Imagine hosting an event where you don’t sell tickets or ask for donations—instead you simply give your top-tier prospects a night to remember. It’s an exclusive gathering, it sparks interest, and if done right, it’s a great way to revive your donor list. This type of donor appreciation event is known as a cultivation event, an opportunity to highlight your organization’s mission and needs in a creative way, without coming right out and asking for donations.
A cultivation event is held in a fun, comfortable environment, typically in the form of a house party or a cocktail reception, in order to engage in high-level mission interactions that will leave your guests feeling emotionally gratified and more invested in your mission. Your leadership team, volunteers, board members, staff, and a client you’ve impacted will all attend this event with the goal of making mid to major donors feel as though they’re attending a party rather than a fundraising event. By sharing your impact and starting conversations in a comfortable, relaxed environment, your donors will leave feeling emotionally gratified and more invested in your mission.
A well-planned cultivation event can be one of the most powerful forms of nonprofit marketing. Not only does a cultivation event have potential to secure major gifts, but it also helps to build a stronger connection between your organization and your larger donors.
At a BBCON philanthropic conference session, Penelope Burke, Author of Donor-Centered Fundraising and Donor-Centered Leadership, pointed to research findings to share the potential of cultivation events, citing the following insightful statistics:
- Among donors who went to donor cultivation events on a scale of 1-7 with 7 being most satisfied, donors ranked themselves 5-7.
- 33 percent of donors who attended made an unsolicited gift
- 35 percent of solicited donors who made a gift credited the event with why they made the gift
Here are eight tips to keep in mind when hosting a cultivation event.
1. Nail Down Specifics
Once you’ve determined the date of your cultivation date, you’ll need to add the event to your company calendar, find a location, and set a start time. Next, you’ll want to create a project timeline for when everything should happen and what steps need to happen between now and the event.
As you finalize the specifics of your event, here are a few other steps you’ll need to take:
- Book special guests as far in advance as possible. This might be a client who has been impacted by your cause who can share their success story.
- Decide what roles staff, volunteers, and board members will play.
- Confirm all attendees as they RSVP.
- In general, an average response rate is between 10 and 30 percent of those invited. Because response rates for events can be low, invite more people than you expect will attend your cultivation event.
2. Turn Your Event Into a Party
Your donors will expect to have a fun, enjoyable experience without feeling pressured to give. Unlike other events, a cultivation event is a chance to engage in meaningful conversations that aren’t too heavy or serious. Your goal is to create a relaxed atmosphere for your guests, and help to deepen their connection with your organization, so that they are ultimately more inclined to give on their own accord.
One simple word can change your event entirely: party. The word party has a more fun, comfortable, and relaxed connotation, which could entice more donors to attend. On your invitations, email communications, and marketing materials, use the word “party” rather than “event” to describe your gathering.
3. Stage a Quality Event
A cultivation event is an extension of your brand, which is why you want a keen attention to the details. Your invitees likely have deep pockets and are used to attending lavish events and gatherings. They aren’t accustomed to drinking box wine and eating finger sandwiches. The trick is to appeal to their tastes while also keeping your budget in mind.
It’s also important that your party reflects your organization’s personality and culture. For example, if your nonprofit organization is based in California and supports children’s orphanages in Mexico, you might choose to have a taco stand at your event. Just make sure it’s a taco stand that delivers high-quality meals.
Pro tip: Encourage your staff to help with serving so they are in a position to strike up personal conversations with guests.
4. Put Your Board Members to Work
Your board members should play an active role at your cultivation event. One way to do this is to give your board members an official welcome role. This means your board members will be the first face your donors see when they arrive. Other ways to get your board members involved is to have them introduce guests to each other to spark conversations, and seek out wallflowers to engage in conversation.
If board members are up to it, they can also be assigned to a couple of high-profile guests for a cultivation conversation. This can be as simple as, “So happy you came! What is your initial impression of our organization?” Be mindful to keep the conversation casual without alluding to an ask. Instead, it should be an opportunity to genuinely get to know the individual while also peppering in important information about your nonprofit organization.
Differentiate your board members from other guests and make them easily recognizable with a color-coded name tag.
5. Triage Your Guest List
While all of your guests that will attend your cultivation event serve a purpose, there will undoubtedly be some guests that are on your V.I.P. list.
These very important people may include:
- Long-term donors
- Donors with deep pockets
- People you are cultivating for a future gift
These priority guests should not only be paid special attention but there should also be a plan on how to engage them. Prior to the cultivation event, find out who they are, why they are coming, and any background information that could be used as a conversation starter, such as a hobby they are interested in. Assign these prospects to your staff and board members so they make it a point to talk to them during the evening.
6. Determine Your Budget
These types of events should be built into your budget for the year so you know exactly how much you’ll have to spend.
Costs to consider when planning a cultivation event:
- Food and drink—Catering, open bar, appetizers
- Money saver: Purchase your alcohol from a local grocery store.
- Venue—Space rental fees
- Money saver: Hold the event at a board member’s house.
- Flowers—Hiring a florist to create and deliver center-pieces
- Money saver: Pick up ready-made bouquets at the grocery store or from a local florist.
- Equipment Rental—Extra chairs, tables
- Money saver: Skip the chair covers.
- Entertainment—You may need to pay for or provide travel expenses for special guests
- Money saver: Hire local talent.
- Graphic Design—Invitations, marketing materials, pamphlets
- Money saver: If your office has the technology and staff, design in house.
- Printing/materials—Professional printing costs for banners, signs, posters, marketing collateral, activities.
- Money saver: Print what you can using your own office printer and save the bigger projects for a professional.
- Food and drink—Catering, open bar, appetizers
7. Wow on the Day of Event
The day of your cultivation event has finally arrived. Your guests are eager and excited to mingle with each other and your staff. Don’t make them wait. Open the doors 15 minutes before the event start time for early birds. Then set the scene by strategically placing your board members so they are the first people your guests see. There should be a welcome table with guest name tags. Perhaps you have a staff or board member standing there too.
There should be one point person (if not you) who is in charge of making sure the night runs smoothly. The overall goal is to make your guests feel special. Here are some tips to help you achieve this:
- Welcome each donor as they collect their name tag and check their name off on the attendee list.
- Have key staff members and board members mingle and interact with donors throughout the entirety of the event.
- Ensure food and drinks are fully stocked and available at all times.
- Take photos during the event.
- These can be used in marketing materials such as email newsletters, future cultivation events, social media posts, and your office bulletin board to inspire and motivate employees.
- Have a time keeper. Assign one of your employees to be the time keeper for the event to ensure you adhere to your schedule throughout the night.
- Keep track of small details. This might include making sure there are enough seats for all your guests during the speaker presentation, ensuring every guest receives a pamphlet about your organization, or double checking that the microphone is functional before the event begins.
8. Follow Up With Attendees
Within a week of your cultivation event, send a thank you letter to each person who attended, whether they made a donation or not. By promptly thanking your attendees you are not only being polite, but also cultivating the relationship you established at the event. This is also another opportunity to communicate and connect with your current and prospective donors.
Germaine Frechette of WGBH says, “Most people don’t expect event follow up, so you have an opportunity to stand out among other organizations. Perhaps you have an attractive photo of the donor at the event — this is always a great reason to write and say, ‘Thanks for attending, great to meet you and here’s a nice memory.’”
Even no-shows should be sent follow-up letters. This is an opportunity to develop a relationship that could result in attendance at your next event or even a donation. Tell your no shows you are sorry they weren’t able to make it, give a brief event recap, include any pertinent materials handed out at the event, and say you hope to see them at the next one.
Ultimately, the goal should be to get to know your donors on a more personal level. This kind of relationship is what builds trust and deeper donor loyalty. Frechette adds,
Meaningful events keep the conversation going between the organization and its supporters. Like any relationship, the more you engage with someone, the more you learn about what motivates them into action.