Tips for Working a Donor Cultivation Event

This time of year is when we would be gearing up for year-end donor stewardship and cultivation events, which the pandemic has made impossible. I miss the energy in the room during these experiences, and the opportunity for a major gift officer to really shine with a large number of donors. Here are some tips I would share about how to make the most of the 30-60 minutes you might have of unstructured mingling time, where you can really make some headway with new donor relationships.

Keep it moving. After all of the hours spent preparing the event and months spent waiting for the big day, there is a very short window of opportunity to actually interact with donors in open, unscheduled social time. It will be over before you know it, and it’s important not to get “stuck” talking with anyone for more than five minutes. This includes fellow staff members, unless they really need your help fetching something critical to the event. The mark of a seasoned development professional is someone who can gracefully transition from one interaction to the next. Wear a watch, and have a goal for how many substantial conversations you want to have in the time you’ve got. 

Spend time with new people. It can be tempting to hang out with familiar faces, whether that means staff, board members, or longtime donors. There is a time and place to deepen existing relationships, but it doesn’t require all the trouble of planning an event! The primary objective of these large, expensive gatherings is to make new contacts. Don’t snub your closest donors by ignoring them - greet them, take their coat, thank them for coming - but spend as much time as you can with new supporters, so that you can tee up a followup lunch or meeting. It can be helpful to carry business cards and wear a nametag to make sure that when you reach out a few weeks later, they recall that pleasant conversation with you. 

Keep a list. Depending on your turnout, there can be a few dozen familiar names on the RSVP list, and a dozen more who you want to get to know. One of the best ways to prepare for a donor engagement event is to review the guest list and jot down names on an index card. It will help you keep an eye out for people you want to meet or just thank for coming. If you find yourself with a brief pause in between conversations, check in with your list and cross out people you have already spoken with - staying organized is the key to maximizing your time working an event.  

Make introductions. It’s helpful to ensure that donors have multiple relationships at your organization. We try to ensure our best supporters know several gift officers, or members of our leadership, to build trust with our team and to provide the best customer service in the long term. It’s fantastic if you can introduce donors to front-line program staff, because their experience carrying out the mission is really compelling. I also think it’s wonderful to introduce donors to one another - to create community, deepen commitment to the important work being done, and ensure that they show up to future events. Finally, making introductions is a really slick way of transitioning between conversations. To my earlier point, you don’t want to stay stuck in any conversation for more than five minutes - a great way to segue without an abrupt halt is to ask, “oh, there’s someone here I’d love to introduce you to” and pair them off with another conversation partner. 

Spend your time listening. Carl W. Buehner said “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” During the mingling hour of your donor cultivation event, there is not much room for talking about your organization’s strategic plan, capital priorities, or funding opportunities. You can discuss these things over lunch later, because in these brief introductory moments it’s more important to get to know people and ensure they have a good time. Remember that the primary objective is to make new contacts and tee up future meetings, and the best way to win people over is to give them space to talk about themselves. You might learn something useful - where they vacation every year, how many grandchildren they’re supporting, what sort of work they do - and hearing them out increases the chances that they’ll accept your invitation to a private meeting later. 

Take pictures and follow up. It’s best to have someone assigned to this task, because the photos will be candid, higher quality, and you’ll get more of them. But if no one is assigned to that job, make sure to snap a few selfies with the people you meet. It gives some great content to follow up with, either by email or even printed and mailed. Your supporters will have a better experience if you send photos of them having fun, and they will remember the event fondly. 

Say thank you. This is pretty much all we do as fundraisers, right? I included this because some events include non-donors, and not everyone will participate in the silent auction or raffle even if you are raising money that night. However, anyone who shows up has given you their time and attention for the evening, and a simple “thank you for coming” goes a long way. At a minimum, if you aren’t able to talk to everyone, I try to at least say thanks to each person and couple before they leave the room. 

My favorite book on the topic of creating meaningful experiences at events is called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I led a book club discussion of it with my local AFP chapter, and there were so many lessons about the potential in any gathering for powerful interactions and memorable experiences. I highly recommend it, and I welcome your comments on making the most of donor cultivation events. 


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