Successful Foundation Fundraising EventsOctober 1, 2015

Donor Engagement and Recognition Are the Keys By
October 1, 2015

Successful Foundation Fundraising Events

Donor Engagement and Recognition Are the Keys
ASAE Foundation’s: The Classic 2015 event was held at the historic Fox Theatre in Detroit. Credit: Jason Keen

ASAE Foundation’s: The Classic 2015 event was held at the historic Fox Theatre in Detroit. Credit: Jason Keen

The types of fundraising events association foundations put on at their annual meetings run the gamut from casual receptions to lavish galas to golf tournaments, walkathons and more. But no matter what type of fund­raiser it is, there’s one challenge that many association foundation executives share: how to get the attention of attendees and encourage them to participate.

As Stephen E. Peeler, vice president, development for the ASAE Foundation explains, “The challenge for us becomes not the format of the fundraising event at our annual meeting. The challenge for us, as with any association foundation, is how do you distinguish yourself from the rest of the buzz and activities that are taking place at annual meetings? You’re going to have vendors that are taking clients out, you’re going to have committees that have to have meetings and the evenings are just about all you have, unless you do it pre or post annual conference.”

“We’re trying to position our foundation as a very high touch, very exclusive organization to be affiliated with.”  — Stephen Peeler 

The ASAE Foundation takes a multifaceted approach to keep donors and potential donors engaged, starting with a golf tournament that takes place in advance of ASAE’s annual meeting. The organization has held a golf tournament for years, but has now added tennis and spa components to address the needs of non-golfers. “We wanted to make sure we had something to offer for everybody,” Peeler notes.

Recognizing Donors

The ASAE Foundation’s biggest event is a reception for its largest donors. “In the past, we had done a gala, and while the gala model is still very successful, we haven’t done that in several years. We have decided because of the hard cost associated with the gala, it really makes a lot more sense to us to do a reception,” Peeler explains.

“It’s a meet-and-greet event that we do for our top donors (individuals who donate at least $1,000 and organizations that donate at least $5,000). Those donors get a chance to meet the keynote speaker as they come off of the stage at the annual meeting’s open general session. They’re in a separate room where they can ask their burning questions. Instead of being in front of 5,000 people, they’re in a room with about 150 people.

“They love it,” Peeler adds. “The two things they tell us they want most out of their donor benefits are access and visibility. They want to be seen as industry leaders or movers and shakers, depending on where they are in their career cycle, and they’re able to have access to a speaker in a much more informal and intimate way that they typically would not have. This is a full, one-hour dialogue. It’s very well-received.” The foundation also hosts a separate donor appreciation reception for these individuals.

Cultivating Future Donors

The ASAE Foundation also recognizes the importance of cultivating a new generation of donors, so they also focus on young executives. A special donor lounge is open throughout the week as a place where donors can have a meeting, grab some quiet time or interact with fellow donors. “We also offer, for the young executives, a headshot lounge within that area because the ASAE Foundation wants to be the conduit for professional development,” Peeler notes. “We figure that if someone is giving us that $5 today, they could easily give us $1,000 when they get that dream job. So if we help them by taking an executive portrait of them at the annual meetings, that’s something they can use to increase their visibility in their community and in LinkedIn and Facebook pictures. We have five professional photographers and 10 hair and makeup artists. The lines are usually pretty steady, that’s for sure!” he laughs.

The ASAE Foundation also hosts a networking happy hour each evening where young professionals can meet established donors who are at a point in their career where they want to give back. It enables these young professionals to approach people in the industry that they may not otherwise have a chance to meet.

Communications Count

In order to cut through the clutter of communications attendees receive, the ASAE Foundation uses a multistep approach to make sure donors are aware of the exclusive events they’re invited to. First, donors are sent an email invitation detailing the events, and then it’s followed by a large, three-fold postcard delivered by snail mail. The foundation also creates a welcome letter that lists all of the donor events and the hours of the donor lounge and has it delivered to the sleeping rooms of its top donors. “We’re trying to position our foundation as a very high touch, very exclusive organization to be affiliated with,” Peeler notes.

Creating New Opportunities

In recent years, in a grassroots effort, some of the donors to The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Foundation asked that the foundation recognize the significant impact that women are having in the pharmacy profession. This resulted in a number of initiatives, including a new event at this year’s annual meeting. The event, which is open to all attendees, is called Women in Pharmacy: Mix, Mingle and Margaritas. According to Lynette Sappe-Watkins, who was APhA’s director of development at the time of this interview, Cardinal Health is a sponsor of the event, and the $15 donation each attendee makes will help the foundation honor the pioneering women of the profession and advance women’s and children’s patient care services.

The Significance of Sponsorships

“Sponsors play a significant role in our ability to create these programs and to invest the energy to get them off the ground,” Sappe-Watkins explains. “It’s also a nice gesture of support to our other donors. It says that not only are we as individuals supportive of these programs, but others from the pharmacy community are interested in them, as well.”

Joe Garecht, founder of a firm named The Fundraising Authority, works with organizations large and small to help them design profitable fundraising plans and “super-charge” their development efforts. He describes the importance of securing sponsorships. “The mindset that every nonprofit, including associations, should have is when you have a fundraising event, most of the money you raise, or a significant chunk of the money you raise, should come from sponsors. You have corporations that are looking for exposure, but also there are some folks that want to give because they support the mission of the (foundation).” He says that a good guideline is to have about 50 percent of the funds coming from sponsors, about 30 percent from ticket sales and the rest coming from activities such as silent auctions and raffles.

“I like to see a nonprofit get sponsors not just to cover the cost of the event, but to put them in the black. If you say you want to raise $50,000 and it costs you $10,000 to run it and you go out and raise $11,000 from sponsors, you go into the event already paid for and $1,000 already raised. It’s a successful event already. Sponsors are irreplaceable when it comes to fundraising events.”

Silent Auction Success

The APhA Foundation also organizes a wine-tasting and silent auction event each year. “I believe it’s been going on for about 10 years. It literally is a tradition at our annual meeting,” Sappe-Watkins explains. She did have a bit of advice for other organizations considering putting on a similar event. “It very much depends on the laws of the state where you’re having your annual meeting. Not all states and not all venues will allow you to bring in your own wine. The laws from state to state vary, and you have to find out ahead of time what that state’s rules are and what the venue’s rules are and corkage fees and all kinds of things, so it’s not a slam dunk that you can do it in every venue.”

The foundation forms a volunteer committee tasked with soliciting items for the silent auction. One person might be assigned to secure handcrafted items. Another might reach out to the state pharmacist associations for donations, and yet another might be assigned to contact the colleges and schools of pharmacy to request alumni-themed baskets to represent the schools.

Sappe-Watkins also describes a unique approach her foundation takes to secure additional items for the silent auction. “We will host a couple of jewelry parties throughout the year. They’re just like a jewelry party you might go to in someone’s home and the person who hosts it gets free jewelry. We’ll do that here (in the office) and the free jewelry becomes part of our silent auction.”

The foundation’s wine-tasting and silent auction attracts between 250 and 300 attendees. “The way that we do that is it’s free to come into the event and peruse the silent auction items,” she explains. “Anybody can do that. If you’d like to participate in the wine and cheese pairings you have to buy a ticket. That way, everybody is welcome to come in. We also use this as a joint fundraiser with the state pharmacy association foundations who participate.

“We’ve also got a couple of experiences that we put into our auction,” she continues. “For example, the CEO of APhA makes a very generous offer for up to two CEO-for-the-day experiences. Somebody will bid on that opportunity and then they come in and become CEO for the day here. We really treat them nicely and take them up to Capitol Hill.”

Garecht has seen a trend toward what he calls participatory fundraising. “People want to be entertained,” he explains. “That’s why silent auctions over the past 10 to 15 years have become so popular. A lot of people who we’re targeting as donors get invited to these (events) all the time, so nonprofits started saying, ‘we’ve got to make these fun.’ Silent auctions are fun because people walk around, they’re kind of gambling a little bit. Am I going to get the item? Am I not? People like live auctions because they’re exciting, and they’re something to watch. People also like raffles.”

He’s also seen some family-friendly fundraising events. “Instead of a sit-down dinner there are carnival games around the room and a kid-friendly band and food that appeals to both (kids and adults). There’s a regular bar for cocktails and there’s a milkshake bar on other side because that’s something interesting. I’ve also seen events where they charge $100 a ticket, but rather than spending $50 on food, they spend $5 on food and serve hot dogs at the beach, but it’s still a high-dollar event.”

Great Galas

Each year, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation hosts a gala event called Nite to Unite – for Kids (NTU). Jenny Lai, the foundation’s vice president, describes the event and its purpose. “NTU helps us make a difference in the lives of children in the U.S. and celebrates the entertainment software industry’s success. It features cocktails, tasting buffets, casino entertainment and live and silent auctions. The evening begins with a VIP reception that features exclusive tastings, networking opportunities and a preview of auction items. The gala officially opens with a program that recognizes an individual’s philanthropic and professional leadership and contributions to the industry. This past year, we featured a special acknowledgment of our grantees and scholarship recipients.”

The event attracts approximately 500 industry partners and other professionals who represent leading entertainment software companies. “NTU has raised more than $14 million to support ESA Foundation efforts,” Lai notes. “Funding goes to scholarships for women and minority students who are pursuing video game-related degrees and grants to schools and organizations that leverage video games and technology; all which create opportunities for youth across the country,” Lai says.

She also describes what it takes to make the event successful. “The planning and coordination required to have a successful event requires us to begin early. Almost as soon as one Nite to Unite ends, planning begins for the next gala. Maximizing the budget can present its own set of challenges, but we are very fortunate to have several generous partners — including those who donate auction items, sponsor our casino entertainment and invest their time and resources in other ways to help make Nite to Unite a success. Perhaps the biggest challenge is designing a fundraiser that attracts enough participants and donors to make the investment worthwhile. We carefully hone all elements of Nite to Unite year after year through attendee post-surveys so that we can continuously improve the experience and create a fun and entertaining evening for our guests. We rely on communications strategies to promote the gala and drive ticket sales, which involves building email and social media campaigns and an event website.”

Lai describes another way that ESA Foundation taps into its industry’s expertise to benefit a good cause. “This past year, we partnered with Extra Life (a 24-hour video game marathon and fund­raiser) to offer a new ESA Foundation Challenge. Gamers who participated in Extra Life were able to choose which Children’s Miracle Network Hospital their donations would support. Our ESA Foundation Challenge was designed to award an additional $30,000 to each hospital whose players raised the most money during the marathon and to the hospital with the highest per capita fundraising total. We were pleased to present grants to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland in Oakland, California, and the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Austin, Texas. Extra Life 2014 raised a record $6 million for medical equipment, treatment and research at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Their continued success is a testament to the video game community’s generosity and commitment to giving back, and we are proud to be an integral part of its success.”

Smart Strategies

Sappe-Watkins stresses the importance of keeping an open mind when planning fundraising events from year to year. “While you might do things that are traditional for your organization, there’s always something that’s going to be a little different based on the state that you’re in and the volunteers that you bring to the table. Always be open to what new opportunities come about as a result of the venue you’re in or the volunteers that come forward. They all bring about some unique opportunity.”

Garecht also recommends that foundations explore other fund­raising opportunities such as launching a crowdfunding campaign. “The sweet spot for a crowdfunding campaign right now is $10,000–$25,000, so I always recommend to every organization, to get your feet wet, start with that.” He also recommends continually monitoring the number of man hours that go into planning each fundraising event to determine if they’re sufficiently paying off or whether some of those hours would be better spent making calls to potential donors.

“What I always tell people is, if you believe in what you’re doing, if it’s important that you have a foundation and that it makes money so that you can accomplish things, then you really owe it to yourself and your association to think big about it.” AC&F

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