As a public relations and marketing professional, I have been working with nonprofits on their marketing, fundraising and PR efforts for more than 20 years. In the last decade there have been many changes to how nonprofits approach special events and fund raising. One thing that hasn’t changed much is the amount of time and effort that goes into choosing the menu at the thousands of benefits and fundraisers being held across this country every day. The all-important entree - what we refer to as the proverbial rubber chicken - is being contemplated and discussed at length as we speak by more people than watch “American Idol”. I often marvel at the amount of man hours spent by hard working committees, development and special events staff trying to find exactly the right meal. Now of course, if event donors are paying for a glamorous benefit evening the meal needs to be the best option available but an over-emphasis on the plate to me can be symptomatic of an organization that hasn’t recognized the subtle shifts that are happening within the donor community and events as a whole.
As the fight for donor dollars increase, organizations talk a lot about how hard it is to raise money. This is in no small measure due to the saturation of events and annual campaigns for worthwhile organizations that have become so prevalent across the country. Parties and philanthropy are popular like never before. This is without question a good thing.
However, in NYC alone, you can attend a gala every night of the year and rest assured most of them will follow a very similar agenda —cocktails, dinner, speech, dancing. With so many events and requests for dollars, the amount of people who can attend is becoming more and more sought after. As a result, the focus and refocus on details like the plate to see if they can possibly raise a little more money every year keeps increasing. Forget the plate, take a good long hard look at your event, why you’re doing, what you are trying to communicate and why people should care. It is of course, easier to repeat the same idea than to reinvent and risk but, any organization who has held the same event for more than five years running should mandate a re-evaluation of its formula not so they can throw out the whole idea but so that they can keep it fresh and exciting and appealing to its audience.
To truly understand fundraising today, I believe it behooves all nonprofit professionals and volunteers to understand that there has been a huge cultural shift for donors over the last four years. It began in 2008 as a reaction to purse tightening, but is now considered smart and informed giving. Donors, big and small - because small donors who give every year are equally important - are choosing to focus their giving and their energy on fewer organizations, but are giving more. Party hopping is less important than choosing an organization that reflects one’s own values and interests, allowing individuals or companies to identify with it and make an impact. Let’s call it the “Bill and Melinda Gates effect”, instead of writing checks and asking their other powerful friends to write checks, Bill and Melinda as a team decided very deliberately to make themselves part of the process of finding answers. It has in fact, become their life’s work. But you don’t have to be wealthy like Bill or Melinda to care, social media has galvanized and given a voice to the small donor who previously might have gotten lost in the mix.
Speaking to this highly informed donor regardless of size is, of course, more work and not easy to lock in with just a filet mignon dinner and a night of dancing. But give them what they want and you will reap the rewards. Committed donors are going to events to learn about the organization, the community of people that supports it and sure, the pomp and circumstance is big part of the fun (no one likes a good party more than me; I chose it as a profession), but the progress of the mission has become the new star. At the first Operation Smile benefit I attended as a donor a couple of years ago, a beautiful young woman came onto the stage and sang a song by Celine Dion. When she was done, she said to the audience, “Twenty years ago, Operation Smile performed life changing surgery on me that enabled me to speak, smile and now sing, thank you for changing my life.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I can’t tell you what I ate that night but I remember her vividly.
So when you are planning your format, consider this — a highly informed donor wants to know if their $250, $500, or $1,000 a ticket donation actually matters. Does the event aspire to attract donors who care about its mission? Does it aspire inspire action? I was personally shocked that the KONY 2012 campaign organizers did not anticipate the scrutiny of their finances when their campaign took flight. Nothing could have prepared them for the intensity of the spotlight they received but not having cogent answers at the ready for where all the money was going was a rookie mistake on a gigantic scale.
There is an old saying that everything that can be done has been done before which is just a funny way of saying history has much to teach us if we look for it. For myself, one of my early mentors in my career was the social activist and beauty entrepreneur, Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop who was as unconventional as they come. In her 40’s at the time when I worked for her, she was often telling me the 25 year old to shake things up. In the early 90’s, the company launched the first national AIDS awareness campaign by a retail company. The campaign, called Protect & Respect, was shot by Annie Leibovitz and included a diverse group of people with AIDS. It was very controversial for the time and there was a tremendous amount of push back from the malls, franchisees scared of backlash and even some of the employees. The company launched the campaign anyway and minds and hearts were opened. I know I was. We imagined and reimagined every scenario for backlash we possibly could. Long before there was a term ‘haters’, we knew there would be people who would come out of the woodwork against the project.
Those faces in the campaign changed attitudes. The ability of our consumers, people in our shops and corporate offices to identify with and in some cases meet one of the featured faces — a teenage girl who became our spokesperson and had gotten AIDS through a blood transfusion – was incredible. We were — I’m ashamed to admit — afraid to even touch her the first time we met her. She was in our modern day society a leper. But meeting her, like Princess Diana’s holding the hand of an AIDS patient, did more for me and the average mall goer than 1,000 rubber chicken dinners would have done at the time.
I was also lucky enough to meet the women who started the original Take Our Daughters To Work campaign, a program we adopted early on at The Body Shop. Those women worked tirelessly before the age of social media to explain why mentoring girls mattered. Once again we aligned with an idea and supported programming around it rather than focusing on the event and making the cause secondary.
Anita was fond of saying, “Anyone can write a check, I’m interested in making a difference.” So shake it up. Stop worrying about the chicken and ask yourself what is the one message you want people walking out of that event with that day.
"Body Shop Starting a Campaign on AIDS." The New York Times, 28 Sept. 1993.
The Body Shop team in 1993 in Times Square to Launch Protect and Respect