We have all been there before: The months of planning, recruiting a committee, selecting the appropriate honoree, repeated outreach to vendors and sponsors, proofreading the program and every last detail down to the seating plan and place settings…

Every year, development professionals devote an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to executing a large annual special event, such as a gala, which can be a Herculean effort. Hopefully, the evening will have been a success with guests going home happy and significant funds raised for the charity in question… but what happens next?

Though special event fundraising is important, and arguably the most visible annual interaction an individual will have with a charity, the return on investment (ROI) can be relatively low as industry standards point to the cost to raise a dollar not exceeding $0.50. Furthermore, the opportunity costs associated with staff time can be even higher. Therefore, one might consider implementing a relatively simple major gift strategy that can set forth a plan to boost the effectiveness and ROI of a special event.  

Taking Action
Two years ago, Jan Wood, the Chief Development Officer for Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) in Annapolis Maryland, began to formally assess the effectiveness of the Hospital’s special events. With a relatively small team of Major Gift Officers (2), she began to consider how her department could best use current resources more effectively. “We have the tools, we just needed to adapt,” she said.

Jan and her team took active steps to put the plan in place. The first step came a week before the event. Prospect research would screen the guest list and focus attention on both annual donors and non-donors guests with high capacity who had shown the propensity to give to other similar causes. Next, in a special “Moves B Management” meeting, a small number of these screened prospects (3 – 5) would each be assigned to the appropriate Major Gift Officer with the goal of having a meaningful interaction at the event. This was done with a specific and targeted plan which included goals for what the conversation would produce. Following the event, the major gifts team would reconvene to debrief on what was discovered through meaningful interactions with prospects. They would then hit the phones to schedule meetings with their assigned attendees. The focus here was quality over quantity and meaningful interactions.

By implementing a metric-driven major gift approach, Jan’s team was able to see exponential growth in their rate of converting targeted attendees to major donors, thus maximizing the ROI from special events. Ultimately, Jan’s strategy has proven to be successful. In the two years of implementing this plan, conversion rates have risen from 0.5% to nearly 20% for AAMC’s largest annual special event.

5 Tactics to Consider for Your Annual Gala (Pre and Post)
Remember, if someone has taken the time to attend your event, it means they have at least some interest in your institution’s mission. A strategic major gifts approach will help turn your event from simply “fundraising” to hopefully “friend-raising” by capturing new major gift potential. Here are a few things to try right away:

  1. Wealth screen your attendee list at least a week prior to the event and prioritize prospects.
  2. Set realistic goals for your major gift team and the number of individuals they can make a meaningful connection with at the event.
  3. Enlist the help of board members or appropriate friends of the institution if you are a small fundraising department.
  4. Be strategic in your seating assignments, positioning high-capacity prospects adjacent to individuals that can serve as passionate advocates for the institution.
  5. Formulate an appropriate follow-up strategy and hit the phones the following day!

Throughout this process, it is imperative that your track your progress. The most important thing is to start small and track data and lessons learned so you can better prepare for your next event!

About the Author

Carl Cervi specializes in assisting non-profit organizations in strategic development planning, campaign management, annual planning, case statement development as well as prospect research and identification, primarily in healthcare and religious sectors. Clients that Carl has provided counsel to include NewYork-Presbyterian, the Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens, the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Rochester General Hospital. He is a graduate of The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and currently lives in Queens, New York.