Making Major Donor Events Work

Successful major gift fundraising demands a strategic cultivation plan. Increasingly, nonprofits are turning to premier, multi-day events for their major and mega donors.

These two- and three-day events go far beyond the typical banquet, gala or golf event. They bring together donors who have the inclination — and capacity — to make game-changing gifts.

Consider the case of a faith-based nonprofit that funds life-changing medical care for children and families. Over the past five years, this mid-size organization has hosted five major donor weekends and one mid-level donor event. Couples are invited to an upscale desert or ocean-side location, where they are treated to top-name Christian artists, distinguished speakers and plenty of value-added programming. They meet and mingle with executive leadership and staff, and enjoy compelling stories and video presentations from field staff.

Just as important, they enjoy abundant opportunities for free time and fellowship with like-minded individuals. Attendees are then presented with a “portfolio” of high-level giving opportunities and invited to participate in the organization’s work via a strategic “ask.” These major donor weekends have generated some $16 million in revenue for the organization at an overall expenditure of approximately $2.5 million. Just as important, the events have turned into a substantial major donor cultivation tool. At the nonprofit’s most recent event, 45 percent of the attendees were new to the organization.

Bob Westfall, CEO for the Atlanta-based Westfall Group (westfallgroup.net), has extensive experience in planning and executing successful major donor weekends. Here, Westfall shares answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about hosting a successful, high-impact event:

Q: Why does this type of event work so well? 

A: The main reason is that major and mega donors’ inclination to give increases proportionately with their sense of passion and alignment with the mission and vision of the organization. These weekends allow them to deepen that sense of connection. Another compelling factor is that major givers often want to feel part of a unique giving community. They enjoy giving in the context of “communities of participation,” where they are joining like-minded individuals who share their passions and concerns.

Q: What kind of ROI can be expected?

A: Return on investment typically ranges from between three-to-one and seven-to-one. Occasionally, it is much higher, but the average is five-to-one. The rate of giving is usually more than 70 percent of individuals, and the fulfillment rate is typically well over 90 percent.

Q: What will it cost?

A: Hosting a top-quality event can entail fairly significant expenditures. The organization generally pays for the entire weekend, apart from travel expenses for those invited. Of course, the final cost depends on the number of guests, the venue and whether it is a two- or three-day event. But typically, a major donor weekend can run in the range of $300,000 to $400,000.

Q: Where should the event be held?

A: We advise selecting a high-quality venue, typically a five-star resort in a significant destination. Often, it has to do with sand — whether that’s the beach or the desert. We typically try to avoid venues that are primarily golf destinations and focus on sunny places where couples can spend quality time together.

Q: How many people should be invited?

A: Typically, you’ll need to invite as many as eight to 10 times the number of guests you wish to attend in order to get a 10 to 20 percent response. So, you would invite 300 to 400 folks to wind up with 35 to 50 couples, which is an ideal size because it has critical intimacy without becoming too large.

Q: Who should attend?

A: Using wealth analysis, predictive modeling and other analytic techniques, the goal is to identify donors and prospects who have the capacity to make transformational gifts. That said, we try to get a cross section of different age groups and income levels, as well as a blend of those who already have a deep level of commitment to the work — and those who have a moderate level of commitment or are brand new to the organization.

Q: What should be said?

A: Strategic, compelling messaging is at the heart of a successful major donor event. We use first-person accounts and powerful video stories that speak to both the hearts and minds of attendees. It is also important to speak to the long-term transformational potential of major gifts. While they do dive deep into content, these events should also provide a substantial amount of “value time” with keynote speakers, music and programs that provide value for the guests. This includes time for building relationships with the leadership of the organization as well as among peers and other attendees.

Q: What kinds of results can be expected?

A: Dollars raised at this type of event exceed the costs, usually by an average of five to one. Sharing your story and creating a powerful experience over a weekend tends to produce a very high conversion rate of non-donors to donors — and an increase of donors to higher levels of gifting. Existing donors who come to this type of event often up-grade their level of giving by 200 to 300 percent.

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Our experienced professionals can provide valuable insight into major and mega donor cultivation. Contact our office today to set up a time to talk.