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No Free Lunch?

July 2001
By: Patrick McLaughlin
If your fundraising dinners aren't increasing your center's support, they aren't fundraisers. You need a new approach.

Do those fundraising dinners really work anymore?
That's a question I am asked on a monthly basis, and sometimes it seems weekly. I am always careful about how I answer. After twenty years in the stewardship arena, my answer is "Yes," with a huge disclaimer: "if you do them right!"

So much work, so little return
If you are not careful, your dinner or banquet events turn out to be a lot of work without much return, especially if your goal is new dollars from new donors. Often, dinners become events that raise the same dollars from the same donors year in, year out. That's all right, but the question is: Would those folks give those dollars anyway without your feeding them dinner? Could you share the information regarding your outreach to pregnant women, the ministry of saving babies, and educating your community without a dinner? Perhaps you could, but a carefully planned, well-executed dinner can afford the opportunity to present your mission, vision, and core values and can turn out to be a very effective and very profitable event.

Patrons beget patrons. When you
work within a patron's circle of friends,
the circle keeps getting larger.

No free chicken dinners
In planning this year's event, make sure everyone knows it's a fundraising event. Don't be shy about it. Attendees will be invited, yea, verily encouraged, to become regular, systematic donors to your center. There are no free chicken dinners anymore. Do effective planning that will help attendees not just pay for their meal but make a true stewardship decision at your dinner.

Use volunteers
If you are totally dependent upon your staff for conducting the event, it will be almost impossible to have a profitable event. You must use volunteers. Your volunteers, as well as your staff, need to own the event. Board members, key friends, former board members, donors, and ministry constituents are all volunteers to involve in your dinner strategy. Recruit and train your table hosts -- volunteers who agree to fill tables at your dinner. Give each of them a job description. Set high expectations and hold your volunteers accountable. Remember the words of a sage center director: "Volunteers do what you inspect... not what you expect." Follow up and follow through carefully with each volunteer who agrees to host a table. Using volunteers will help keep your costs down and your production (dollars and human resources) up.

Circles of friends
Make each table at your dinner a circle of friends. Ask each table host to invite four to eight couples or individuals -- the kind of folks they would invite to their homes for dinner. "The number one reason why people give is because of who asks." Your table hosts will serve as the warm and friendly contacts for attracting new donors and building new relationships for your ministry. They will be friends asking friends to come hear your story and join in your venture.
Let everyone know in advance
that your event is a fundraiser.
Don't be shy about it. The kind
of ministry your center is doing
is the best in the world.

The Program
Keep your event short, sweet, and to the point. You can begin a dinner at 7:00 p.m., dismiss promptly at 9:00 p.m., and be successful. It is not always a special, outside speaker that makes the evening. Many times the best speakers are women and families who have benefited from your ministry. But the greatest tug on the heart and checkbook will come from the babies who are alive today because your center was there for them. Share that story in a testimonial or interview format.

Good music, a short video, three good testimonies, and an executive director's perspective on the vision of your center, and you are almost there. A well-crafted stewardship presentation in which a clear request is made is your final hurdle. Don't be modest. Everyone who attended knew it was a fundraising event, so go for it!

Remember that a fundraising dinner is just one step in your comprehensive fundraising strategy. If people missed the event, send them the dinner program, a letter describing the evening, and a commitment card. If you follow up the letter with a phone call, you will receive additional commitments.

Call all the table hosts, thank them, and ask them to help evaluate the evening. Also, ask the hosts who of the couples or individuals at their tables would make good table hosts for next year's event. Your work on next year's dinner begins the day after this year's event. Let patrons beget patrons. When you work within a patron's circle of friends, the circle keeps getting larger.

Do it right, do it well, and be willing to change things that don't work. A sit-down dinner or a quality dessert event is an excellent way to showcase your center's influence in your community. The gift of life is so precious; be willing to take the right steps before, during, and after the event to make it a profitable experience for everyone. Hey, let's have a dinner!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick McLaughlin, President and Founder of The Timothy Group, is a specialist in relational fundraising, including major donor contacts, events, and capital campaigns. Patrick McLaughlin can be reached at 616-224-4060 or at

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