Giving Meaning: A menu for successful fund-raising dinners

Giving Meaning: A menu for successful fund-raising dinners

“Giving Meaning” is a new monthly column about fund-raising strategies supported by Jewish values. It is intended for both professionals and volunteers interested in improving their institutions’ fund-raising results. — Editor 

Fund-raising dinners: Many have them, and many work very hard to ensure “success.” But too often, I have found, these events are viewed as an “end” instead of a “means” toward an end. In this light, by aiming for something quick and immediate, we miss the opportunity to achieve larger fund-raising goals.

In any given issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, one can read about “mega gifts” (defined as eight figures or higher) donated to institutions. And unless I’ve been going to all the wrong parties — which is possible — I’ve never heard a supporter respond, when a waiter asks if a guest would like red or white wine, with “red, and you can also count on me for $15 million.”

Significant charitable commitments take place most often in the space between two people talking. In the High Holy Day poem Unetana Tokef we read, “And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, small voice will be heard.” The gala may be the great “shofar blast,” but what is heard will be digested long after, in quiet moments of conversation.

It behooves fund-raisers to view their events as a means and not an end. Practically, one ought to draft their work plan with the end in mind. To do so, think about Hebrew and not English.

English is read from left to right, Hebrew from right to left. Applied to a work plan, we tend to go with the “English” approach, mapping out what needs to happen months in advance, ending on the day of the event. That approach, while common, is backward.

Try approaching your work like the Hebrew language: from right to left. Begin with key dates and goals set after the event. Whom would you love to be in conversation with six months after? Then work backward up until the day after the event. Consider who needs to be thanked, and how and when. Map out your follow-up first with as much detail and emphasis as you do for the weeks leading up to the dinner.

By starting with your post-dinner goals, you will have a greater sense of clarity for what needs to happen during. How you present your organization makes or breaks the evening. Make sure that the message is one you can reference with supporters in the follow-up. There are many effective ways to tell your story, but Maya Angelou hit the nail on the head when she said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Your dinner needs to make your audience feel. You need to move them. You need to tell them a story, and even better, a first-hand story from someone who benefited from the cause. The Lubavitcher rebbe once wrote that “words from the heart reach the heart.” There is no more powerful narrative than one that comes from those who have the courage to talk about their own personal experiences in relation to the cause. Your supporters may not remember all the details of the stories they hear, but they will remember how they felt as they listened.

In the same way, how your supporters are greeted during the cocktail hour sets the tone. Yohanan ben Zakkai, the greatest of Jewish scholars during the Second Temple period, would have been awesome during a cocktail hour. We are told that he was the “first to greet every person in the marketplace” (Berachot 17a). So must you, the fund-raiser, in the cocktail hour.

My teacher, the extraordinary fund-raiser Victoria Agron, taught us young fund-raisers years ago to approach the cocktail hour strategically. You are not going to be able to sit with everyone, so you must be sure to see the people that night whom you want to connect with afterward. Make a list of these people in advance so you can use your time more effectively. Prepare small talk and an opening line. Read the news that day, know a few headlines, and think through your response to the question, “How are you?” with more than “fine,” which kills a conversation. To this day, Vicki breaks the ice with women with two words: “Cute shoes.” That comment always draws a smile.

Fund-raising dinners are one tool in the shed of an organization’s overall development agenda. Seeing them as an end in themselves minimizes their potential. By setting goals for what you plan to do afterward, you can develop the most appropriate and moving program. And with an effective and moving program, you can use the cocktail hour far more strategically.

“According to the effort is the reward” (Pirkei Avot 5:27).

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