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Beth Ann between two men at an event for United Way of King County.

Working the Room

donors events fundraisers fundraising major donors relationships teamwork Oct 05, 2022

I had a colleague who told me, as we prepared to attend a pre-opening donor event at an art museum, that these events were very difficult for her.

"They aren't hard for you, you like talking with people," she said to me. "For me, it is different."

Yes and no. There is no question that I get energy from the people around me. But as a development officer I have to prepare to be "ready" for these events. Each time you extend your hand -- literally or figuratively -- to anyone, there is the opportunity to be rejected. And we all fear that. But as a fundraiser, we must push those fears aside, as we have important work to do.

Some fundraising events, more than others, offer easy opportunities to introduce yourself and talk about how your nonprofit is changing the world. But you must always be prepared -- to be welcoming, to speak with donors and prospects, to talk about your cause and to move the relationships closer. And sometimes to squelch those feelings of nervousness.

When it comes to a fundraising event, you should be planning before the event to maximize your efforts. The event is an opportunity to do more than enjoy the show. Sure, it might feel like a party but your organization should be leveraging the event by making key introductions, connecting donors to each other, and working the room to the best advantage for your cause. Here are some of my tips (and my follow-up posts here and here):

Before The Event

Who will be there? Whether the event is for cultivation, prospecting, or stewardship, if there is an r.s.v.p. list, you know who is planning to attend. Three days before the event, set aside one to two hours depending on the number of guests (this is important cultivation work!) to review the guest list with your fundraising team (in a one person shop that might be you and the CEO/Executive Director). The guest list should note current supporters and prospective supporters. Who are key individuals (donors or volunteers) who should meet the CEO for a personal thank you? Who has made a recent or special gift of note? Who are those you wish to bring closer to your nonprofit? Reviewing the list may also surface important or new information about your guests. If there are moves to make with your donor, this event may be the time.

Do some research. You may have a prospect researcher on your team -- great! If not, perhaps someone can perform simple research on the new guest list names. You and your team don't want to be surprised. It is amazing how small the world is (even a big city) when it comes to philanthropic circles.

Create a list of "must-dos" for yourself and for your team.  This strategy helps maximize your efforts and keeps things on track. Your job as a major gift officer or fundraiser at any level is to meet donors and prospects and move forward the relationships. The "must do" list might look like this:

  • Introduce Donor A and spouse to the CEO so she can thank them for their pledge for the campaign.
  • Introduce Donor B to Program Staff Leader to learn more about the Program Project.
  • Seek out Prospect A (who is attending with Donor C) and thank him for attending. Discovery on giving interests.
  • Seek out Donor D and float the idea of interviewing them for a profile/video for your organization.

Have you created a plan for each donor in your portfolio? If s/he is attending, how can you best connect with him/her? You can talk about giving, but this is a chance to learn more about the donor. "Did your child/ grandchild find out which university s/he will be attending?" "How was your recent trip?" "Congratulations on your new position" This is not the time to set appointments, but may be the time to let the donor know you will be in touch to meet soon.

Keep the "must do" list manageable. You mustn't be referring to a paper list during the event, so keep it in your head (if you can) or find a private place to review the list and then rejoin the event. For the CEO and key leadership volunteers, I usually make a typed list beforehand of people s/he should meet and thank. If the CEO is new in the role, this will entail more time as you circulate to introduce him/her to donors.

Trouble with names and faces? Review before the event. Some people have a natural affinity for recalling names and/or faces, others do not - and you know which camp you are in. If you are in the latter, drill yourself on the donor names (and if they are a couple, the partner's name). If you keep photos on your donor profiles, pull them up to look again (even if the image is dated). Remember, many times your donors will hope you will introduce them to others in the room (or prompt with names).

At the event:

Take many business cards and put them a place easily reached. Some outfits lend themselves to carrying business cards and whatever I wear must be in tip-top shape. I choose a suit jacket with pockets whenever I can. If I wear a suit or dress that doesn't have pockets, I have to carry a bag -- which I find fussy. You need to be able to reach for a business cards without for those new prospects or donors who may not have yet received your information. Having a discrete pen or pencil can be very helpful as well.

Don't hang on to your favorite donor(s). You are there to meet your donors and to welcome everyone. You may have a favorite donor but you need to circulate and so do they. This is a good opportunity for your donors and prospects to meet with peers and see who else is in the room and supporting the effort.

Never hang around chatting with colleagues. It can feel comfortable to you when you are nervous, but it doesn't look good and you are missing lots of valuable opportunities.

Keep a few opening phrases in mind - not your pitch! For donors with whom you have an established relationship, asking how they are or what they have been up to since your last conversation is enough. But have a few phrases to say to anyone for when you begin to feel nervous -- about the event or your program or the speaker or a relevant current event. Remember, you are not in an elevator, so don't resort to a "pitch." Keep a natural flow of the conversation. Get to know the donors and prospects.

Working the room is not networking for you. You are bringing donors and prospects closer to your organization, not closer to you (that is a by-product). So answer questions that people ask about you, but your job is to deepen engagement with the cause.

Act and move with compassion and grace; you never know when you are making a first impression. At events and away from events you should be acting as if a prospective donors is not far away. Because donors are found in the most surprising places!

Remember that there are those at the event who feel more awkward than you! So move forward, take a calming breath and introduce yourself. "I'm Beth Ann. I'm with the Aga Khan University. I'm so glad you could join us tonight," while offering your hand and a smile. Even if you feel butterflies in your stomach.

After the event:

Be ready to recall and record information. Call reports from these events are invaluable. If you can, when you get to your car or in a taxi (or however you get home) jot some notes or record a voice memo or even leave yourself a message on voice mail at work. Review the list of attendees since the names may prompt your memory.

Send thank you notes. The very next day (or the day of if you can manage) sit down and write handwritten thank you notes. Most donors enjoy them; some donors may prefer an email. But if you can write a quick note stating:

  • how nice it was to see them,
  • thanking them for their past support (gift or volunteer work),
  • noting a fact they shared at the event,
  • stating that you hope they can meet soon (with you, or for a tour the program, to bring a friend to the exhibit or...), and
  • if the donor/prospect had a question or concern they shared, address it now or let them know you are looking into it - then do it.

Debrief with your colleagues. Be sure to schedule a meeting the day after the event to review new information and moves (this is not an event logistics debrief, but a door debrief). If your CEO cannot attend this meeting, meet with him/her alone the next day to get that information by reviewing the attendee list.

Read my additional strategies for working the room when it's a challenge, and tips on getting the right people into the room.

Those are my tips to help you work the room for your charity. Do you have tips to share?

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