Episode 26 – How to Get More Attendees for Your Fundraising Event


By Jeremy Reis

For many nonprofits, fundraising events are a key to their annual development plan. In this episode, I answer a question from a new fundraising professional at a private Christian high school. Planned attendance for their annual fundraising event is down and he’s looking for answers. I explain to him how to discover if there’s a problem, what to say to past attendees to get ask for a gift, how to structure the event for maximum response, and how to get more people to attend.

Full Transcript:

One of the most popular ways that nonprofits raise money is through event fundraising. A lot of times these take place as a evening gala, a dinner, some sort of event, a weekend event. All these things are really popular because you can get people into one location, you can do an emotional appeal, and then convert them into donors. Before you can do anything though, you need to find ways to get people to the event. Some organizations use a celebrity or a music performance. Some organizations create unique opportunities or unique things like a golf weekend.

Some organizations use peer invitations, so they might have their board, or some of their major fund raisers invite peers to this kind of event. In this episode, you’re going to learn all of that and more. You’re also going to learn, “How do we get people to give who aren’t coming to the event?” The question really takes in the people aren’t showing up to the event or aren’t RSVPing for the event. But then how do we get the ones that don’t come to make a donation? We’re going to talk through that in this episode. Here’s the question.

Hi. I’m new to fundraising. I work at a small Christian high school, and the person in charge of fundraising recently left. My vice principal asked me to add this to my list of responsibilities. Each year we do a fundraising dinner, and we’re only at about half of the confirmed attendees that we normally get. How do I get more people to come to the dinner?

What a fabulous and timely question as a lot of organizations are now preparing for their spring gala, their spring fundraising event. Event fundraising can be so powerful, especially when you do it right. Today we’re going to talk through this question of, “How do we get people to come to the event,” and then, “What if they don’t show up?” I mean what if they don’t come? What if they RSVP that they can’t make it that year? What are some of the reasons why people aren’t coming to your event, and what can you do to change those? Then how do you get the people that are coming to the event, or the people that are involved with the organization, to generate more invitations to get more people to come?

The first thing we want to do, and to answer your question is, we really need to review the format of the evening. Has it been the same for several years? Have you been doing the same thing, and maybe people are just getting bored of the same thing over and over again. Maybe it’s time to change things up. Then you want to look at how did you invite people? Is there something wrong in the invitation process? Was there a wrong RSVP information? Did you not put a deadline on RSVPs, so you may not have people that know when they need to turn their RSVP in? Some of these things really can contribute to a problem of, if you’ve got low response rate on people saying they’re going to attend, then you want to look at, “Are there structural problems in how we invited people,” so that you make sure that the invitation wasn’t the issue.

The second thing you want to do is you want to talk to your past attendees. In some cases, you might have so many attendees that you want to send out a survey. But for a lot of organizations you’re talking about a couple hundred people at an event, gala. This is worth calling some of these past attendees, and whether or not they’ve already RSVP’d, because you really want to find out what’s going on in the mind of the donor to really come to the root of what the problem is. First, when you call them, you want to ask them if they’re planning on attending this year’s event. Have they attended before?

If they have attended before, then you’re going to have a lot more questions for them. If they’re not attending, then you’re going to lead them down one path to find out ways that you can still engage them in the fundraising effort, and then also to ask them for referrals to come to this year’s event. If they did attend in the past, ask her what she likes or didn’t like about the past events. What you’re going to find is, talk to enough donors and you can find a trend as to what they were thinking, as to why they came to the gala, what they were expecting, and then why they’re not planning on attending this year.

I have a script for you. If somebody is not planning to attend this year, then I want you to follow this script, so that you can both try to generate some donations off of those who are not going to be attending, because they may not be attending just because they have a conflict, and they may not know they can give. Second, you may want to use this as an opportunity for them to refer people that may be a good fit for your organization. Here’s the script. “May I ask two things of you? First, this year we are coming together to raise enough money to help 200 underserved children receive an education. Will you pledge $500 towards helping one of these children receive an excellent education?” Now that $500, you can use any amount there. What you want to do is look at their past giving, and then just increase it a little bit in order to see if you can increase the average donation that people are giving over time.

One of the things there I did was, we talked about the coming together portion of it, and what the outcome is from this event. Your outcome isn’t to raise $100,000 or $200,000 or half a million dollars. Your outcome is to help 200 kids who otherwise couldn’t receive an education, receive a good education. Okay. Now I’m going to continue on in the script. “Second, will you help us invite people to our annual gala? Our best supporters are introduced to us by people like you.” Ask for your donors help. They’re going to know people who have an affinity for your cause, who have capacity to give, and they’re going to want, especially if they have an affinity for what you’re doing, they’re going to want to spread the word to their friends and family. This is a low-impact way for them to help, especially if they can’t attend this year, or if they can’t give this year.

Now third, send out an email to people asking for them to invite people they know to the annual gala. Again, just like in that conversation you just had with the past attendee, people who attend likely know people in their social class who have the same affinity that they have who would be willing to support your organization. This can help you reach new people that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach, and fill out those seats that you’re trying to fill for your annual gala. Fourth, we talked a few minutes ago about the format of the evening, and whether or not the event has changed much. You can use a celebrity, or music artist, or somebody like that to draw people to your event. My recommendation on this is, this should be an added bonus to the event, and so if you have someone whose name is too big, then you may end up with a lot of their fans showing up who don’t have interest in giving to your organization.

I know of an event that happened where a famous pastor was invited to speak at this event. So many of her followers came to the event, and the results on giving were much lower than the previous year when she wasn’t there. Though they sold out all the seats, and filled the room, they filled the room with people that were her fans and not fans of the organization. They didn’t give. You want to make sure that whoever you invite is famous but not too famous so that you don’t end up in a situation where their fans come, and you don’t end up with the support that you’re looking for from the event.

Fifth, ask your board, your board of directors, to invite people they know to the event. Again, many of them are in a social class, and have an affinity for your cause that they know other people who are likewise in that class where they can afford to come and make a major donation at your event. Ask them to get involved in the invitation process, and to make a list of people that should receive invites to this event. If they understand the importance of the event, then you should be able to get a really good solid list of people invited through your board.

Six, ask influencers of influencers to invite people to your event, so an influencer of an influencer. These people who are, they influence people, but they influence people that have influence. Think of local politicians, successful businessmen, local pastors of large churches. These are people that influence on a large scale. You want people that can then influence other people. Smaller church pastors may look up to the larger church pastor. Successful businessmen, smaller businessmen will look up to those people.

They’re going to be able to help invite and influence people to attend the event that otherwise you may not be able to reach. When you invite influencer of influencers, then you’re inviting people that have influence over a large number of people. Those are the kind of people that you want to help support your organization from a mass perspective. So not only do you get this benefit of inviting someone who is of a scale of influence that they can invite a small number of other influencers, but then those people can then get involved, and influence the people that are in their tribe to become involved with your organization.

An example of this. I go to a church here in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and one of the things that we do is we support a foster care ministry. We have a foster care ministry where we provide clothing, and toys, and anything someone might need if they foster a child. They can call on a Friday night when they have a foster child coming their way, and we can provide them all of their needs that they’re going to need immediately for that foster child. Out of that there’s another ministry that does foster care work that us as a church, that we support them. So you not only have the church members supporting foster care ministry, but then you have the church as a whole supporting it as well. That leadership comes down from our pastor who is kind of this influencer of influencers.

Let’s talk about the event itself. A lot of times in the event itself, we talk too much about the organization and about our goals, and less about the beneficiaries and the outcomes from the event. Here’s what I mean by that. A lot of times we talk about, “This event is here to raise $200,000 for our organization, and we’re going to do great things with that money,” and da, da, da, da. When in reality what we should be doing is talking about the lives that are going to be impacted and changed from the donors at that event. In my example, let’s say that our goal was to raise $200,000 to help 200 kids that are in underserved communities attend the school they otherwise couldn’t attend. The outcome is that these 200 kids are going to get great education that they probably couldn’t have gotten somewhere else.

That’s the outcome, and that’s what we want to sell to our audience. Yes, the total fundraising amount for the event is important. We want to tell people that we’re raising $200,000, but here’s the outcome. “You get to change 200 lives. These 200 kids who did not have an opportunity before now have an opportunity.” So during the appeal, during the event itself, we want to build this around the concept of the outcome that they’re helping to achieve, and not just the benefit to the organization itself. So instead of this year when you’re designing the appeal, you may want to have one of those kids come up on stage, and talk about what it’s meant to her to attend this school. You may want to have a past donor come up on stage, and talk about the impact that donating has had on their life as a donor. These are things that really move people to understand the cause of your organization. Move to understand why they’re at that event, and want to open up their checkbook, and write you a check there that evening.

I hope that helps as you’re exploring why attendance right now is down, and how you can increase the number of people that your event is exposed to, and ultimately increase the amount of fundraising that you guys are able to raise at your annual gala.


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