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Executive Development of Fundraising Skills

Not all nonprofit executives come with abilities in fundraising. These are skills that develop over time. And I’m speaking from my own experience. I earned a Master of Arts in Teaching degree at the University of NH in 1971, taught junior high social studies for two years, and in 1975 found myself in Minneapolis Minnesota working at the American Lung Association, developing programs for kids with asthma. I got to work with a great staff and volunteer team, and together we built Camp Superkids into a strong teaching program for kids with moderate-to-severe asthma. And, just as important, for physicians working on pulmonary and allergy fellowships in Midwestern programs who loved the opportunity to come work with 125 kids in a camp setting and learn new things in a challenging clinical setting. And it turned out that this enterprise attracted money. and in 1979 I got the opportunity to move back to New England and become executive director of the American Lung Association of NH. The board of directors wanted to start some new programs there and thought I could help them do exactly that. And we did. But we also needed to raise some significant money to accomplish all they wanted to do. And I’d never done much fundraising up to that point in my life. But if I wanted to be their executive, I needed to learn to raise $$ quickly. It definitely was trial and error, but over a three year period we developed some new special events that raised significant dollars to advance the mission of the American Lung Association. And in New Hampshire we were recognized for fund raising achievement nationally. Some of it was luck. The key to our success was: Finding people who could do the job, and looking for examples that worked and doing the best we could to emulate stuff that seemed to work. And stuff that fit our culture. It started with Bike Treks, moved on to golf promotions, then on to kids fun passes, and then from there to a major gift campaign. A great events director, a great public relations director, and enthusiastic volunteers that wanted to be part of something that was delivering good respiratory health to kids and adults all worked together. It took time and hard work, but we did it. Part of it was the Board of Directors leaned on me to deliver. And I felt the pressure and responded. And when it came to major gifts, I returned the favor and leaned on the board to hone their fundraising skills. It wasn’t magic. But it worked.

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I Love an Event: But What Kind of Event?

Nonprofit organizations need to diversify their revenue streams. It’s just common sense. and once you get beyond the annual fund drive the next logical area to consider is special events.

But what kind of event exactly? A walk? A run? A gala ball? A brunch? A chili cookoff? A night of comedy? A night of tragedy? Decisions, decisions! The purpose of this post is to help you focus on organizing the kind of event that might work best for the likes of you!

Here are some factors to take into account when considering which direction to go:

1. Fundraising Committee. Do you have one of these? And if you do, are there members with experience and/or interest in events? Before you launch a fundraising special event, be sure to organize a committee of volunteers of interested souls with an interest and energy to help make it work. Having a group consider type of event will serve you well.

2. Network. Do you have a cadre of volunteers? A base of folks who are using the service of your nonprofit? People who passionately care about your mission and want to help make it work in their community? Events take an audience of active participants, and a solid core of interested people who feel a strong urge to make it work. The key is to get the core group organized, set a timeline, and then engage their networks to build the audience. It’s not magic. It’s hard work and good organization!

3. Communication. Do you have a communications/public relations person on staff? On the board? A group of volunteers who have expertise in this area? If not, it’s time to build a group with this kind of ability. Great special events depend on great communication in social media, broadcast media, print media…you name it. It means communicating.

4. Budget. What’s it going to cost to produce this event? Events cost money. If you can find one or more event sponsors, that’ll be fabulous. But it’s not a guarantee. Frequently, sponsors won’t join the parade until they see a successful first run. But maybe you’ll overcome that obstacle. Maybe there’s a person on you’re board who loves the mission and has a passion for the kind of event you want to do and will get four-square behind it and put some money on the deal. That would be great! Make sure the board is informed on the planning. And be sure there’s a champion for the event on the board, so it’s not totally staff-dependent. Because if it doesn’t work as planned first time around, it’ll be helpful if one or more board members speak up for it and give the effort its due, particularly if you want to try again next year even though it wasn’t a smashing success first time around.

So, get ready for lots of work. Be sure to allocate time for the effort.

There can be a great pay-off if the planning and execution are well done!

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Building a Following for Your Special Event

Of course you were enthralled with my March 13, 2011 post, “Special Events That Fit” So you know how to build a fundraising event that works for your nonprofit.

Today we’re going to take a look at how to build a following of participants and volunteers who get the “nudge” to be part of something successful that moves you closer to accomplishing your mission.

First and foremost, you and the event are well organized.  You’re working off a timeline with checklists and your committee knows that your nonprofit clients are counting on them to deliver so we get the max return possible.  We’re growing net revenue every year so we can deliver more mission to our primary customers.

Second, the committee, the board, the staff and friends of the event know the importance of engaging our networks. If we’re Facebook fans, we’ll use it to recruit more participants and ask others to pledge.  We’ll let colleagues at work know we’re “all in” for this event, and hope they’ll catch the enthusiasm you have and want to help out in some way. Volunteer. Donate. It all works.  And if there’s a newsletter, we plug the event at least once if not twice in the company newsletter.

Third, we have incentives and a recognition plan that add to the fun and attract more people to be a part of it.

The object here is, once the event is over and we’ve reported our financial results, people who participated will look back fondly on the experience and park a spot in their brain and in their heart for next year’s event.  Which, of course, will be bigger and better than ever!

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Will Event Supporters Become Annual Fund Donors?

Nonprofit organizations wrestle every few years with the quandary: Should I treat my special event participants as annual fund donor prospects?  If we write a nice appeal letter, won’t they contribute to the annual appeal?

The answer is, typically “no.”  Your community benefit organization attracts people with certain interests to certain activities. Supporters who come out for the 5k walk, the golf tournament, the chili cook-off develop a commitment to the event. There may not be the zeal for your mission that annual fund donors feel. The connection to the event may be more to people they know, whom they have a relationship with, that they like to see each year and maybe compete with to see who will raise the most money. For many event participants, it’s more about the people and the event than it is about the benefit to those you serve.

People who are contributing each year to the annual fund are of a different kettle of fish. They may be older. Their demographic profile is likely quite different from those who fill up your events each year. Think of the way you thank and honor your loyal annual appeal donors; how does this contrast to how you recognize key volunteers and super fund-raisers in your annual walk?

When you sit down with the development committee and discuss this, the differences become apparent to all. But I do recommend that you not give up the ghost on this pursuit.  Summertime is a good time to convene a group of friends of your nonprofit and run through the event participant list together. Perhaps there will be names some of these friends recognize.  Perhaps a special note from a friend might spur the person to add an annual gift over and above the money donated associated with the special event.

You can have a special appeal from annual fund friends to event friends. You can identify a few good prospects from the event lists and do a special prospecting approach to these individuals.  Sending a mass mailing to potentially hundreds of event supporters usually is a waste of resources.  Targeting the better prospects is the way to go.

So, the answer is: Yes. Event Supporters can become Annual Fund Donors. But it depends.

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Will a Special Event Fit for Your Nonprofit?

Special Events can be great ways to mobilize volunteers, engage Facebook followers, build new friends for your nonprofit.  By running an activity that draws in people, is pledge-based and brings significant new net dollars for your mission you can accomplish a number of objectives by producing one event.

How long have you been in business?  If you have a corps of supporters who can be mobilized to raise money for your cause, then a fundraising special event can be just the ticket. Here are some factors to assess to help determine if an event is right or wrong for you:

  • How long have you been in business? If you have a following that will raise money for you: go for it! If you’ve been building momentum with an effective program and a good group of supporters, an event could be right for you.
  • Enough motivated folk for an ad hoc work group? The lead staff person for the event seeks out volunteers from your participant lists who will help shape and organize the event.
  • Yes, but what event exactly?  Convene the ad hoc group (I hesitate establishing a committee) to join you to explore this. Look at two or three nonprofits like you in communities in other States, examine their websites, and see if they do events that seem to fit well.  Also, did you try an event some years back that flopped?  Maybe now that you have more experience and stronger relationships,  it’s time to re-consider what didn’t work a few years back might do well now.
  • How do we plan? Build a time-line, perhaps going six months.  Work backwards from the event. Is it a walk?  A bicycle event?  A breakfast or a gala?  What’s it going to take?  Do we need corporate sponsors to be effective? who has connections to bring this support to us?
  • How do we set a dollar goal? Be realistic. Conservative.  It’s your first time down the chute. How many participants is it realistic to expect?  Will they collect pledges?  Will there be incentives? Who among our vendors do we go to to ask to sponsor this?  What will it cost us to produce this?

Special events can be right for your nonprofit. And, they also can be wrong. Go into this effort in a thoughtful, conservative way. Be sure the board of directors is with you on this. Start the conversation there. Recruit the most enthusiastic to join the work group.  If you have a person with strong marketing and/or communication skills in your neighborhood, recruit her/him. They have skills that can help make this work for you.

As I write this blog, we’re approaching the New Year.  A good time to organize a money-making special event that will take place in summer, 2012. I do recommend at least a six-month time frame to organize then produce a successful event that fits your nonprofit.

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