Successful Donor Events

Last Thursday my wife Leslie and I attended a very fun donor event put on by the American Foundation for the Blind and All Stars for Kids. It was hosted by Roger Staubach and Emmitt Smith (which is a big deal if you are a football fan and a bigger deal if you happen to be a Dallas Cowboys fan). Being a Cowboys fan, I find myself in the enviable position of receiving invitations to events like this by my wonderful mother-in-law who was a long-time executive at The Staubach Company and still sits on their board of directors (my three boys do not yet understand the importance of their “Mimi Ka’s” connection to the great Roger Staubach – they still view her simply as a purveyor of hugs, kisses, ice cream, and toys).

The event was called “Dancing with a Vision” (a play on the “Dancing with the Stars” TV contest that Emmitt recently won). Former Miss America Phyllis George was the emcee and NFL legends Ronnie Lott (SF 49ers) and Marcus Allen (Oakland Raiders) were also in attendance. There was excellent live music and dancing entertainment as well as a live auction that was made more fun by the ad-libbing of Roger Staubach and Emmitt Smith (for instance Roger increased the value of a Roger, Emmitt, and Marcus signed football by offering to throw it across the room to the winning bidder).

That evening I was talking with one of the people associated with the event and they were saying that even with the “stars” like Roger and Emmitt donating their time it is hard to “raise significant money from the event” because of the costs of the event hall, equipment, food, etc…

Now, I am not familiar with the donor relationship strategies of either American Foundation for the Blind or All Stars for Kids so this is not a criticism of them, however, I have seen events just like this – dinners, cruises, golf tournaments that are fun with great content – fail to make the kind of impact that they could because the organization views it as a one-time event as opposed to the beginning or the continuation of a relationship. Too often an event is measured only by the monies received from the major donor sponsors, live auction, tickets, and any other funds raised through activities as part of the event.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be an ROI or other measurement associated with the event. However, just like all donor relationship activities, a donor event needs to be measured by the relationships over time. The real value of the event should be in the new relationships created, the lapsed relationships renewed, and the current relationships grown.

Because the reality is in order to make the most of a great event there must be relationship follow up. Everyone who gave, sponsored, or attended the event needs to have at least one and probably multiple follow-ups. The donors and sponsors who helped make the event happen need to be thanked and offered ways to stay involved with the organization throughout the year. They also need to know results – what were the outcomes of the big event? People who attended the event as their first contact with the organization need a welcome letter or email to thank them for attending and to introduce them to the meaningful work of the organization. This should also include ways that they can be involved going forward.

The biggest mistake an organization can make is to look at an event as THE fundraising strategy when the reality is that an event is just a part of the overall relationship strategy to build or grow long term relationships between an organization that does good work and people who want to participate in that work.

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