At Food for the Hungry, we acquire tens of thousands of monthly donors each year from events. In this episode, you’ll learn how we structure a sponsored event for the best possible outcome: a new monthly donor. Learn the format for the event, how to do an effective fundraising, and how to integrate volunteers. If you’re looking to increase event fundraising at your nonprofit, this is the episode for you.

Full Transcript:

The event fundraising can be a very powerful way for your organization to raise money. At Food for the Hungry, we use events to raise tens of millions of dollars every year. So event fundraising isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t simply prop up a booth at an event and expect to raise a lot of income. Today’s question is, how do we actually do it? This organization has done that. They’ve propped up booths at events and have not seen the kind of income that they had hoped and desired from this, so they’re asking the question of what do they do next? So I walk through the what do they do next, and it’s a mistake that a lot of us make is this sponsorship expecting a return without taking the proper steps to get that return. I’m going to walk through exactly what we do to get a great return on the investment into event fundraising.

Rhonda: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my question. My name is Rhonda, and I have a question about event fundraising. I work for a water charity. We provide wells and access to clean water in five countries in Africa. We’ve been testing fundraising at events and haven’t seen much success. We’ve been sponsoring and setting up a booth, but aren’t getting very many new donors. Any suggestions?

Jeremy Reis: Fundraising events offer you so much as a nonprofit. There’s so much opportunity to reach people in an emotional way that drives them to make a decision to donate to your organization. At Food for the Hungry, we’ve used fundraising events to drive hundreds of thousands of people to make a donation decision, many of them monthly donors. It’s a fabulous way to reach an audience, especially an audience that has a direct affinity to your cause and to what you’re trying to promote.

This is great question about how do we really engage people, and how do we make the most of our investment into an event? And what I’m going to talk about today works for events that you’re producing or events you’re sponsoring. There’s some key fundamentals, that if you don’t get these things as a part of your sponsorship, then you’re probably not going to reach the goals that you want to reach for the event. So the big question is, what are you looking for out of the event? What’s the goal for what you’re trying to accomplish fundraising at this event?

If your goal is simply brand awareness, then a lot of what I’m going to talk about today is not really necessary, but for most of us at nonprofits, we don’t have enough money for simply brand awareness and promoting ourselves at an event so people see our name. What you’re really looking for is you’re looking for a commitment. It might be that you’re looking for people to volunteer at your organization, it might be that you’re looking for people to donate at the organization, it might be that you’re looking for people to donate monthly at your organization, and in that case, in all these situations, what you’re looking for is an emotional connection to the audience so that they will then make the decision to convert in one of the ways that you are asking for.

As you begin to explore sponsoring an event, let’s talk about not an event that you produced because you can control a lot of those facets, and what I’m talking about today will be under your control and you’ll be able to apply those things directly. Let’s talk through what you’re looking for if you’re sponsoring an event. What are the details that you should be asking for as a part of your contract to sponsor an event? Because I can tell you that a lot of us are making a mistake when we sponsor an event, and I’m going to tell you up front what that mistake is. That mistake is that you sponsor an event, you stick up a booth at the event like any other sponsor, and you expect a return, and you’re not going to get one.

And I know, I know. You go to these events and you see these people, these organizations, put these booths up, and you think, “This must work. These other organizations, these stores, these wearable providers, these whatever they might be, they’ve got people around them, they’ve got people in line. These people are our people. These people have an affinity for our cause. They fit our demographic profile, so if we just stick up a booth here, then they’re going to naturally have a giving heart, want to come over, engage with us, we can talk to them one-on-one and we can convert them.” I’m telling you, it’s not going to happen. And you might get a few monthly donors, you might get a few people involved, but the kind of return that you’re looking for from an event will not happen if you simply stick a booth up at something that you’re sponsoring. You need stage time, and you don’t need just a little stage time. You need a lot of stage time. And what I’m going to tell you might shock you.

What I’m going to tell you, you might think, “No way.” A, no way they’re going to do that. And B, there’s no way that that much stage time is going to get the results that you’re talking about. But I’m telling you, after many years, many events, I can tell you from the perspective of Food for the Hungry and the things that we’ve done that what I’m telling you is what you must do in order to be successful at an event, especially if you’re going after monthly donors. And really that’s where it’s at. That’s where you can afford the expense that it’s going to cost you to get the big time stage time so you’re able to convert monthly donors and keep them.

So you’re going to need stage time because this is a crucial part of what you’re trying to accomplish. Really, the conversion is all in the appeal from the stage. So you might have some questions. How long should the appeal take? What do you say during the appeal? How do you handle that call to action? Should we use a video? Giving is about the feeling, the emotions that come from a story being told from your pitch person. So let’s go through the basics of an outline of a good appeal. First, you need to tell an emotional story that a person in the audience can connect to, and what the story should be is the story of one person or beneficiary that your organization has helped that that person in the audience will connect to.

This emotional story, we talk a lot about this across all of the different aspects of fundraising. We call it the Story of the One. It’s a story of somebody that your audience can connect to, and the point of the story is to illustrate a single beneficiary, a single person, or a single family that your organization has helped, and demonstrate to the person hearing it that they can help too. That they can connect to this person in your story, and when they make this connection, that they can feel like they can be the person that helps that other person as well. So this emotional story, it’s an extremely important part of the appeal. You cannot be up on stage talking about the organization and how old it is and how much money you’ve raised and how many people you help a year. All of these are great things, but they aren’t things that, alone, are going to connect someone to your mission and let them convert the way that you want them to convert.

Second. Now that you’ve told the story of this one person that the donor can connect to, you want to connect the monthly amount. Let’s assume that you’re going after a monthly donation. You want to connect that monthly amount to what it will accomplish. As an example, let’s say that you’re a medical charity and you’re talking about one young man named Juan that you helped in Guatemala, and this one young man had a … he was a child and had a medical condition that needed antibiotics, and because of these antibiotics that Juan was helped, and that if the donor then provides these antibiotics at $30 a month, they’re going to help 30 kids just like Juan. So you want to connect that monthly amount to what the donor is actually going to do, which is connect to the story of the one person that they’re going to help. When they hear that connection, it’s going to allow them to convert because they’re going to feel the emotional connection to Juan and they’re going to then see what their monthly donation is actually going to do.

Third. You want to connect the monthly gift to someone like the beneficiary that you told the story about. So like I said, $30 a month provides 30 antibiotics to children just like Juan. So that connection of you’re telling them what the $30 is going to do and now you’re connecting them to a beneficiary like Juan that they’re going to help. Now you’re going to ask the person to make a difference. It’s a very important part of the appeal. You tell the story, you tell what their money is going to go to, you make that connection between the monthly amount and the actual beneficiary, and then if you don’t actually ask the person to give, you’re not going to make the conversion. So in this, you’re going to ask the person to make the conversion, and you can’t be meek about this.

I heard an appeal several years ago, it was at a church and it was for child sponsorship. It wasn’t my organization, it was a smaller organization, not one you would have heard of, and the appeal speaker got up on stage and talked a good bit, and then when he landed the appeal, he said, “And so if you want to help, there’s a sign-up form in the lobby and you can just go out and sign up.” That was just not a great way to end the appeal. I felt so bad because the appeal was actually pretty decent. They had a video, they talked about the child, they talked about how people can help, and then the appeal landed just with a thud. It was not impactful at all. So you need to be impactful. You need to ask the person, “Make a difference in a child like Juan.” You need to ask the person to commit.

There’s a little cliché in fundraising where you’re asking people to give up a coffee, a coffee a day and make them … You don’t need to do that. You can say, “What we did when we decided to give was we still have that coffee every day. What we decided to do is we looked at our budget, and we said, we can help at $40 a month,” as an example. “We can help at $40 a month. All we need to do is tweak here and tweak there. We need to not go to Chick-Fil-A one time in the month and bam, we’ve just given $40 to help a child in need, and that $40 is going to make a huge difference in the life of that child. So what I’m asking you today is to give up that Chick-Fil-A to make room in your budget for that child because when you make room in your budget for that child, you’re making a difference that’s far more impactful and far more reaching than that single meal that you were going to eat.”

So there’s ways to ask people to give that money that they’ll be able to easily connect with, they’ll be able to see that in their life, and then they’ll be able to donate because they know that that small little bit that they’re giving is going to make a huge difference in the life of that beneficiary.

The fifth step. Explain how to sign up. Most likely, you’ve got registration cards that they’re going to fill out. What we do is we’ve got volunteers in an arena or in a facility and they’re holding up the packets for sign-up, and they’re going and handing them, with a pen, to the person that’s going to sign up. This way, you’re not asking people to come out and line up. When you ask people to queue, then people are going to not do it. So what you want is both stage time, and you want the ability to hand out these packets, so you’re going to take time to explain to them how to fill out the form, how to sign up, how easy it is to complete it, and then you’re going to tell them to do it right then.

Next and last, you’re going to reinforce the ask, so you’re going to reconnect back to that original story that you told, and you’re going to reinforce the fact that they need to do this now. The best appeal speakers are going to look out into the audience, and they’re going to see those hands being raised when they ask for volunteers to hand the packets, and they’re going to get a good judgment call of how much of the audience has raised their hands, and they’re going to be able to then say, it’s not enough yet, and they’re going to continue their appeal and they’re going to continue making this pitch until they’ve got the right number of hands up.

The booth isn’t there to grab a cold audience. The booth is there for people to turn the packets in at, to ask questions at, to come out and if you’re doing child sponsorship as an example, to see other children they can sponsor. If you’re not doing child sponsorship, for them to be able to come out and connect with you or connect with your volunteers and ask questions that they need answered in order to make that decision. People are going to have questions. That’s what the booth is there for. If you’re using the booth without stage time, without an appeal, or very little stage time, like two to five minutes, then that booth is not going to be able to convert a cold audience. You’re not going to convince someone to sign up at your booth. The emotional connection is just not going to be there.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the questions that you might have is, how much time does that appeal take? The best appeals are 15 to 20 minutes long. You might think that’s a lot. What we do is a lot of our events are musical events, and what we do is often, we’ll bring a musical artist along who will serve as kind of an emcee for the night, so prior to the appeal, they will esteem this person of their speaking, introducing the opening act, introducing the main act, so they’ll already have some connection with the person that’s an appeal speaker. Oftentimes, the appeal speaker is the musician himself or herself, they’ll play a song as a part of the appeal. This is an opportunity for them to connect with the audience in a way that the audience trusts them, that they see the connection between that speaker and the main act that they came to see, and that they then desire to give when that speaker does the appeal and speaks to them.

So you might think 15 to 20 minutes is a long time. It’s really not when you get down to it. And that’s the amount of time that it really takes to get the conversion rate that you’re looking for. Another question I mentioned at the beginning was, should we use a video as a part of our appeal? I’ve seen videos very effectively used as a part of appeals, and I’ve seen appeals done without video that are also very effective, so it really depends. And I know you might think that’s a cop out answer and it’s not, it really depends on the appeal itself, the connection between the artist or the event host or the reason for the event, and the cause.

So two years ago, we did a women’s event, and we sent a group of the leadership to visit our work in the field, so they got to go see, so we took a videographer along and produced a video for the event that showed these women in leadership that were in the field seeing the work, so you might have something like that where you can make a connection between the people that the audience trusts and the work that you are promoting, the cause that you are promoting. So in those cases, videos can be very effective. And I’ve seen situations where a speaker can stand up and get eight to 10% of the room to convert to become monthly donors without a video. So it really depends on the event, it depends on who’s speaking, what connection they have to the audience, and how you can connect the reason that the audience is there, the event they’re at, how you can connect that to the cause so that it’s primed for the best conversion.

What are the roles at an event? Typically, you have the speaker, who I already mentioned, and talk about that speaker, their role is to present about the organization, to make a call to action for people to convert. At some other events, the speaker might also serve other roles at the event, but if it’s a larger event, then you’re probably going to have a speaker that that’s their job is to speak. You’re going to have a person whose job it is to coordinate all of the volunteers, all of the events happening, coordinate the booth setup, coordinate getting the speaker where the speaker needs to go. That person is your organization’s representative. Might be a staff member, might be a hired contractor, but might actually be someone that’s part of the tour that has another job, but they also have the job of being this essential person that answers the questions and gets things done.

Sometimes at smaller events, as I mentioned, the speaker could also be your representative. Oftentimes, you’ll have people working your volunteer booth. Sometimes these are staff, sometimes these are volunteers, and then you’ll have volunteers within the arena, at a larger event, they’ll be handing out sign-up packets that will answer questions, they’ll have pens available, they’ll be doing these things. One of the questions, I keep talking about sign-up packets. One of the questions that might arise is, should we do digital sign up versus paper sign up?

And digital sign up, everyone has their phone with them. There’s some down sides to using phones entirely for sign-up. One is that you might not have a connection in the arena. I’ve been to many events where your connection is spotty at best, and sometimes not available at all. You might have a situation where some people can connect and some people can’t, and they are going to abandon and they won’t come back. I would not recommend that you say, “Text this number.” And then at home you can convert because they won’t. You want the conversion to happen at the event or it’s not likely to happen. A good note for your packets as well, you don’t want those things to leave the arena. The sign-up packets. When people say they’re going to go home and think about the decision, it’s most likely a no, so you just need to be cautious about conversion points, it should happen at the event and not at home.

The other thing about digital sign-up is in our testing, even younger audiences, paper sign-up, your conversion rate will often be much higher than digital sign-up by several percentage points. So it could mean at a larger event that you have 100, 200, 300 people that you miss by relying only on digital sign-up and not having paper. We know paper’s old fashioned, but paper works really well to convert people because they’re converting right there on site.

So those are the points that I wanted to bring to your question about events and some of the things you might be doing right, some of the things you might be doing wrong with your events, and how do you best position your organization so that you can get the highest conversion rate possible and achieve what you want to achieve? Thanks for your question, I really appreciate it. Have a great one.