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November 30, 2017

How To Straight Crush A Fundraiser

Just another chicken dinner gala and they want my money…

Fundraisers for nonprofits suck. They all follow the same old subpar formula. Donors are getting fatigued.

But nonprofits are in a dilemma. Their tight budgets mean they skimp on details and as a result raise less money.

After 20 years of planning fundraisers, I think I found a solution.

For all the entrepreneurs and event chairpeople organizing your next fundraiser, listen up.

I’m going to show you creative ways to make your event a huge success without spending a ton of money.

Choosing a Venue

What Not To Do: Host Your Fundraiser in a Hotel Conference Room

You’ve already lost if you host your fundraiser at a hotel.

Literally every single nonprofit does this. Yeah, I’ve done this, too. I even stepped it up a level when I took my fundraiser from the Marriott to the Ritz-Carlton, but really all I learned was this:

NEVER use hotel conference rooms as the location for your fundraiser.

What To Do Instead: Host Your Fundraiser in a Raw Space

Hosting your fundraiser in raw space means you’re straight up hosting a fundraiser that 99% of other nonprofits aren’t using. Cheers to that.

It represents exclusivity and gives your crowd an experience.  

This space needs to be large enough to accommodate your crowd but it doesn’t necessarily need to be set up like a typical ballroom. Really you’re looking for any location willing to rent their space out and gut it for you.

Marketing Your Fundraiser

What Not To Do #1: Mail Out Invitations

Look at this classy envelope I got in the mail today. Wow! I’m DEFINITELY going to THIS fundraiser.”

Said no one ever.

A physically mailed invite costs at least $1,000 dollars after you count in the cost of printing, design, and mailing. Not to mention the hours that go into stuffing those envelopes and the handwritten personalized note on the back of the card

I did this for years, and I promise that the ROI on it is so negligible. What’s worse: nobody is going to remember that link on the invite and you shouldn’t expect them to type it into their computer, either.

It’s certainly not worth the time and effort.

What Not To Do #2: Suck The Life Out Of Your Email List

If your email list is only about making asks, you’ve lost. Game over.

“But we’re not asking, we’re giving them an opportunity to give.” Bullshit.  

Your email list is not a GoFundMe account.

You should be giving to your email list 3 times for every 1 ask. Giving means providing value by sharing positive stories, your vision, mission, and your work in progress.

What Not To Do #3: Send The Same Emails Over & Over Again

Let’s pretend that you’ve actually been giving to your email list (good). Now it’s time to make an ask.

You must treat the “ask” for your fundraiser as a campaign. Sending the same email, with the same image, with the same event logos, with the same details, with the same “Please click here to buy tickets” is not interesting.


What To Do Instead: Use Marketing Automation & Facebook

Marketing automation works a heck of a lot better than the same old boring email blasts. It means you’re building out an email campaign with a series of different emails, each with unique content. The emails are based on what the actual person is doing:

Are they opening your email?

Are they clicking on the link in your email?

Are they clicking on the link in your email but not buying a ticket?

All these behaviors matter. If you already purchased your ticket, you don’t want to receive another email about buying tickets.


But by sequencing your email lists you’re able to keep your guests happy AND make relevant upsell offers.

You also need to be using Facebook to market your fundraiser.

  • Step 1: Create a Facebook ad for your event.
  • Step 2: Upload your donor and volunteer list into Facebook.
  • Step 3: Create a custom audience from that list.
  • Step 4: Use the Lookalike feature in Facebook to target your ad.

(This feature finds people who match the demographic and behavioral profiles of your email list.)

  • Step 5: Run this ad directly to the people who have already purchased a ticket to raise awareness about the event. It also allows them to share the event with their friends. Now you’ve got a bigger crowd.

Food & Drink

What Not To Do #1: Go Cheap On The Drinks

The two-drink ticket. Only free beer and wine. Bottom-shelf booze.

All those things are signals to your donors that you don’t have enough money to put on a high-level event. That doesn’t get donors inspired.

People with money don’t get inspired by frugality.

What Not To Do #2: Food Buffets

Under no circumstances should you have a buffet at your fundraiser. Zero. Zero circumstances.

A buffet is the equivalent of you saying: “We didn’t have enough money to afford a plated service so just serve yourself. Make sure to try the coleslaw. It’s my fav!”

Buffets just scream CHEAP. Think about the last time you went to a buffet restaurant. Did you go for quality? No, you went for quantity and cheap price. You were probably in Vegas or in college.

Don’t psychologically trigger your guests to be cheap by providing cheap food.

What To Do Instead: Booze and Plated Meals

People with money get inspired by memorable experiences, and in order to make an experience memorable you’ve got to flip the script.

For the alcohol, you’ve got to make the investment on an open bar. Go middle shelf.

People are willing to donate more when they have been drinking more. Fact. When you are inebriated, you are less inhibited. When you are less inhibited, you become irrational. And when you’re irrational, you donate more money.

That is the formula. You get people liquored up on good quality booze so they don’t have a bad hangover the next day. Instead they’ll wake up and remember the amazing time they had compliments of you giving them an hour and a half of completely open bar.

The ROI is magical on booze.

Bonus: Tell your servers to pour wine throughout dinner.  You never want your guests to feel like their cups are empty especially when it’s time to physically make the ask and donate money.

For the food, always go for a quality, plated service.

Here’s your plated service checklist:

    • Real plates
    • Real silverware
    • Charger plates
    • Black tablecloth
    • Black linens
    • Comfortable chairs
    • Hors d’oeuvres

Tips I’ve learned over the years:

    • Synchronize courses so that tables are all served at once.
    • Have salads and desserts pre-plated on tables so people can eat right when they sit down.
    • Put water, iced tea and bread on tables (plus your constant stream of wine).
    • Keep your bars open during meal time.

Finally, here’s my secret:

Treat your guests as royalty and they’ll reciprocate the generosity when it comes time to donate.   

Why? Because behavioral science shows how reciprocation is irrational. People tend to irrationally reciprocate 2 to 4 times more than what they were given.

How to Handle Entertainment

You can buy anything you want. Do you buy things or experiences?

Most likely your answer’s going to be experiences, so provide your high dollar donors an experience through entertainment.

What Not To Do #1: Silent Auctions

Silent auctions are notoriously poor in terms of their ROI. Not only that, but they cannibalize live auctions.

I’m shocked by the number of silent auctions: poor ROI and worse, a trigger for ‘deal making’.

What Not To Do #2: Forget about the DJ

The DJ should not be an afterthought. This person is central to the experience you give your guests.

What To Do Instead: Have High Energy, Experience-Generating Entertainment

High energy entertainment means having a live auction and vetting a good DJ.

Let’s start with the live auction.

Have auction items that provide unique experiences. It could be a flight on a private jet, a skip-the-line and meal voucher at a famous restaurant. (Saturday brunch at Snooze, anyone?)

You can’t put a price tag on experiences. And when you can’t put a price tag on an auction item, people aren’t mentally pegged to a price. They’re more willing to pay (donate) more.

Your auction is a snooze-fest and you’re leaving money on the table.

Hire me to perform at your next auction and set a fundraising record.

Now let’s talk about the DJ.

You need a DJ that performs. This is the experience you’re giving your guests.

I wrote a step-by-step guide on how to hire a DJ, including the exact questions to ask when you interview one.

The biggest point to remember is to hire a DJ that can rock a party. Your DJ needs to create an environment that makes dancing a lot of fun.

The last point I want to make is to take everyone off the stage. The only people that need to be there are the emcee, the live auctioneer, and most importantly, the people who are testimonials to the cause.

All that anyone cares about is, “Are you helping people? Show me. Show me that you’re helping people and I will help you, too, and I will give money.”

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