Never assume what a donor can give: #33 of 100 Things We’ve Learned

How often have you heard excuses for why a potential donor couldn’t possibly give to your organization or project … before they’ve even been approached!

A typical conversation might sound like this:

Volunteer 1: What about Mr. Potential Donor? I think he might be capable of a larger gift than he’s been giving.

Volunteer 2: Oh no. He’s got a son in college (or substitute another reason such as “just remodeled their house,” or “bought a new boat”) and couldn’t possibly do more right now.

I was reminded of the lost opportunity when we make assumptions of what our donors will or won’t do when browsing through my Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago.

A photo caption caught my eye:

“Home Sweet Home Gala raises $400,000”

Whoa! I had to look again. Yes. It said $400,000. I figured the newspaper must have added an extra zero.

If you live in New York City, raising $400,000 probably sounds like no big deal for a charitable event. But the paper I was reading was the Providence Sunday Journal. The organization was Crossroads Rhode Island, formerly Travelers Aid of Rhode Island, the largest nonprofit provider of homeless services organization in our state.

To put this fundraising total into perspective for you, you’ll need a bit more data about Rhode Island.

  • The total state population is just over 1 million, making up just over 400,000 households.
  • The largest city, Providence, has a population of just 174,000.
  • There are only two Fortune 500 companies in the whole state. And one community foundation.
  • The unemployment rate, at 13% in September 2009, is one of the highest in the nation.

Even in a booming economy, $400,000 is a huge fundraising gross for an event in Rhode Island. If I had to guess, it’s probably in the 10 top events in total funds raised.

Very impressed, I had to learn more. So I went straight to the top and called Karen Santilli, the Vice President for Marketing and Development at Crossroads.

“Yes, our September gala raised just over $400,000.” Karen informed me.

No, they didn’t have a Hollywood celebrity or famous speaker, which the other events that raise the biggest money often have.

Seven Years and a Winning Formula

This event started seven years ago when Travelers Aid of Rhode Island changed its name to Crossroads Rhode Island. “The event chair at the time felt strongly we had to do something unique to celebrate the name change and help people remember who we were,” said Karen.

So they put their heads together to create a truly WOW event that would keep people talking and eager to see what they’d do the next year.

They found a winning formula. The event is always held in a distinctive place, like the top deck of a parking garage, or an airplane hanger, and on the unfinished 3rd floor of a factory under renovation.

The theme – while based on the concept of “home” to remind everyone of Crossroads mission – inspires or is inspired by the event location.

The production formula

“Our event is quite a production,” Karen explained. “Costumed actors from the community theatre RISE on Broadway donate their time to help create the theme. Our incredible designer, Richard Pascarelli, creates the most extraordinary setting.

“For example, this year’s theme ‘Home Sweet Home’ was designed around the book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Guests signed in at a candy shop and truly felt like they were in the book. It’s hard to describe just how creative everything is but you can see a slideshow of this year’s event at Home Sweet Home.

“We have about 60 volunteers who help Richard and Crossroads’ special event manager, Pat Campellone, create the decorations, arrange the tables, set up the space and keep things flowing throughout the evening. That includes many of our staff that get a paid day off in exchange for their service. Staff like the event so much they recruit friends and family members to volunteer that night.”

The event has great food, a sit down dinner, and a live band and dancing. The speaking program, limited to the CEO and the Board Chair, is “very, very brief,” Karen explained.

The fundraising formula

The event has always been targeted to RI businesses and corporations. “This year we had two top corporate sponsors at $30,000 and four at $25,000, all the way down to $2,500 for sponsors,” said Karen.

She told me the event tickets in demand because companies use them to reward their top employees. Earlier this year, when she asked a friend who had been at the 2008 event if he’d be there again this year, he lamented how hard it is to get invited to the company table.

Because you can’t count on having your boss invite you, Karen said, Crossroads has sold more and more individual tickets at $150 each. Individual sales totaled about $35,000 in 2009.

“We had 625 people at the event this year … so many that we had to stop selling tickets because there wasn’t enough room for everyone,” Karen said.

Karen explained that there is also a raffle – they start selling raffle tickets in advance and continue through the night of the event. There are only three raffle prizes, all pretty big, and all donated. This year, the top prize was The Ultimate Chocolate Lovers Dream: A Trip to Switzerland. “We raised $23,000 between the raffle and the 300 wonka bars in which were hidden 5 golden tickets for smaller prizes. We sold all 300 of those during the cocktail hour.”

The solicitation plan

I asked Karen how they solicited for tickets.

“This year, because the economy was bad, we sent our sponsorship pledge letters in January, which was earlier than usual. In late May, we hand-delivered a sponsorship confirmation package to secure our sponsors’ pledges for the event. Those packages are a tease to get everyone excited … their design hints at the theme without ever disclosing it. This year, the packages were based around top hats filled with candy.

“After that package is delivered, a team made up of our CEO, Anne Nolan, our board chair Howard Sutton and his wife Kim, our special events manager, and myself call or personally connect with each of the sponsors on our list.”

Karen told me that the event invitation is mailed in July. This past year it was a really sparkly package with top hat and candy wrapper designs. Last year’s invitation looked like a travel packet.

I wondered if they used any electronic media to support the event. Because Crossroads sends out an eNewsletter every week or every other week or so, they are able to include “save the date” notices promoting the event.

About a third of the individual tickets were sold online this year.

Thoughts of canceling

Some of you might wonder about the decision to hold such an event in this economic climate.

Karen told me that they, too, had reservations about running the event this year, given its joyful themes and the bad economy. All around them, other organizations were canceling their events.

At one point, Crossroads even considered switching this year’s event to one of those non-event events where people just send money but don’t come to anything. “You can only do that kind of thing once,” Karen said.

“In the end, canceling or changing the event simply was a bigger risk. Our work depends on the money we raise.”

Proceeds of this event make up about 20 percent of Crossroads’ total annual fund of $2 million.

So, they forged ahead, expecting corporate sponsorships to be down this year, which they were. But what they didn’t expect, and it was a wonderful surprise, was the strength of the individual ticket sales. The growth in individual tickets made up for the drop in corporate sponsorship, and then some.

A friend raiser too

Karen told me that this event introduces a lot of new potential supporters to Crossroads. Everyone who comes is always wowed by the event and can’t stop talking about it. First timers are interested to learn more about Crossroads’ mission and programs. They spread the message to their friends and family.

This year, Crossroads acquired 400 new names and emails as a result of door prizes and other sign ups at the event.

And in a small state that seems to have at least two charity events on any given night, this is an event that people actually look forward to from year to year.

And next year?

“Of course, it’s a surprise” Karen reminded me. “But it will be fabulous and we hope that you’ll come.”


A version of this article Thinking Big with your Special Event recently appeared in Gayle’s column in Contributions Magazine

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