We are pleased to welcome back Susan Emfinger of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For her previous posts on institutional fundraising, please .
In today’s post, I ask readers to imagine a world in which fundraising staff and programmatic work closely together with a variety of “programmatic” events in order to expose the organization to those very individuals who have the financial capacity to enhance and/or to ensure the organizations’ future. My prediction: your fundraising results will surprise you.
Given how much time, energy and effort tends to go into organizing fundraising events, I thought we might start with one question: Just what is a “fundraising” event?
This may seem like a silly question. After all, we all know about the golf tournaments, the silent auctions, the galas and the walk/run events. We’ve all worked with fundraising committees to make what seems like that 1,000th call for that 100th silent auction item. We’ve all stayed up nights with groups of volunteers or, more often than we’d like to admit, with groups of paid staff , to:
- stuff goodie bags
- fold tee shirts
- label auction items
- arrange auction items
- prepare bingo tables and,
- (my personal favorite) ride around in a golf cart at 4:30 a.m. on a cold, misty spring morning to put one or more signs on 9-18 golf holes
Last, but far from least, we have all gone out of our way to ensure that of the items for the event (catering, auction items, tee signs, with all names on tee signs spelled perfectly correctly, in the same font, and all the same size, thank you very much) actually arrive in the condition promised, at the correct venue, well in time for the actual event. Ditto for ensuring that all volunteers and staff have their instructions about where to show up and when, that volunteers feel happy they chose to volunteer, and that everyone, whether volunteers or staff members, know what their duties are.
Conversely, there seems to exist the “other” type of event, one that is typically regarded as completely programmatic, one with no fundraising purpose whatsoever. A crisis call center invites prospective call center volunteers to a training session. A health organization invites volunteers to a “party” designed to inform their friends and family about the need for regular health screenings. An animal shelter invites prospective volunteers to brush up on the latest techniques for the feeding and the care of its animals.
This type of thinking about just what constitutes a “fundraising” event gets expressed in a number of ways. For example, a nonprofit colleague’s recent answer to my question, “What’s the role of your organization’s fundraising staff at your organization’s programmatic events?” was, “We don’t believe that people should come to every event and be asked for money.” To her mind, a fundraising event is a fundraising event, and a programmatic event is just that. Programmatic. Fundraisers non gratis. Hmm.
Consider the following, which is just a step or two away from what really happened (events have been altered slightly in order to protect the innocent):
Unbeknownst to the organization in question, but as it happened very well-known to an existing volunteer of the organization, a certain prospective donor had grown up in a poor neighborhood where, due to lack of money to attend college, many of her childhood friends ended up in lower-skilled jobs that were always in flux with the rise and fall of the economy and thus, many ended up on welfare. The prospective donor, on the other hand, had been lucky enough to break this cycle by encountering, through sheer chance, a mentor who pushed her to get a great education, thus enabling her to leave her home town and find a quite prominent job elsewhere. As an adult and now world-traveling business professional, this prospective donor’s job kept her on the road on a regular basis, thereby affording her precious little time to think about how to help those now-adult kids from her neighborhood, many of whom had, by this time, started their own families, though not with improved economic prospects. Sometimes, however, as she was seeing her own children off to their private, very well-heeled school, this prospective donor thought about what might have been possible for her friends growing up, if only they had had the same opportunities as she.
Question: What activity do you think motivated this donor to give to a non-profit organization whose mission was to give at-risk youth greater access to educational opportunity?
- Yet another raffle
- Yet another gala
- An opportunity to directly interact during a one-day visit with the students, teachers, parents and grandparents who were struggling to get their kids an education?
Those who answered, “3” would be correct. The return on investment? In this case, well over $100,000, and all that from a single donor. Clearly a return whose initial investment of fundraising and program staff working in collaboration (with the program staff managing the logistic and educational contents of the visit, and the fundraiser working with program staff to determine what and whom the donor would see in the context of her visit) was more than worth it.
I ask readers to consider creating a number of scenarios each year in which your organization’s fundraisers, instead of being sidelined during your organization’s programmatic activities, actually work closely with non-fundraising staff (i.e., your organization’s program and volunteer leaders) to invite prospective donors’ participation in a series of events which present no-frills, down-to-earth, real-life opportunities to actually experience the mission of your organization in action. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, good fundraisers, being very mission-driven themselves, know when not to ask for money. They know that prospective donors are most motivated to give when they are permitted to simply see, hear and learn through direct experience about truly remarkable staff members, volunteers and organizations, when they are given time to process what they experience in the context of witnessing program delivery, and when they are given the opportunity to direct good, timely questions toward those very staff members most likely to have the best answers. Good fundraisers are highly motivated by the very mission-based core of their organizations, and they welcome the opportunity to get donors involved in purely program-based events. One simply must not be afraid to let fundraisers into the more programmatic aspects of the organization, and to make a habit of bringing the organization’s donors behind the curtain, too.
I propose the following to our loyal readers: we need to change our definition of what constitutes a “fundraising” event. While traditionally-conceived “fundraising” events may sometimes contain great programmatic elements, and it may indeed be important to hold such events from time to time (though I would recommend no more than once a year), nothing gives more return on investment than working with your organization’s fundraisers to deeply, meaningfully and consistently engage prospective donors into the day-to-day life of an organization. Even the busiest, most prominent prospective donors need to be able to confidently say, with knowledge gained from their own experience: “This is the place where I can see my hard-earned money making an actual, transformative difference, and these are the people, both program staff and fundraisers, that I trust to make this difference happen.”
Susan Emfinger is currently Assistant Vice President, Alumni Relations and Development at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She can be contacted at Susan.L.Emfinger@gmail dot com.