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Now, Unblock That Benefit!

Last month I laid out the case for canceling a benefit. The giving rate is low; the gifts are suboptimal; the guests don’t come back; and the staff burnout is high.

And yet, our calendars fill up every spring with dozens of invitations to fundraising events. Surely there are some benefits that actually benefit these organizations. Can we take a page from their playbook?

Well, I happen to have studied their playbook.

And what they all do well is integrate the principles of major donor fundraising into the core of their events. That’s how they become more than just parties with an obligatory ask; they are the means to engage people who are long-term investors in their mission.

Successful benefits are successful because they are designed around an organization’s established lifetime donors. These passionate champions have the capacity to give, sometimes significantly, over a period of time while attracting others from their network to do the same.

What if you don’t have a program like this underway? Do you have the underpinnings of one in your reach, or could you develop one in future? Start your assessment with these questions:

  • Does my organization have an active annual fund program? Do I have people and funders who give year after year? Are they individuals and funders that could do more, if asked, in the name of a benefit? Or, if not, do I have a community of champions who might become annual fund donors and develop this critical function?

  • Do we really know our donor community? Do my staff, board members, and I have strong relationships with our donors (not just in a spreadsheet)? Do we have a holistic understanding of why they are involved? And do we feel confident that they will stand behind and in front of us in the efforts to host a larger-scale event?

  • Does our staff have the infrastructure to implement this effort? Does my team have the skills and capacity to lead a benefit? Do we have access to and the skills to use the databases, planning software, and research platforms to execute a high-impact event? If not, can I train my team to do this work and equip them with the support they need? Do enough people recognize our brand to engage?

If you and your team have answered yes to most of these questions, you might be positioned to make a benefit work. But don’t just remount what you’ve done before. You’ll want to re-orient every aspect of the event around these major donors. Focus on these three areas:

  1. The event should mainly celebrate your major donors — not merely solicit them. Ask them for their annual gifts throughout the year (not necessarily framed as gala donations, partly to avoid cannibalization). Use the benefit to show appreciation for your community, including special recognition tailored to their preferences. They may choose to give additionally for the event, but the main goal is to inspire connection through a mission-driven experience. That is at the heart of what motivates supporters to bring their friends — the potential new donors you can cultivate.

  2. Let your champions power the preparation. Is your host committee padded with famous names who never show up, let alone help behind the scenes? Reboot it. Assemble a core group of passionate donors and supporters who will doggedly invite people and do some heavy lifting behind the scenes. Even if it starts with just a few people, this team is the key to increasing the ROI of benefits. Small can be beautiful and it grows from there.

  3. Get the right people in the room. Every seat might be filled, but if the people there can’t move the needle for your organization, your benefit will end in a loss. A successful event must include some significant donors. That’s not an easy proposition, though. Folks like this have invitations clogging their mailboxes. They can’t accept all of them — only ones to which they are personally invited by someone they know. So make sure you have the capacity — and the host committee — to execute the art of active outreach.

Once you feel confident your major donor program is maturing, you can position an event as a culmination. It’s still a lot of work, but with the help of the host committee determined to assemble an ideal guest list, your next benefit you throw can actually, you know, benefit your organization.


Not My First Rotary

My 14-year-old son loves baseball. He will do anything to be on a team, play a game, or practice with other kids. So when I told him that work and family responsibilities would force the five-day tournament out of our summer plans, he was shattered. He came back to me with a convoluted plan to get to Pennsylvania on his own, play the games, and get back in time for his CIT job. When he finished, I gaped at him and said, “Sweetheart, that’s ludricrousy!”

I was sure it was a real word, but he was cocking his head. It turns out I was blurring “lunacy” and “ludicrous.” He still got my point.

Take all the ludicrousy out of your fundraising strategy. Stop and assess whether your benefit actually gives back to your organization, or if you need to cancel it, shrink it, or reconfigure it to connect with your major donor program.


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