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Using Events for Donor Cultivation & Stewardship

by Tim Ardillo

I’ve spent a good deal of my career thinking about events and how to best use them in successful development programs. I’ve worked for organizations where key special events serve as the base of their philanthropic outreach.

The most successful are those organizations that are able to use events strategically. “Strategic” being the key word. One of the key strategic elements in an event plan is having a detailed plan for follow-up that is focused on building and maintaining relationships with donors.

Organizations that depend primarily on direct mail and special events have an ROI of 200-400%, while those that rely primarily on major gifts enjoy a higher ROI of 500% or more. I believe there is a way to combine these two approaches to have the best of both worlds.

There are great ways to integrate events into a successful major gift program, particularly in the areas of cultivation and stewardship. And, through thoughtful plans for post-event follow-up you can leverage their relationship-building potential.

Donor Cultivation Events – Ask a board member to host a house party where they invite some their contacts to become acquainted with your organization and its mission. Make it as simple as possible for the volunteer by offering to send out the invitations. All they will need to do is provide the names and contact information for the invitees. Typically a cocktail event works well along with a few hors d’oeuvres. Ask your board member to say a few words of welcome and why they are involved with your organization. Then, have your organization’s CEO say a few words. It’s also helpful to have a testimonial ready to go.

As development officers, it’s important to remember we can’t just head back to the office and wait for the checks to roll in after everyone is thanked for attending. They rarely do. Don’t just put these new major donor prospects in the database and solicit them again next year, or you’re likely to never hear from them again.

Instead, make a plan for the “after the event” next steps as well. Work closely with the host and coordinate follow up to each attendee jointly. This could include a personal note to each of the attendees telling them the development officer will be calling in a week to set up a tour or to invite them to meet with one of the organization’s clients. Your next visit will be a key step in learning more about the new prospect that can help you integrate them into your organization. Once the introduction is made through these events, the development officer’s job is to deepen the connection to the organization.

Donor Stewardship Events – Consider hosting a group of major gift donors for a lunch event and utilize the assets of your organization. For example, if your organization serves victims of domestic violence and their families in a shelter setting, prepare a simple lunch for some of your donors where your clients can also share how important your organization has been to helping them to get on their feet. If you are an educational institution, invite a small group of donors in to have lunch with some of your students and tour the school. Point out things donors helped to fund, like a new playground or classroom tools. Mission-in-action is exactly what your donors wants to see.

Again, what’s most important in using an event for stewardship of a major gift donor is the follow-up. After the event, be sure to implement a follow up plan that moves the relationship forward. Thank the donor for their visit and their support of your mission and arrange a time to chat with them about their impressions.

These are just a couple of examples but highlight ways to use special events for cultivation and stewardship of major donor prospects. So, instead of thinking about what favor you give attendees when they leave your event, strategize how you will follow up in a way that will build your relationship and bring them closer to your organization.