Any successful development officer will tell you that fundraising events are a crucial part of the donor development process. Events such as an annual gala are important for finding and connecting with donors to help set the stage for a lasting relationship that will move them toward major giving.
Jennifer Nichols knew this when she joined on as the Director of Institutional Advancement in 2010 for The John Crosland School in Charlotte, NC. Over the course of 4 years, she has taken the school’s annual “Picture This” Gala from a small, family-run event to the successful and widely recognized affair that it is today. We spoke with Jennifer get her story…
What is the John Crosland School?
We are a school for children with learning and attention differences like ADHD and Asperger’s. Children who attend the school must have a diagnosed learning difference. The school is dually accredited and has been around for 35 years. We’ve reached 2 states, 8 counties and 21 cities.
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Why do you fundraise?
We get no federal or state funding. Tuition covers roughly 84-86% of our operating budget each year and the rest is philanthropic. Individual giving takes care of the other 15%, which covers in-house reduced tuition (scholarships), development of new facilities and overall expansion.
Two-thirds of our kids come from public school and a lot of those families have a difficult time paying. They raid retirement funds, sell homes – some families even move in from out of state – so philanthropy for us is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. We are dependent on fundraising, and knowing that we realize relationship building [with donors] must be very strong; because it’s not always coming from these families, it’s coming from outside in the community as people understand why we’re here and what community need we fulfill. That’s part of the reason our annual gala is so important.
Tell us a little about your event, the “Picture This” Fundraising Gala.
The gala has gone on for 22 years, but it had always been in the hands of the families. It was really considered a family night event. When I arrived 4 years ago, I changed it and made into a philanthropic event for reaching donors outside the school.
We still have family festivals that are part of our philanthropic package, but they are smaller more focused fundraisers just among the families and extended group. We do this in-house where we put forth a goal – this year we bought an activity bus – so families are still connected to the philanthropic goals and the mission of the school.
For the annual Gala, we really needed a donor event where we could do donor prospecting. Large fundraising events are a wonderful opportunity to bring our donors and donor prospects into the room and talk about where we are in terms of our mission, where we are in terms of our vision, and give them updates so that they are truly insiders.
This year we did a pretty good job of getting donors in the room, but it’s just the beginning. We’re in the process of developing some extra efforts that we want to do starting in October – we have big plans the end of the year and beyond with regard to our donors.
What sort of extra efforts?
One thing that seems to be a struggle for a lot of smaller Nonprofits – or Nonprofits that have not been great at fundraising – is the development of a solid donor base. That’s one of the main reasons I came to this school, was because they didn’t really have one. They had some annual help among the parents, some help from a few grandparents and families of former students, but they had no real donor base. They had never really done any marketing or – what I would consider true fundraising efforts – certainly not philanthropic efforts. They were lacking advancement efforts – truly considering the holistic package for how to move the school forward.
So that was what I came into. I had done projects like this before – I just knew there was going to be a lot of work involved. Knowing that, we just had to come together and agree on certain fundamental principles.
What did the Gala look like 4 years ago compared to today?
Four years ago when I came in it was a much smaller event. They hosted it in a very non-descript hotel. It was in a decent part of town but it wasn’t centrally located and it wasn’t uptown. So we immediately took the event to uptown Charlotte where it would get more visibility and people would feel like dressing up. That first year we took it to the Wells Fargo Atrium and put it out there with a bunch of big lights, which got people really excited.
Then we really focused on the mission of the school during the gala. We began to put things about the kids within the event program. Rather then just put some auction items out there and say “Thank you for coming and supporting the school” – we really started talking about the mission.
For example, I had pictures of the students just rolling on a slideshow throughout the dinner. We also had the students and some artists from the local community do some artwork. Then we mixed them all up so that guests couldn’t tell whether a student or a local artist had done the piece of art so when people were buying they had no idea whether they were buying something from one of our kids or a local artist. It was a real hit.
Sounds like an expensive transition – did you get any resistance in the beginning?
What I really had to do was convince the board about investment. Its what we talked about from the minute I got here. We talked about investment in terms of their own businesses. These people on the board are successful professionals from companies like Wells Fargo and Bank of America so we talked about it in light of making investments in marketing efforts to grow your business.
When I came on board, one of the first things I did was speak to the elephant in the room, “In order to attract the kind of donors we need to attract in this town, we will have to do a rebranding campaign.” And I gave them a figure. Then I said, “I need you to make an agreement with me” – (This was before I even had an office) – “and I need you to take the risk. I need you to tell me now that you are willing to do that, because if you don’t, you cannot – you will not – attract the donors we want.”
I told them that because people in this town understand what success looks like. You need to be the program you are on the inside and reflect that on the outside in everything you say and do and show. If we weren’t going to do that then we could not effectively solicit the local foundations we wanted to get in front of.
So we got the ball rolling on a rebranding campaign. Once [the board] started seeing how exciting it could be I said, “Now. You made that investment, you see how well its going and you understand the difference. Now I want you to make a very small investment in the gala. The reason I’m going to ask for it is because we are going to start using it to build our capital donor prospecting. We’re going to be talking about capital investment at this year’s gala and because we are going to be donor prospecting at the gala, I want the capital campaign to make a $10,000 investment into this event. And with that we’re taking it uptown.”
So we took that $10K and turned that into an extra $16-17K and took it uptown to the Atrium and really got some rave reviews from the community. That first year we raised $57,000. It was more than we raised the year before and we paid more to do it, but we really got the attention of some of the folks we were trying to get in front of. The people who had said yes they were considering the capitol campaign then went ahead and threw their hat right in the ring. It really did well for us.
Since then we’ve only increased the size and scope of the event. Now we’re hosting it at the Ritz Carlton and it is an event our most important donors look forward to every year.
Tell me a little more about fundraising at the event. Was this the first time you’ve utilized Travel Experiences in your auction?
This is our 3rd year of using vacation experiences, but each year we’ve done something a little different. The first year we offered experiences that all came from folks that we knew, like a few days at a mountain house, a beach house, etc. But because of donors that I was looking to attract and the kind of event I was trying to create – I wanted it to be a truly signature event – I knew I needed bigger pieces. I wanted it to be an event that people wanted to come to every year, that if they missed it they felt like they really missed something special.
The second year people were really starting to connect with the mission, but I needed to go bigger. We secured two hunting trips to Argentina and we were actually given an incredible all-inclusive private beach package to Turtle Island in Fiji worth $12,000! The board members were about to have a heart attack saying, “Oh Jennifer! It’ll never sell! What are we going to do if it doesn’t sell?? Should we put a ringer in the audience?” I said “Good heavens, no!” … we sold everything. In fact, we sold the Fiji all-inclusive vacation for $1K over its $12K value – and that was a trip that was gifted to us. The board was very surprised but also excited.
So the next year we decided to put a few more trips from one of your competitors. We put in 5 additional trips. There was a Safari in Africa, a trip to Spain, Paris, etc… so we threw in some bigger things and actually had some folks come from out of town that had not seen us in years and we actually sold every one of those trips. Again the board was skeptical but I told them to remember Turtle Island! Everyone said it would never sell, but it sold. They said, “Well, what if he doesn’t come again?” and I told them it isn’t always about one person.
Each year now we have sold every travel package we have offered. One of the keys to that is letting people know ahead of time. I send out a list to every table captain and every board member with the packages we will be offering and I tell them to send it along. I want people to see it. This year we put the auction booklet right online so people could go view it before the event, and we listed our trips long before we put the whole booklet on there. We had all of our top trips with pictures on the website.
I said to our administration and committee members, “This is where we need to improve for next year – our board members need to feel responsible for the event. They need to feel that they are working their contacts starting in the fall rather than waiting until a few weeks before and scrambling to find people to come to the event.” Yes we had people that could buy, but we could have had people that bought more and gave larger paddle raise cash gifts.
We start the night with the silent auction with the beer & wine reception for an hour and a half. From there we go into the plated dinner that includes our program, which takes about 30 minutes (an hour total). Then we waltz right into the live auction where we start with a puppy to get everyone excited before offering the “Experiences”.
You mentioned you went with a competitor… why did you start using Winspire?
I’m a customer service kind of girl. It’s all about the relationship for me. That’s the way I am with my donors. Everybody to me is a donor. Everybody. Anybody walking on the face of the earth to me is a potential donor. That’s what they are. Whether someone makes a tiny gift of $10 or a $100,000 or $1 million gift, they all get that same treatment – because they are all people who are giving us their time, their talent or their treasure.
So to me, that’s the way I want my donors taken care of no matter whom I hand them to. I feel like Winspire can handle my very special relationships with that same regard.
What is it about Winspire you like most?
I think the folks really like the uniqueness of the trips. It was interesting because our donors are now starting to say things like, “Hey, do you have anything like this…” or “Could you get something like that…”. So people are starting to expect to see unusual packages or special Experiences being offered at our events. For that reason, it’s really important to me that I have a variety of Experiences to choose from because we have people bidding from a lot of different walks of life. It’s going to be interesting to see whether I’ll be able to keep up with demand and continue offering truly unique items, but looking at your selection of packages right now I know I will be able to continue offering these to my donors.
We work hard to get donors in the room. We work hard to produce a really strong program on the event night that will help us build relationships. Part of that process is offering amazing Experiences in our auction that will make them want to return year after year.
Overall, we had an amazing program night. It’s exactly what I wanted all of my programs to look like. And we finally achieved it after 4 years. We finally got what I would consider truly to be “The Year”. It’s taken a long time to get everybody on board with where this event needed to go and this year we finally hit the ball out of the park. I believe it is going to keep getting better every year – at least that is our goal.
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