How Events Ruin A Major Gift Program

It is not surprising to me that many major donors do not give as they could to the causes they love.  The primary reason they don’t is because MGOs do not ask them to.  And one of the ways this happens is to invite the major donor to an event.

Here’s how it works.  The MGO has a cluster of very good donors on her caseload.  And, rather than do the hard work of identifying each donor’s interests and passions and creating an “ask” that is tailored to them, she decides that the best way to “get them involved” is to invite them to an event.

So a great deal of time and money is spent organizing an event (remember, as an MGO you don’t have much time, so this is taking away from your care of caseload donors) to which a certain number of major donors are invited.

A very nice program is delivered along with an activity and/or snacks or a nice meal,  an inspirational talk is given by a program person or the leader, and the event comes off flawlessly with a net economic result that either just covers cost (hard costs, not all the labor, which is also a problem, by the way) or gets some return in the range of an ROI of 1:2.

In the meantime, the major donor goes home and nothing much has changed in the relationship between him or her and the organization.  I agree, some stewardship has happened, but not much more.

I generally don’t like events in major gift work because:

  1. They are organized more for donor cultivation and stewardship vs. real fundraising.  The proof is the financial result.  I know that if the event is used as part of a longer term strategy, then this statement may not be true.  But then show me an event that is part of a longer term strategy vs. just a one- time event.
  2. The content of most events is geared toward the event vs. the cause. It is about golf, or the run, or something.  And the donor comes to it focused on the event, not the cause.  Plus, the event is geared to a one-time small transaction at the event vs. a larger ask.
  3. Major donors are more likely to give less at an event than they would if they were approached by the organization in a 1:1 setting.  Why?  Because the group dynamic of an event diminishes the energy of the individual’s relationship with the cause.  In a group, an individual major donor will often think, “Goodness, with all these other people addressing this issue, I really don’t need to engage at a high level.”  I know, the reverse of this can also be true, i.e., “Wow, with so many jumping on board with this, I think it’s a good idea for me to participate.”  But this one point can swing very easily the wrong way because of how the event is organized.

At this point you might ask, “Richard, are you just plain against all events?”


But I think they need to be more strategic.

The key objective of any event planning must be to deliver content that matches the donor’s passions and interests and moves them toward the individual financial objective you have set.  Note, I said the INDIVIDUAL financial objective you have set.  You have to keep your eye on the individual as you enter the group dynamic.

What all of this means is that you are proactive in assuring that the program content and the ask results in a dynamic that is no different than if you had met with the major donor privately.  Specifically, this means:

  1. You have created a program theme that matches the interests and passions of all the donors present.
  2. You have created an ask which is large enough to accommodate the sum of all the individual asks you would have made privately to each major donor present.  It doesn’t make sense to present a $100,000 need at your event, when the sum of what the major donors present could give is $250,000.
  3. You deliver the ask in the program in a manner where point #2 above is clearly understood by the major donor.

In our opinion, every event should have the following three strategic objectives:

  1. Effectively selling qualified major donors on the event and why they should come.  This means making it cause oriented vs. event oriented.
  2. Effectively selling the cause at the event.  This means the theme matches the interests and passions of the donors present.
  3. Effectively asking.  This means matching the ask amount to the sum of the capability of the major donors present and then asking in a manner that results in each major donor giving at the level they would have given had you interacted with them privately.

Each of these objectives are connected and inter-related.  They can’t be planned for or considered separately.  They are synergistically linked.  If you can’t deliver on these three objectives, then you shouldn’t have the event.

No, I am not against events.  Put simply, I am against anything that gets you away from that very special, and rather mystical thing that happens when you have connected with a major donor.  You have discovered their passion and interest, and now you have the opportunity to fulfill that passion and interest through their giving to your good cause.

I’m for serving donors outrageously.



About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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3 Responses to How Events Ruin A Major Gift Program

  1. Pingback: Why Agitators are Good for Us | Passionate Giving

  2. Kent Schell says:

    Hi. I absolutely agree.
    An interesting ambiguity exists for orgs like small museums. They tend to have multiple openings, walk-throughs with curators, lectures, and so on. The event staff – as well as curators, development staff, membership staff, Trustees and other volunteers – are seriously invested these many events, without much time and energy left for true relationship building leading to better fundraising. Most of these events organized outside the purview of the major gift officer; and bringing a new perspective to all these folks amounts to a cultural change. Not easy. A much more strategic approach is required just to change the culture.

    Any thoughts about this?


  3. Richard Perry says:

    What I try to do in these situations is to get authority figures/decision makers to separate promotional activity into major categories and consider the cost-benefit of each. For instance, in the situation you are talking about you have a curator who is interested in visitors who will be exposed to the art; a membership person who is interested in securing members; a development staff person who is interested in fundraising, and; a Trustee who should be interested in all of it.

    The problem is that, usually, all of these things are all mixed together vs. identifying and agreeing on the objectives and cost-revenue of each category. If you look at things in separate categories, and then see how they connect to each other, you can then uncover whether an activity is worth the expense of labor and money. You can also see what is missing which should help to correct it.

    So, in this case, if all you’re doing is getting “eyeballs” in the door to see the art, but making no progress on members, donors and fundraising, it is not a good situation. Conversely, if all you are doing is raising money, but we are not getting an increase in people actually appreciating and consuming the product, that is not good either.

    I hope that helps.


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