular program.

Then what I go ahead do is, I put together, again, a persona, and this is something you can work on with a team or just put together by yourself. Again, it really informs how you’re going to create the event, so let me talk to you how then this works out. So I know Julianne and I know that persona, so as I’m developing a stewardship event for her, I know as a life sciences donor who is of high wealth, really loves charitable events, she has kids that are in college, so I know that she can go to evening events. What I’m going to do is something on the left, where I’m going to go ahead and say, “You know what? Let’s go ahead and do a stewardship event where it’s a really nice dinner inside the greenhouse.” That’s essentially what that picture on the left is showing you. It was kind of a high-end event where we opened up the greenhouse, we brought in . . . obviously it looks cater to, it looks, you know, whatever else, but it’s a little bit more high-end.

This is one of those things where I would say this is a little bit more produced, but again, in a university aspect, when you’re dealing with that highly affluent was donor, this is actually something that they expect, that’s why that persona’s going to help you.

Now let’s say Steven, on the other hand, as I said, he’s a donor to my organization that refurbishes bikes for inner-city youth. He really enjoys that; that’s how he comes to us. I know that Steven is younger, I know that he will not do anything on a Sunday because that’s football day. I also know that he has a young toddler as well, so getting a way to come to an event is actually really hard unless he gets to bring his family. So my stewardship for him is actually bringing him out and inviting to a Kids’ Bike Swap, where he gets to see his money in action; he gets to see the impact he’s making.

And let’s say it’s a picnic that we do. So we have a really nice picnic there for him as a donor, he gets to participate in the bike swap, he gets to see it, and then there’s also trails at that park where we really encourage him to bring his family and their bikes so that they can have a day out on the trails as well. That is a stewardship event I would design for Steven.

As you can see, you need to know your audience, because if you don’t tailor the event . . . This is the thing. When you ask me, “Shannon, how do I get people to come?” You have to tailor it. It has to be bespoke, it has to be different, it has to be unique to them, it has to speak to their values and who they are. Because again, as I wrote in the description for this webinar, if you’re going to throw another wine and cheese party, they’re not going to come, because there is nothing unique about that.

So let’s talk about these events and why I think it’s very powerful for you to use these events to create mission moments at the event that will create a very memorable event experience. Why this is important is because here’s what we know. You’ll hear it again and again and again. I mean, Steven is probably, he can write this in his sleep. We know that we’re losing donors, yet we don’t do a lot about it, which is, blah. It’s crazy to me, right? We’re losing donors, we’re having a hard time keeping them, and I’m going to tell you why. The reason why is because, one, you’re not thanking them enough. Two, you’re not telling them what you did with their money, which is really, really important. And third, you’re not providing a meaningful experience for them. You’re not bringing joy to the process of being a donor.

So when I talk about mission moments this is where I’m going to get into programming. Most stewardship events, like I just said, they’re following the same exact formula. I could sit at a conference and I can ask this question, “How many of you do a stewardship event where you invite people to come for a brunch, or you invite people to come for a cocktail event or something, and your executive director speaks, somebody else does something, there’s more tray passed hors d’oeuvres, then you have a grateful beneficiary, then you just let people mingle, and then people leave?” Raise your hand if that’s what you do? And by raise your hand, I mean put “yes” in the chat box.

Typically that’s what’s happening, and it’s not

add any meaning, it’s not going to bring any joy to the donor experience, so what you need to understand is as a fundraiser, you get what it means to be donor centered, and you also get that predictability means nothing to some of these donors. They want to be surprised, they want to be delighted, they want to know, I’m a good human being and they love me for being a good human being. So you want to create something that brings joy to the donor experience.

Instead I really, really want you to be creative, and I what you to get your donors to interact with your mission experientially at your event. Now, I’m going to explain what that means, but where this comes from, and I’m also kind of a geek around fundraising, where when I work with people around events, again, most people just work with an event planner and they do something else, but I really pay attention to the science.

You can bet I know color therapy, so you bet I can talk to you about what colors you actually want to have in the room that are going to inspire giving, or maybe are going to deflate giving. I study that. I also study what happens in terms of nostalgia, smell, taste. All of these things that you need to incorporate into events, to actually get to the body. It sounds woo-woo, but it’s true. To get your memory in the body of your donor, a really happy, delightful memory, so that’s what these mission moments are. I’ll talk you through them, and I’m going to showcase five different stewardship events that I’ve created for organizations, or my organizations, to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. How it’s different. Why people said, “Yes,” to coming to this event. The first one is an agency that provides domestic violence services.

What we ended up doing is, we invited in the majority of our donors to that organization are women, and a lot of those women are actually in their 40s, some are in their 30s, and then we have a few in their 50s or 60s. Essentially what we put together is a Valentine’s Day party, so it was a no boys allowed event. What we wanted to do was put together a fun event where it was a stewardship event where we invited people to come out and to have wine and chocolate, but then here was the mission moment. People would be coming to make Valentines for women and families that were in our service program — was the mission moment. So people were coming out, and when they came, it was a very short program. It was more like come in, they’d come, they’d come sit to these tables where there was little food.

They could nosh, they could socialize, but there was a whole bunch of crafts where they could just make all of these lovely Valentines that would then be given to our women and our safe houses and the children. The program was real quick. It was just, like, “Hey, thank you all for being here. We just want to connect some people in the room, get you to introduce each other so that you know who are here,” but then we had a grateful beneficiary come in, so we actually had one of those moms come in and talk about how hard it is to celebrate holidays when you’re in transition. And that she was very, very thankful for the Valentines that these donors were making for their families. But you want to know how we went ahead and we upped the delight factor?

Actually, the women in our services actually made Valentines for all of the women that were at the event, so there was a Valentines swap, in a sense. That is what I’m talking about when I say something that’s different. Again, really knowing the donor, understanding who they are, and inviting them to come out to an event where they’re going to do something. There’s going to be something that’s going to bring them back to the mission of why they give to our organization and the women and children they help, okay? So that is one of those things that we do.

And Abbey says, “I can’t help but think this sounds like a high-maintenance event.” You know, it was not a high maintenance event at all. We went and bought stuff at Michaels, so little things. We put together those on the table. We had about 20 women that were there, we just have wine and chocolate and we asked our beneficiaries if they would make Valentines, and we did the same for them. It was actually super easy, much more easy than putting together an event where 20 people that had to be catered, that had to be at another venue, because this actually happened at one of our facilities, so this is really low maintenance.

Here’s another one that I did that was really phenomenal. I was a board member at an organization that does wildlife rehabilitation, and so what we did for our stewardship event is, this was a brown bear and he actually as a little kind of cub bear. He was found wandering the aisles of a store in Oregon. Like, he was in the store just wandering around all lonely by himself, and so he actually came to our organization so that we could rehab him and actually put him out into the wild so that he could be safe, and all those things.

So what we did is we actually created a stewardship event where we chose about eight to 10 major donors at our event who had been so good to our organization for a long time, and we invited them to come out to this bear release. Which is actually a really cool thing, because who gets to see bear releases? It just really doesn’t happen. So we invited them to come out, and they got to see and record and take pictures with their iPhone of this bear getting released back into the wild.

So that was our stewardship event, which means, again, this is an event. It’s not . . . Bob. I’m sorry, I just read your comment. It’s hilarious. Okay, so this isn’t hard to do. And here’s the thing; what we then did as well is, as an animal sanctuary that does animal rescue and wildlife rehab, we really promote a vegan lifestyle at that organization.

So what we did after that is we had a little picnic afterwards where it was an all vegan picnic. Then we also got to talk about, hey, everything that you’re eating today is vegan, and here’s why that’s something that we teach to the kids that we serve in school, which we can only do with your dollars.

So I think that when I’m talking about events, also look at what’s something that you’re already going to do? What’s something already related to your mission that you already have on the calendar, and think, how can I get my donors involved in that? Again, that’s something that you could do. And I love that people are helping another person in the chat box around confidentiality issues and how you might be able to get around that. I love that.

Another thing I did, and again, this is a different kind of stewardship event. I love foster care organizations. I am a huge fan, and I am a donor to many. I also serve on a board the serves foster care to children, because I was in foster care when I was a child, so it really makes a difference to me, and it’s really one of my core values to give back to these organizations. One of the things that I did for our stewardship event, and this was really important because we wanted to make sure that a lot of our donors were either . . . a lot of our donors in this specific segment where a lot of them were foster care parents. So they were people that had their own foster care home, that’s why they gave to us and gave to a certain program. So what we wanted to do is actually kind of create a mission moment around home, but then we also knew that family was of value to them, so we wanted to create a stewardship event where they could bring their family.

And if you could do that at any given time, it’s really important that you think about how to add that component. Because when you talk about generational giving, or you talk about legacy giving, or families giving as families, anytime you, as a fundraiser, can kind of put that out there to them, where kids can see their parents in that light, that’s only going to increase sort of their philanthropic culture as a family. What we ended up doing is, we brought everybody in for a gingerbread house stewardship party, so the whole point was, it was a thank you event, but what we wanted to do was have something tactile, so we said, “Bring your families, and we were going to set everything up, and then you will have a gingerbread house that you will decorate.”

Here’s what’s really cool about this and how this became a mission moment. It became a mission moment because part of what we do is provide foster care homes, so it’s all about a safe and loving place for abused and neglected children, so that they’re building homes as part of this made sense. So as people came in what was really beautiful is around the room there were actually already completed gingerbread houses that were decorated by some of our foster care families. So you got to see foster care families that were in our programs that you served, you got to see their houses as well, which was really, really, really cool. And then they made their own, and then obviously part of the program, again, super short and sweet because you have them doing something, was just a really great grateful message and started telling them this is why we wanted you to make houses because this represents what you do, and how you help us as an organization.

Then what we did is, we actually had a foster care parent come and talk to the group just to say, “This is the difference that you’ve made, not just in my life, but my children’s’ life, my foster care children’s’ lives. And that everything that you do, whether it’s just being here today to make another house, or whether it’s the gift that you give on an annual basis that allows me to be a better parent and to be a safe place for these children.”

I mean, so a lot of tears, yes? So it’s just one of those things that you want to do, where you can, for sure, bring people in, and they’ll want to come. Because that’s the thing; when you ask me, “How do I get people to come?” If I’m talking about a gingerbread house decorating party, “Hi. That you can bring my family to and you’re going to supply everything? Oh yeah, I would love to come to that.” That sounds like what? It sounds like fun. And this is the kind of thing that will get people to come to your event.

Here’s another thing that I did for an organization that focuses on hunger relief. They have a ginormous warehouse, and that warehouse is full of food. That’s where they do all of their food packs and actually have seniors come in to get their food every Tuesdays and Thursdays. And so I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a dance party? Let’s just bring families and for a dance party in the warehouse so the kids can climb on the pallets, the kids can climb on the machines, there can even be stations where families are putting together food packs. Again, so you can see the mission and action, right?” So that’s what we did. We brought everybody out on a nice Saturday afternoon and said, “Come out for a dance party.” We had a really great kids’ band there, and you can see, obviously people were having tons and tons of fun. Then what we ended up doing is making sure that everyone there kind of got to see their mission in action.

And the other thing too is, we had families they are that were part of our Backpack for Hunger program, which is essentially families that during the school year, we send them home the backpacks every Friday that have food in them to keep the family fed during the weekend when the kids aren’t in school. So we invited some of those families there, and one of them got up to say thank you.

Again, just a different kind of feel, where it feels grateful, but then it also feels fun and delightful. I don’t know how many times can I keep saying that.

So here’s the last one, okay? One of the things that idea it, and this is, again, kind of thinking differently about event and what event means. We had a number of donors at our healthcare, at our hospital that had given to a state-of-the-art center for NICU, our neonatal intensive care unit, and they helped us to buy a number of draft beds.

Now draft beds are what you’re seeing right there. A draft bed is basically kind of an incubator for early preemies, preemies that obviously need to grow a little bit more before they get to home. One of those draft beds right there that costs about $40,000 to $50,000, so we had a number of donors that gave to purchase these draft beds. Actually, for this stewardship event, what we did is, and we invited everybody to come, sort of the grand opening of, we called it a Sip and See. So for those of you that have babies, or have had babies, a Sip and See is generally after a baby is born the family invites people to come over for just some treats and some yummy stuff, and to see the baby. We thought we would do a Sip and See event for the draft beds, because doesn’t that make sense? So we actually brought them in before they were going to go into use so that they could see what their dollars were going to.

Then we also had neonatal nurses at the event that could show people how to actually use them, because there are some really cool things that you do as a parent when you’re trying to love on your baby but you can’t touch them. You know, it’s kind of like a bubble environment, so they got to practice and see what that was like. That was a very, very amazing event, and then we had a nurse say thank you. So we had a nurse talk about how much this meant to her as a nurse and to the families that she serves, and then honestly this kind of work that she does, and watching these babies grow would not be possible without those people that were at that event.

I think that’s and that is one of those things that you want to do, and I’m loving that you guys are in the chat box talking to each other and sharing of the creative ideas, because if there’s anything I can tell you about events, is that you need to get your creative on, all right?

You want to make sure that you just think, “How can I make this different? How will it be something that my donors are going to love, and again, that’s going to provide a meaningful donor experience?” So as you can see, the program, when you guys ask, or someone asks, “How short is it? Is it long?” It’s actually really short.

The other tip that I want to give you as well. In your invitation to your donor, what I want you to say is, normally you say, “Starts at 6:00, starts at 12:00.” Just say on a line that says . . . What do I usually say? I say, “With a special guest, a grateful beneficiary to share a heartfelt message of gratitude.” I need to look at the invitations because it’s actually something that I use all the time, but on the invitation I say that there’s going to be someone there that’s going to share the message of gratitude. Someone that actually has benefited from their services.

Because it’s actually really hard to say no, or it becomes harder to say no, when I think, “You know what? A beneficiary’s going to be there, so someone that I’ve helped who probably does not have the time nor really have bandwidth, I guess, to come to this event, is going to be there for me. I want to honor that. I want to respect that.” So that’s something that I like to put that in as well.


mean by mission moment, which I think, again, are very, very important. A couple of things I want to do, I want to go ahead and follow up about tips to keep the good vibes flowing post-event. Again, I could take any one of these topic areas and that the talk about them for 90 minutes, so this is kind of like a flyby, right? But what I want to say is this, when it comes to stewardship event, your work, that’s part of it is having the event and getting donors in the room, but your work still happens, it’s still an ongoing process after the event, so here’s a few things that I do post-event that I make sure happen.

Again, I really believe this. There is no such thing as overthinking. You cannot overthink a donor. Donors will never tire of hearing, “You’re wonderful.” They’re not going to tell you to stop telling them that, right? So the more that you thank them, the more grateful you can be, there’s just a general sense of, “Wow, I’m appreciated, but more importantly I’m needed.” All caps. “I’M NEEDED.” So that’s why I really think it’s important after you have a stewardship event to do a few things.

And some of you might think, “Gosh, this is kind of over-the-top,” but I want to be honest with you, there is a reason why I do what I do. There’s a reason why I think I’m successful. There’s a reason why after taking some donor retention rates that hover around 23% and I skyrocket them to above 70%, because I really believe that the extra matters, and that the more you do this, the more successful you’re going to be in keeping donors. It’s kind of like that Jimmy Johnson quote.

Yes, it’s football season, right? I think Jimmy Johnson said, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” And I believe that — it’s the little extra that counts. After you have an event, do this, please — make a thank you call. The next day or a couple of days after just, say, call them up. And again, when you have a small invitation list, you can do this, right? You’re talking about 20 calls, maybe five calls. You just get on the phone and you say, “I just wanted to call and say thank you again for coming to the event. It was so great to see your face and/or meet your family.” Then at a little tidbit about something that you found out about them. “It was so great to learn that you’re going to be going to Italy in a couple of weeks and that’s going to be your first vacation in five years. Enjoy that.”

You want to just call them and say, “Thank you,” and really tell them as I tell you, because it is true — absolutely, authentically true — thank you for being here today in this webinar because I know how difficult it is to take an hour out of your day from serving donors to sit on a webinar. Really, I mean that. That’s the same thing that you want to do for your donors. “Thank you for taking time out of your schedule, which is jam-packed, and coming and being able to live our mission for a moment. That’s what keeps our staff and our board members in the day-to-day; knowing that we have the support from people like you.” So that’s something that you want to do. I know, right? Somebody says, “I love this pink phone. It’s so retro.” I know. I want one for my office. I totally, totally do.

The second thing I want you to do too is mail a handwritten note. Now here’s the thing, you can do both or you can just do one. Just do one, okay? If it’s a handwritten note or it’s calling on a pink phone, I want you to do one, but I love handwritten notes. I really think that your heart comes out through your pen and it’s really nice to get something in the mail. It’s very rare these days that we actually get fun mail or happy mail, and I really believe that snail mail delights a person. So I like to have happy happen in their mailbox, so I always just like to mail a handwritten note, and actually that’s one of my favorite cards that I use, “You’re my hero.” So I just like to mail a handwritten note that says, “Thank you for coming.” That is just really great. Okay, you guys, someone said, “What if your handwriting is so bad you need a pharmacist to read it?” Steven, I know your handwriting is okay too. He said, “That’s a problem for me too.”

You all need to practice your handwriting. You need to go back, get on the Internet, download some elementary school templates and get better about your handwriting. I’m kind of joking, but I’m not. Just really try to make it clear with your penmanship, and a lot of times too, and I’ll say this, some people’s handwriting is really bad because you write too fast, because you’re too busy. You’re too hurried. Actually, if you just slow it down, your handwriting will get a lot better. I promise you. Try it and you’ll see.

So definitely mail a handwritten note if you can, again, just saying, “Thank you,” and it doesn’t have to be long. It could just be this on the outside, and on the inside, “Thanks for sharing your heart with us that night. Thank you for coming out, that was so nice of you. Can’t wait to talk to you again.”

And then the last thing I want to say to when it comes to how to keep the good vibes flowing post-event is, I want you to go ahead and I want you to develop individualized follow-up strategies. This is where the rubber hits the road, right? We know that a lot of people have actually . . . people that come to the event and looking at sort of their donor profile and where they are on your loose management cycle, or whatever else you call it, your organization. Typically there is going to be an ask at some point with that donor coming up. I mean, hopefully there’s an ask coming up at some point, so you want to figure out.

We just did a really great job with them at a stewardship event, so let’s figure out what’s the individual strategy based on what we learned at that event, if we learned anything, about how we approach their cultivation moving up to when we ask them for the next gift. So I think those tailored approaches are really, really important, as well. This is something that I want to go ahead and share with you guys, as well.

And I love that . . . was it Benjamin? Ben that just asked, “Can stewardship events be held for volunteers?” Absolutely-dutely. I think that is a great, great idea. Volunteers are definitely our unsung heroes. To put together a really nice volunteer party, where again, you have a beneficiary or you have somebody come in and talk about how their life has changed because of the time and treasure they put in as volunteers to the organization. There’s something really beautiful and awesome about that so definitely I love that idea.

Eleana says, “Do you have any suggestions for universities?” That’s great, I’ll get to that in just a minute. This is basically the end, all right? Again, I want you to, after the event, make a thank you call, mail a handwritten note. The gratitude should never stop, right? So go ahead and develop an individual strategy, kind of cultivation leading to that next gift, and you’ll be in a good place. Again, if there’s anything about this webinar I want you to take away is that you have permission to be creative.

You have permission to think a little bit more about surprise and delight at what that can look like in a donor’s life. The more that you do that the more you’re going to get to a place where your donors start to think about you more than any other charity, because you make their heart sing. I mean, you’ve made them feel so good about what they do for your organization that they’re going to want to keep doing it, right? That’s pretty much it.

I just want to end with this last slide because this is very much who I am as an individual. Again, I’m super grateful. I’m grateful for you for being here the event day. I’m grateful for you for being do-gooders. I’m grateful for you that you helped so many people and things in this world that need our help. So thank you for showing up. Thank you for being here today. I’m to throw it back over to Steven, and then I’m going to go ahead and answer some questions.

Steven: Yeah, thanks, Shannon. That was awesome, and thanks to everyone for contributing in the chat room — for talking, for making comments, for asking questions. It’s always fun for me to see that as I’m listening to the guest. So Shannon, a lot of people would ask a kind of the same question. People were asking about specific events for their specific subsector or mission type. People were asking, you know, universities, domestic violence, humanities, I think I saw. Rather than you maybe responding to all of them individually, is there sort of a way or a format that you come up with ideas for your specific mission? What advice would you have for those people who want to get their creative juices flowing?

Shannon: Definitely. I think that’s a great question, and I’ll actually share a really cool university one too that I think could be helpful, as well. Again, here’s the thing; some of us are little bit more creative than others. That’s not bad, it’s just that my strength is in being creative and thinking differently than most people think. So I would say my process is, generally when I’m trying to think of something I could do, I like to think about what I like to do, so what’s fun for me. Honestly, what I like to see is, I like to go through a lot of magazines. I get Better Homes and Gardens. I’m on Pinterest. I’m on Instagram. I’m pretty much being inspired. I’ve got my local city magazine, and I go through and I kind of check out what parties, what other fundraisers, what other things are happening out there so I can get a chance to see how other people are thinking creatively. That can then, in turn, get my creative juices going.

The other thing too is, a lot of times we forget who we are, or we forget that we work in organizations where there’s actually day-to-day and service happening. We’re so busy working with donors that we often forget, oh wait, what does the day-to-day look like from the recipient’s side, so from the beneficiary’s side? So I like to try to at least once a quarter or whatever else, look, spend a day and actually try to envision working with my nonprofit or coming to my nonprofit as a beneficiary, and how I would receive services. Because from that aspect, then I can kind of decide, oh what? What point of this journey for a recipient could I then turn into a stewardship event, for example? Like, how could I bring that into an event? How could I have people experience that? That is something that’s important to do.

The other thing too, and when I said if you’re not super creative, you have friends or you have people that are creative, okay? So really just ask them. Just say, “I’m stuck. I’m stuck in the right side of my brain is not working. I need to do this stewardship event. I want it to be sort of mission centered, mission focused. I want to do something fun and different. What do you think?” and bring it to them. I think that that’s something you could do. For a university, and again, this is a different way to think about it, one of the things that you can actually do for . . . this is a stewardship event that a university just did. It was a medical program, and so what they did is they invited their donors to medical school, which is really cool.

It was actually an invitation to come to medical school, and it was, like, a three-hour medical school dinner or evening, where they got to come in, each one of them — and again, this is healthcare so there’s a little bit more money, right? They got to come in. Each one of them that their own lab coat, and they had a series of classes that they went to that were taught by doctors and/or residents in the medical program. So they actually kind of got to go through a mini medical school, and then at the end of the night they got a graduation certificate, which was really cool. So again, it was just thinking about that differently. I’ve known universities that actually bring people into the dorms, as well.

That have done dinners in dorms, like, little dinner dorms. Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in college, but in those areas, those community areas, where it kind of takes them back to what it’s like to be in a dorm room, like, eating Ramen, doing fun stuff. And then having students come by, scholarship students come by to say thank you. That they couldn’t have this experience living in a dorm room and not having to live at home, if it wasn’t for these donors, so that’s some really powerful stuff they can do.

Steven: Cool. Shannon, there were more than a few people to ask about the timing of events. Someone asked “Should it be before a gala, should it be after?” How do you kind of strategize on when these kinds of events should take place? I see you could kind of make an argument for right before a big ask, maybe, or after one, obviously since it’s stewardship. What about timing here?

Shannon: Absolutely. I think that layering, and that’s that whole idea of everything is a step to another step, right? Like, you just never want to have, again, a stewardship event like anything. You don’t want to do a fundraising appeal outside of thinking about what’s the rest of the calendar look like for the fundraising year. You don’t want to have an event, just plop in the middle of summer or not thinking about how that relates to something else in your overall development plan. So the things that I like to do, and honestly this is where some people are, like, “Well, that’s really not a stewardship event if you’re going to ask them for a gift a few months down the road.”

No, it actually is. I mean, sometimes if we know that we’re going to launch a major campaign, or we’re going to launch something that is going to specifically that first ask is going to go to a specific donor segment. Maybe we think about how do we make sure that we thank them properly? That they know that they’re loved, they know that they’re appreciated, so we do a stewardship event with them a few months before that rollout’s going to happen, so you definitely want to think about that.

The way that I like to think about it too is, I like to put my stewardship calendar, and some of you guys don’t have those, but I like to put the stewardship plan next to my fundraising plan, and just overlap them to kind of get a sense of what’s happening. For instance, what I like to tell people, this is not just events, but just stewardship in general.

Let’s say that you have a spring appeal that’s coming out, so let’s say you know your spring appeal is going to happen in March. Well, guess what I want you doing in February? I want impact message. And in February I want your donors to know, here is the impact that you had, and here’s the gratitude that we have to you, right? So that’s going to happen before so that donors know what you did with their money, and how it mattered, and how things changed. Then it goes out in March, well you know what April’s going to be dedicated to? April’s going to be dedicated to gratitude. If March is my season of fundraising, then April is going to be my monthly season of gratitude because it’s going to . . . again, right, you’re going to layer it. If all they heard from me was ask, ask, ask, I want to follow up with thanks, thanks, thanks, so I do think that you want to take a look at the calendars simultaneously. Overlap them and make sure that one is helping the other.

So when you think about events, your stewardship events in general, think about that. Here’s the other thing; if you’ve got two major signature events that you do — so let’s say you have a spring luncheon and you have a fall gala, for example — you’re going to want to make sure that maybe your stewardship events fall in June-ish, because you don’t want too many invitations coming out to them to come to events. So that’s the other insight I have, as well, so just make sure that they don’t feel like, “Oh, I can only go to one.” Try to space it out so they can go to all if they wanted to.

Steven: Great. Cool, very cool. Shannon, I’m going to ask you one more question. I know we’re about out of time and I don’t want to keep people too long. We’ll do one more question before I let you make your official Super Bowl pick. There’s one here from Gabriel. Gabriel’s wondering, “Have you ever created a stewardship event that seems like a good idea, but ended up not working out so well? How did you recover?” Any horror stories and recovery tips for people?

Shannon: I have a lot of horror stories, actually. And lot of them were just, like, when I started out and I was just learning fundraising, and I was making mistakes because I wasn’t making them donor centered, so I was really thinking more about me and my organization and what would make us look good. And what I ended up seeing as people left is, they actually weren’t leaving necessarily with smiles, or they weren’t leaving kind of with that euphoric, “Oh my gosh, I love your organization. I love this, I love being part of it,” that now I get. You know, as the years went on, that’s what you want — that’s the measure. The measure of your stewardship event, you could measure it against whether they give again, but I think there’s more to it than just whether they came to the event.

But the measurement is whether they walk out and/or they call you the next day, and/or they send an email just saying, “Thank you for that. That meant a lot that I could be at that event. I’ve never been to something like that before. Thank you.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a crazy, really bad experience that wasn’t related to logistics? Like, either the microphones didn’t work, or something was wrong with the food didn’t show up, or something else, but I would say just in terms of recovery, if you’ve done something that’s really upset a donor and you know it, like, at an event something happened, you get on the phone and you apologize. Or you get on the phone and you just say, “Hey, that wasn’t what we wanted to do. You deserve so much better. Sorry about that. We definitely know that either this was wrong or that felt icky,” and sometimes that happens when somebody ends up making an ask at the end, like, someone grabs a mic. I’ve seen that happen before. Like, “That wasn’t supposed to happen, I feel sorry about that.”

I mean donors understand all of us are human because donors are human too. Donors are people just like you. So I would say to recover from that if it’s something you did to the donor, apologize. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve made bad decisions that have come back to reflect or not the best decisions, that either came back and reflected badly. On our organization or leadership kind of felt like, “Oh, that didn’t feel so good,” and then at that point it’s up to you to say, “Gosh, I didn’t realize that that was going to happen. It wasn’t my intention.”

I think most matters most in recovery and . . . goes across all, is the fact that you just need to communicate that you hear what happened, you hear that something didn’t go right, and that you’re going to do your best to make sure you have plans in place that it doesn’t happen again. So those are kind of my tips on recovery, but yeah, I will say, as a fundraiser, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I know a lot of you guys on the phone too. By no means are we perfect, but always just make sure if you did something to upset the donor that you let them know you’re really sorry and you won’t do it again, hopefully.

Steven: Yeah.

Shannon: Yeah, that’s about it.

Steven: Shannon . . .

Shannon: Oh, yes.

Steven: . . . that’s just so awesome, thank you so much.

Shannon: You bet. Oh, and I get to tell you my pick? I do?

Steven: Do you have a pick?

Shannon: Anyway, sorry. Yes, go Hawks, right? Yeah, I’m guessing Steve is deflating that Seahawks stocking cap.

Steven: Ah, too soon.

Shannon: I don’t know, maybe I need to do a little bet with you so that I can get you an entire Seahawks garb. The fun thing is, sorry, as we end, here’s a couple things about me. If you want to get in touch with me, that’s how you find me in the web, social, that’s usually how you can find me, then also if you’re actually more interested in learning more inspiring ideas. Not just with stewardship events, but your thank you letters, your thank you notes, phone calls. If you want more of what I just gave you in the last 60 minutes, check out Gratitude Camp. It’s something I do with my awesome bestie and amazing fundraising friend, Beth Ann Locke.

So if it’s just something that you want, but if that doesn’t feel right to you and you’re, like, “No, I don’t want to do it,” don’t worry about it, but I just wanted to put it up there. But I do want to say, Steven, the cool thing is my sister works for Nike and design, so I get all Seahawks stuff and Nike stuff and everything else, so I have plenty of stuff, actually and we should make a bet that I could send you that you would then have to wear . . .

Steven: All right.

Shannon: . . . when you get beat down on Sunday.

Steven: Email me the bet because I’m going to get on an airplane, here, real soon, so email me the bet and we’ll see if I’ll accept your terms.

Shannon: Awesome, wonderful. Awesome. Well, thank you everybody for being here.

Steven: Yeah, this is great. Thank you all for taking an hour out of your day. Definitely follow Shannon. You will not regret it. Sign up for all those things; she’s awesome, as you can see from this presentation. We’ve got webinar every Thursday. Check out our webinar page. You might find a topic there that you’re interested in. We’d love to have you back. Even you, Bob. I’ll be trimming my sideburns later, I promise. But yeah, we’d love to see you again. Thanks for hanging out with us. Shannon, always a pleasure. Good luck on Sunday, regardless of everything.

Shannon: Totally. Good luck, Steven. Thank you for just being awesome to the nonprofit community, and thanks to Bloomerang and your team for bringing all of these great trainings to everybody.

Steven: Oh yeah, we love it. We have fun doing it. So we will catch you guys, hopefully next week, we’ll see you again. If not, we’ll be in touch soon. Look for the recordings and slides from me a little later on today. And with that, I’ll call it a day, so thanks everyone. We’ll talk to you soon.

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.