A few years ago, I interviewed a donor as part of a project and I asked about how she decides where to give.  The donor lit up and said, “I’ll tell you about the newest place I’m giving!” She proceeded to tell me a story about an event she and her partner had attended a couple of weeks before:  

“We went to the [organization’s] event and the experience was fantastic.  No one knew who we were, we had been invited by a friend but they had responsibilities and could not take us around, so we were on our own.  We were not important from a funder perspective – no one there would have known we give to a lot of organizations, and we had never given to this nonprofit before, so no one was tipped off to look for us.  Despite that, two people walked up to us at different times and connected with us– how did you get here, what do you think, do you have any questions, etc. They were so knowledgeable about the organization, they told their personal stories about how they were connected – and they were so impressive.  The personal connection was fantastic, and we gave more than we would have before because we understood more and we felt so welcomed and included.  I was completely impressed.  We go to events a lot, but you almost never have that kind of experience. We are even thinking of volunteering now – it was just a really good vibe.” 

It sounds fake, right? But I swear to you it is a 100% real quote that I have been sharing with boards and staffs ever since, because it so perfectly describes what a key role a board or staff member can have in helping to cultivate a potential donor, volunteer, or even a future board member at an event.  

The truth is that most organizations will put significant hours into planning for the perfect speaker or the most delicious food for their event, but it can actually be the “personal touch” of helping people feel included that makes your event stand out and makes people want to stay engaged with your work.  Whether it’s a breakfast or a gala or a house party, you want people to leave your event feeling that they want to keep being part of your community. Moreover, in a world where more and more organizations are wanting to reflect their values around equity and inclusion in their fundraising approaches, intentionally helping all your guests feel warmly welcomed and genuinely appreciated for their presence is a way to reflect who you are as an organization. This isn’t just about schmoozing the biggest donors, it’s about ensuring that all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to come to your event feel included in what you are doing. That way, they can have a great time and hopefully fall in love with your organization in the process!

Just Remember, You are the Host!

So how do you go about doing that? The first and best tip I can offer is to make sure that all board and staff members understand that each and every one of them is the host of this event. Think about what you do when you host people in your own home: at a bare minimum, you start by making sure you are there before your guests arrive! You greet everyone warmly when they come to your home, and introduce people who don’t know each other. You make sure people have the food and drink they need, and you try to include everyone in the conversation. All these things are no different when you attend an event as a board or staff member. We sometimes just need to be reminded to pay attention and do them when we are hosting in a community center or a hotel ballroom, rather than in our own living rooms.

Here are a few more easy tips for board and staff members who want to be good hosts at their event. All of these are just common sense, but it never hurts to remind people to take the time to do them!

Ahead of Time

  • Do your Homework. If possible, review a list of who will be coming and what you might know about them.  You don’t need to know everyone’s bio, but recognizing a name from a donor or volunteer list can be a nice way to start a conversation.
  • Remind yourself why you are passionate about your organization. There is no need to practice your elevator speech before your event – people attending are likely to know the basics anyway.  But do be prepared to tell people what excites you about the organization and why you personally care about the mission.  A good, recent story from the program is also great to have up your sleeve!
  • Arrive early. This will give you a chance to get your bearings and check in with other staff and board members before the guests come. Since you are the host of the event, you need to be there!

At the Event

  • Smile!
  • Wear a name tag that indicates you are a board or a staff member so people know they can ask you questions.
  • Circulate around the room. This is not the time to catch up with other board members, or get into a long one-on-one conversation with your best friend — even if you invited her. Take the lead in introducing yourself to people you may not have met before. At events without professional wait staff, walking around with a bottle of water or wine for refills or a tray of appetizers can be a great way to circulate and connect in a friendly way.
  • Be genuinely curious. The point of chatting with people at organizational events is not to subtly “pitch” them, it is to get to know them better! Ask about their connection to the organization, their experience with the issues, their feelings about a problem at hand.  Listen and learn.
  • Keep your eye out for loners. Approach people standing alone, introduce yourself, and engage them in conversation. “Thank you so much for coming—and I’m curious, how did you decide to come tonight?” can be a nice way to open with someone you don’t know well.
  • Make connections between people. Whenever possible, introduce people to each other and point out any connections they may not know about. “This is Lisa, like you she has volunteered with us for years, but in a different program…”  It gives people a place to start talking to each other if you need to move away.
  • Offer to answer questions. It can be as simple as “Do you have any questions about our organization I can answer?” or something more specific: “Have you heard the great news about our XYZ program?”
  • Thank you thank you thank you! Let’s face it, we’re all busy, and it is a big deal to take time out to come to an event.  Show everyone who comes your genuine thanks for supporting your organization with their very valuable time.

One of my favorite descriptions of fundraising is that “fundraising is building a community of people with shared values.” Events where people connect around those values in genuine and inclusive ways are going to feel great, and are sure to keep people coming back for more, just like that donor I interviewed.