Transactional to Transformational: The Future of Nonprofit Events

February 14, 2020
10 minutes
Bobby D. and Justin Wheeler sit across from each other with podcast microphones between them. Bobby is leaning in towards his microphone with his hands gesturing as he speaks.

Get that golden goosebump moment with Bobby D. Ehlert, world champion auctioneer and nonprofit events visionary with Inspire Hearts Fundraising, as he dishes on the future of nonprofit events (hint, it's all about the experience), event mistakes to avoid, and The Hug Squad.

There was so much good stuff that Bobby D. spilled that we decided to break it all down. Take a few moments to listen to the convo, since Bobby D. is such a dynamic and fun person, but don't worry about taking notes—we've gathered the takeaways for you.

Listen in as Bobby D. Ehlert lays out a beautiful event horizon.

Make Events Better

To make an event as rad as possible, you need buy in from everyone involved in putting it on—board members, your organization's team, and your day-of event staff. Get those goals aligned, people!

Design your event experience to fan donors' interest—change your cocktail hour to "Connection Hour" and focus on the work at hand. Drive the conversation before the event so that during the Connection Hour, you can follow up on the relationships you've already started building.

The 5 things you need for an unforgettable event

According to Bobby D., there are five must-have elements to an unforgettable event. And yes, one of them is a professional auctioneer! ;)

  1. Pre-event donor development is key! Prep your attendees ahead of time. Get them pumped for an exciting event and eager to give their money away... To a great cause, obviously.
  2. You gotta have strategy! Plan icebreakers, script that golden goosebump moment, and prime the passion pump with plants in the audience. No shame in that game.
  3. Support your events team by getting corporate sponsorships. The team putting on your event should be focused on creating an unforgettable donor experience.  
  4. Keep your auction items relevant to your mission.  
  5. Maximize your live adrenaline donating. The truly limiting factor here is time; you've got a limited amount of time to get every child's education covered or the entire building funded, so bring in the pros who can make it happen.

Why silent auctions are like garage sales

Nonprofits bring in gobs of money through silent auctions, but to the donors, these are often one-time or once-a-year purchases rather than gifts.

The type of donor that silent auctions attract is a transactional donor, a person who's looking to get a product for a good deal—which isn't an inherently bad thing! It's just not the mindset nonprofits should be looking for in their supporters; it doesn't unlock true generosity.

Auctions are exclusive, meaning they only allow for limited donations—If you've got 100 items, you'll get 100 donors. We hear you... if you've got 500 attendees at your event, you want 500 donors! Inclusive paddle raises allow for unlimited donation potential and celebration for every level of donor.

Why go with Fund-a-need?

Fund-a-need is truly inclusive. No matter the number of attendees or the depth of their pockets, there's an opportunity for every donor to join in and raise their paddle. Combined with the build-up and philanthropic crescendo led by a professional fundraiser, social pressure during an event can make for a contagious and frenzied paddle raise where every attendee can contribute an amount that's both meaningful and doable for them.

What happens when you hit the right gratitude note?

Or, why is immediate gratitude so important?

Story time! An organization that Bobby D. works with has a Hug Squad, a group at each event who literally walks over to hug donors immediately after they've raised their paddle in an auction or fund-a-need. It's not uncommon for groups like this one to contact Bobby D. after their event to tell him of donors who've increased their gift specifically because of the wonderful response they got after donating. Talk about successfully transforming a donor's test money!

In our reduced-attention-span, immediate gratification society, having the equivalent of a Hug Squad makes donors feel the importance of their donation and ties that amazing emotion directly to the action of raising their paddle or writing a check.

Need ideas for your own Hug Squad?

  • Kids high-fiving donors
  • Special swag for donors
  • Delightful surprises, like a hot chocolate station
  • Epic afterparty
  • Fresh-baked cookies given out at the valet
  • Hand-written Thank You cards from children

Event experiences culminate in beautiful donor relationships

The main thing to remember as you create a golden goosebump moment at your event is that you can't hope that an opening presents itself or that an attendee decides to donate. Build a timeline that includes prepping attendees before the event and thanking them afterwards, with the golden goosebump moment as the peak in the middle.  

To achieve that golden goosebump moment and the Aha! your donors need to donate big, use all the tools at your disposal—stage production, video, in-audience ambassadors—and unleash the impact awareness you feel every day.

Event Thunderdome: Extreme Gravity vs Uplifting Donor Experiences

Often we go to events that have an air of doom and gloom, that focus on the ways our world is falling apart and lay a lot of guilt on attendees to fix it with money. Yeesh, extreme gravity is one strategy, but a heavy heart makes it hard to raise a paddle.

Imagine having a heart so uplifted that your hand raises almost on its own. Imagine being in a room of people being recognized for their contributions and being welcomed into that group. Imagine being called to lead future success hand-in-hand with others who have the same goal.

Success comes from uplifting everyone involved and working together toward a common goal.

How to Do It Right when planning a transformational fundraiser

Creating a transformational donor experience is a learning process for all of us! Here are some hard-won cautions from people who may or may not have made a few missteps on the way...

  • Set expectations from the start! This isn't just a party, it's a fundraiser. Share the activities, share your auction items, and share the goal.
  • If you're planning an auction, think of it as opening a store for one day. Market everything you're selling.
  • Share the story and the mission far and wide. When people raise their paddle, they should know what they're investing in.
  • Prioritize proper audience development. You don't want a room full of corporate sponsors, vendors, and people attending for a free meal (nice as they all may be.) Reach out to attendees ahead of time and work your magic.  
  • Make an emotional appeal. Stats are impressive, but they don't tell a story alone. Combine the two for a dynamite appeal.
  • Once you've created that golden goosebump moment, what next? What you say in the moments afterward can double the donation or be the worst record scratch ever.
  • Say thank you right away, the right way. Effective gratitude drives home the impact of your donors' gifts.

The future of nonprofit events

What does the future hold for fundraising events? More professionally-designed events with a concentrated time frame and distraction-free fundraising focus. Experiences that place less emphasis on one-time gifts and more gravity on leveling-up donor legacies. Events that leverage the expertise of professional designers, performers, and day-of event experts, like auctioneers!

Nonprofits that have traditionally relied on silent auctions to raise tens of thousands of dollars will recognize the exclusivity of those auctions as well as the extraordinary resources that are required to acquire, market, auction, and distribute what amounts to a fancy garage sale.

We're going to see event strategies take a turn toward relevance, with auction items that tie in to an org's mission and fund-a-needs that engage donors on every level and reciprocate with the type of gratitude that naturally encourages further funding. Paddle raises will prove that they bring nonprofits the biggest return on investment, and with additional corporate sponsorship, the event experience will expand to embrace more and more donors.

Take your event from transactional to transformational, and you'll find that your donors will give with enthusiasm and encourage their networks to attend every event on your calendar.

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