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A group of College Success Foundation senior leadership staff at the 10th anniversary event.

Working the Room - Getting the Right People in the Room

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

In a previous post, I offered some practical tips on  ensuring that your nonprofit events maximize donor, volunteer and prospect relationships and help move them forward (and how to deal with challenges here).

But much of this can start even earlier - at the invitation stage.

What typically happens for an event is that we invite those who invited last year (or up to three years back), generous donors, faithful supporters, board members. This could be for a gala, golf tournament or other event with an invitation and where you are creating an invitation list.

When it is time to pull the list together:

  • Take a look at the list of prospects and lapsed donors - Whether you have a major gift team or are in a one-person shop, you likely have a list of  lapsed donors to re-engage and prospects to try to engage. Who among these people might be interested in attending this event? Is there someone who could be invited by a board member, Ambassador or other key volunteer to join their table or foursome? Use a critical eye. Of course, you should have a strategy for each of these people, but perhaps you haven't yet had time. For some, attending an event with peers may be preferable to accepting a meeting request from a fundraiser. Be strategic. Personalize. Think about choosing from these lists, but no more than 5 - 10% of your total invitation pool.
  • Former board members and other "family" - I've worked in many nonprofits where, when I ask how engaged former board members are as donors, volunteers, or event just "evangelists" for the cause, just shyly say, "Well.... we haven't kept them as close as we would like." These are individuals who cared enough to guide your organization! Did you just drop them after their term ended if they didn't continue (or begin) as donors? Stop and change course. Think about this group and carefully consider who to cultivate. If you just invite them as a group with a regular invitation without a personal touch, they are likely to be offended - and continue to stay away.
  • Current donors - Who on your list are you working to move closer to your organization? Perhaps you are considering asking Donor A to join the board. Maybe Donor B has expressed interest in a specific program. Or Donor C is someone you want to introduce to a specific staff member or program leader. These individuals should also get a special note on the invitation encouraging them to come.

When preparing the postal invitations

  • Ensure those on your "high touch" list will open your mailed invitation - and consider putting it in their (busy) calendar.
  1. Send a tailored note or email 2 to 6 days ahead of the invitation drop from a board member, key volunteer, the CEO or a peer. The letter can simply state that soon an invitation will be arriving for XYZ event and you hope s/he will consider attending. This may be a short letter expressing what type of event it is, relating the recipients relationship to the charity ("as a former board member..."), explaining the author's relationship to the nonprofit ("... I've been supporting Charity 1 for the last 5 years and what they accomplish is remarkable") and the case for the cause. 
  2. Include a handwritten note when using paper invitations. Include a note from the event chairperson, a board member, a key volunteer, the CEO or a peer. I've had success using transparent Post-It notes. 
  3. Include a handwritten note on the invitation. This is less preferable, but will still work.

When preparing digital invitations

  • As above, you'll want to consider your "high touch" list and how you may get their attention for a digital invitation - and consider putting it in their (busy) calendar.
    1. Send a personalized email from YOU (or prepare one for leadership or board chair) that should go out 2 to 3 days ahead of the invitation. The email should be short and upbeat and refer to the invitation date and you hope they will consider attending. 

When it is time to send the invitations

  • Use your Ambassadors - Those who are closest to you can sign a note on the invitation (noted above) or they can call to follow-up with specific individuals (again, keep it limited to 3 - 10 households so it gets completed) with a note after the invitation drops with a postal note, email or phone call.
  • Use a first-class live stamp to send to this high touch list - even if the invitations will be mailed with bulk mail stamp and especially if they will be mailed with a nonprofit imprint indicia. It is worth the investment.


  • In my experience, usually the first responses are the ones who definitely cannot make the event. At least you then know on who you can concentrate.
  • Encourage Board Members and key volunteers to respond - do not make assumptions on who and who will not attend. You need to hear from each of them. Have they offered to invite friends or colleagues? Get that list.
  • Who should be called for a follow-up from your portfolio? It would be great to call on everyone, but you need to prioritize . Again, who is on the high touch list?
  • Thank your donors who have responded - this is a great time to thank them for attending "looking forward to seeing you there!" and those who declined ("so sorry you cannot attend - might we be able to meet this month to discuss how your last gift supported children learning to read?").
  • Follow up with the event chairperson (if appropriate), current board members, key volunteers, and/or the CEO. Any one of these people may forget or run out of time or even feel shy about following up on the notes they wrote. Sometimes they just need a sample script. Two weeks out, you may need to "call on their behalf."
  • This is not the time to sulk about doing "more than your fair share" because the success of the organization rests only on us individually and our efforts. Now is the time to pitch in. Is a colleague overwhelmed but key individuals from his or her portfolio need  a follow-up call or email? Do it.

How do you ensure that you get the right people in the room for your events? I would enjoy hearing your strategies!

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