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Put the Fund Back in Fundraising and Make the Appeal More Meaningful

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I was invited to the American India Foundation (AIF) fundraising gala in New York City this year. It was refreshing and disappointing at the same time. Refreshing because I was asked to attend, and not run, the event. Therefore, I was free to take my time to sit down, eat and network with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the finance and technology sectors. However, at the same time, all this was disappointing because I was not compelled, at all, to help the women and children of India, which was the point of the fundraiser.

Empowering women and youth through technology and communications is actually something I’m passionate about personally and professionally, but all AIF got out of me that evening was $500 to sponsor my dinner plate of one. It’s unfortunate, really, to watch them collect my dinner plate but no money from me. Perhaps they don’t need it. With every financial icon in the room from MasterCard to Goldman Sachs, and Michael Dell as the keynote, I’m sure they covered the dinner expense of 500 people and met their fundraising goals for the evening, but the overall message behind the cause was lost in distractions of what I call the fundraising circus.

In this ring, we have the live auction; in this ring, we have the silent auction; in this ring, we have poor people flown in from a country of poverty to put on display for you; in this ring, we have someone very important called our keynote to impress you; and in this ring, is your swag bag with a bunch of overpriced trinkets and a pledge card you likely will toss out.

I guess I was expecting more from a foundation that was started by heavy hitters, including former President Bill Clinton, but the reality is AIF is not doing anything different than most charities do when it comes to fundraising. They operate on a template fundraising gala plan. In this case, AIF hired a company that probably pumps out the same fundraiser every week in New York for a slightly different story. At this gala I was seated next to a high-ranking executive at JP Morgan Chase who told me that he attends multiple fundraising galas in New York, and they are all the same. He also talked to me the entire time during the program, yet another distraction from the message, but again not his fault. Everyone was talking, even while Dell was speaking, because they were not engaged in the message of AIF’s cause.

As a communications professional who has run multiple fundraising events and raised millions of dollars for organizations including Vitamin Angels and The Organic Center, it pains me to see the amount of money sitting in a room with no call to action or engagement to give to such a tremendous cause.

To put the funds back in fundraising and make the appeal more meaningful, there are strategic steps you can take to break the predictable and unprofitable circus gala template:

Hit on All Senses vs. Follow A Template

There’s something psychologically safe about doing the same thing over and over again. How many times have you watched an episode of “Seinfeld” or “Friends,” listened to your favorite album or eaten the same meal? We don’t have to think about it, we aren’t thrown off course by it, and we can easily coast through the experience without stimulation, stress or the element of surprise. It’s all very relaxing and exactly what you don’t want to do at your fundraising event. This is the caution with using fundraising event companies: they use the same talent, format and formula at every event. Sure, it’s proven, and yes guaranteed they will raise a minimum amount of money for your cause. They bring in a silent and live auction, entertainment, speaker, program, caterer and bartender. They run the show and you sit back and collect the funds. Sounds simple, straightforward and easy. However easy doesn’t impact meaningful change; easy pays the bills and throws a party. Your patrons are not fooled by this formula because they’ve been to multiple fundraising events and they know the drill and they also likely know exactly how much they are going to give to your cause before they even step on the proverbial red carpet.

Shake things up. Give your patrons a reason to not talk through your fundraising appeal instead of shushing them like a room of teenagers. Hit your audience on their senses: sight, sound and smell using creativity and intellect as your guide. Some people are moved by music, others are impressed with stats and facts; still others are motivated by visuals. You want to capture everyone’s attention in one presentation, so you have to appeal to all senses at all times. Trash the template and think outside the box to infuse real creativity behind how you are going to tell the story of the cause you so passionately believe in.

Your own team or board may not be the best resource for this because you are living the mission every day. Establish an event committee comprised of creative people outside your organization, industry and network who understand the mechanics behind eliciting a response, and brainstorm ways to tell your cause story in a compelling way that will shock your audience into paying attention and paying it forward.

I’ll never forget the first fundraiser I produced for The Organic Center. I convinced the very conservative executive director to welcome the audience in dark sunglasses dressed like Tom Cruise from the “Mission: Impossible” movie. The theme of our evening was Mission Organic, and every element was as explosive as a blockbuster movie. That night, as I stood in the back of the room watching as we raised upwards of $1.2 million in a matter of hours, an executive from Organic Valley walked up to me in complete and utter awe. I’ll never forget her reaction. This Jewish woman said to me, “I feel like we are at a church revival.” Had she ever been to a church revival? I don’t know, but what I did know in that moment was that our mission was accomplished. We were shocking an industry of believers into action for organics in a new and meaningful way.

Focus on The Message vs. Celebrity

If someone of fame or fortune believes in your cause and wants to help your organization, they should not be charging you an appearance fee to attend your event. Instead, the celebrity should be genuinely present and authentically humble to the mission. Anything short of that is a wrong message to your patrons and mismanagement of their donated funds. Are people so vain that they would only attend and donate to a fundraiser because a celebrity will be there? If you crystallize the message of your cause, I don’t believe this is true. Actually, the easy way out is to hire a celebrity and cross your fingers that people will show up and give you money anyway versus forcing yourself to think through the message.

The problem with paid celebrities is they often fall flat at events because they are not invested in the cause, but rather focused on collecting a paycheck to show up. Celebrities or high-profile individuals are perfectly fine to use if they are invested in your organization, believe in the mission and can articulate a call to action that will motivate the audience to give. If you don’t have this authentic celebrity, then don’t sweat it because it’s not needed. Focus on the message and identify a person either within your organization or who has influence in your industry or community and can passionately articulate the message behind your mission and move people to open up their hearts and wallets for the cause. Many times, you can make your charitable appeal through the benefactors’ eyes.

I literally did this in the first fundraising event we produced for Vitamin Angels. Founder Howard Schiffer was running the organization on a shoestring when I was asked to work with him. He had exactly two staffers and was traveling all over the world distributing vitamin A to the most at-risk communities with the passion to prevent childhood blindness. We didn’t have any time, resources or momentum to connect a celebrity or industry influencer to this cause before the fundraising event at Expo East that was scheduled with very little notice. Luckily, we had tons of video footage of the children from Schiffer’s missions who were benefiting from the vitamin A. Our headlining speaker at that first Vitamin Angels fundraising event was a voice who virtually walked a crowded ballroom of conference attendees through a day in the life of the children Vitamin Angels serves who were on the verge of blindness. This compelling video opened the event from complete darkness to light, all from the perspective of the children’s eyes. We raised $1.5 million at that first fundraising event, but most importantly laid the groundwork for what would soon become a wave of substantial support from an industry that needed a cause to connect to on the power behind dietary supplementation.

Ask for The Money vs. Sell More Stuff

One of the most common mistakes made in fundraising is not asking for money. Most people will default to what feels safe, such as selling items in an auction. The misguided thought process is you have to give someone something in order for that person to give you money in return. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The first thing I tell a charity when I work with them on a fundraising campaign is that they are actually doing a disservice to their audience by not asking for money directly. Every human being is wired to want to help others and give back. The unfortunate reality is that so many people are never asked to help, because the ones who need the help are afraid they will impose too much with an ask. So instead, they start selling stuff, which let’s be honest, wealthy people do not need in the first place. The fundraising event quickly turns into a bartering game of give us your money and you’ll get a reward like an exotic vacation, expensive jewelry or oversized piece of artwork.

Wealthy people are wealthy for a reason. Most are frugal with their money and know how to make a deal. So, put them in a bidding situation and you automatically lose money because they know how to win that game. Plus, now you have to pay for the extravagant item, which they don’t really need anyway, and most likely will never use. In other fundraiser set-ups, people are afraid to ask for money because they don’t think they have the right people in the room who can afford to give money. This is also a false reality. In fact, I’ve found that the people who have the least amount of money give the most of what they do have, and this prompts your wealthy attendees or big companies to really step it up when they see such heartfelt giving. Do not deprive people of the basic human desire to give back. By not asking them to give, you are not only doing a huge disservice to your cause, but you are intentionally depriving people of helping others in need. NIE

Amy Summers launched Pitch Publicity in 2003 in the face of a rapidly changing climate for communication and media relations. She has 20 years of experience working with major clients in the natural products industry to increase visibility and exposure to targeted audiences through national publicity exposure across all mass media outlets, high-level fundraising campaigns and developing key strategic communication strategies. She serves on the board of directors of the University of Florida Alumni Association and the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations Advisory Council. Pitch Publicity is based in New York, NY. Receive free daily pitch tips from “The Pitch with Amy Summers” flash briefing on Amazon’s Alexa, Google Play, iTunes and Podbean: www.pitchpublicitynyc.com/ThePitch. For more information, visit www.pitchpublicitynyc.com.

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