How to Plan the Perfect Nonprofit Donor Cultivation Event

December 28, 2023
5 minutes

Out of the gajillions of events your nonprofit organization may have on its annual fundraising calendar, donor cultivation events may be some of the most important. After all, donors don't grow on trees—although it'd be cool if they did ...

Snap back to reality; let's rewind a li'l bit.

Our take on donor cultivation events

Most of us here at Funraise have a background in the nonprofit sector, and as such, we know that successful fundraising comes down to successful donor engagement strategies, which lead to successful relationship-building. In the words of David Schwab, our extraordinary Director of Growth Marketing, "Not every donor is built to engage the same way, and the only way you can really understand each person's individual preferences and motivations is to get to know them. There's a special quality to donor cultivation events because they're not fundraising events. Instead, they're an integral part of a culture that's genuinely committed to building community and relationships."

Now, back to the basics.

What is a donor cultivation event? And how is it different than a regular fundraising event?

A donor cultivation event, also known as a non-ask event or friendraising event, is a more intimate event tailored to, you guessed it, cultivating new donors! When it comes to donor cultivation strategies, cultivation events are right up there with sending birthday cards. Who you want to cultivate as a prospective donor can vary greatly and, depending on your organization's needs, probably includes donor segments like major donors, high net-worth donors, recurring donors, mid-level donors, and, in some cases, private or corporate foundations.1

Unlike your other fundraising events that typically consist of a hard ask, these events are centered around networking, socializing, and educating attendees about your organization's mission and impact. The great thing about donor cultivation events is that they're pretty low stakes for both the nonprofit and the attendees; they offer just enough information to captivate attendees and encourage deeper involvement but don't put them on the spot to make a heavy commitment. And because of the small group size, you have an opportunity to really make an impact.

"Thinking about some of the things that we have done to increase our donor retention, once we get those donors through the door, it's one-to-one communication. There is no better tactic than that," affirms Erika Carley, senior director of operations and board member at Chive Charities, which has a 98% donor retention rate (!). When she sat down with Funraise on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast, she stressed, "There's nothing more valuable than connecting with your donors intentionally and authentically. Having a high-touch approach is worth the investment. Once you start cultivating this incredible relationship, you start to learn a lot more about your donors, and it's because they're opening up to you."

So, think of your donor cultivation event as an investment in your relationships and in your future. It's kinda like a Tupperware party, with all the informative pitches and getting-to-know-you's, except the attendees aren't being pressured to purchase makeup or knives or whatever. We're already sold!

What's the goal for your donor cultivation event?

The ideal endgame is for attendees to become major donors, but your cultivation event is the first step to getting them in that sweet spot. According to fundraising expert Penelope Burk, 67% of respondents attending a donor cultivation event credited it as the reason why they made their gift. Cultivation events are, no doubt, a gateway to individual donor giving and long-term donor retention.

Author's note: We hope you're still with us! Need a break before you dive into the actual step-by-step guide? Here's our best right-now tip: Stand up and stretch. Yawn real big and loud, and secretly enjoy how much it annoys your deskmate. Swing your arms around. Then come back and finish reading because this actually is pretty effective event advice.

If you've always wanted to plan a donor cultivation event, there's no better time than the present, so here are some cultivation strategies and guidelines to get you started!

Planning the event

Since these events are meant to be smaller gatherings, you'll only need 1-3 months to plan. Consider scheduling them regularly as part of your major gift program or have one or two every year when you have a lull in your event calendar (LOL as if). Donor cultivation or stewardship events should be no longer than an hour; keep them short, sweet, and to the point.

Budget

With a cultivation event, there's no worrying about your fundraising plan or ticket sales, but you'll still need to set a budget. Your budget guides the size of your event and determines the tactics you'll take to market it. Need budgeting help? Sign up for our Plan, Raise, Engage 10-Day Event Strategy Series where you can get no-fuss budgeting worksheets and other valuable event planning tools.

Who to invite

After you've determined the budget, determine the oh-so-important guest list. For donor cultivation events, it's best to keep your list of people within the same peer group (it helps the personal conversations flow). If you decide to invite existing major donor prospects, use your CRM to filter out who you'd like to invite. Using your CRM to pull detailed donor data will help you hone in on your audience and get the right people to your event.

If you want to plan a friendraising event, ask one of your major gift donors or board members to host the event and invite their friends (AKA prospective donors) to learn more about your nonprofit. The nonprofit still takes care of all the details and event costs, but the guest list is solely up to the host. This helps expand your potential donor pool while making your guests feel more comfortable by having someone there that they know.

Note that while a solid guest list is key to a successful cultivation event, who sends the invitation also matters. If you're not doing a friendraising event, you can still ask someone on your board of directors or a well-known donor to extend the invite. Depending on the type of donor, you can also send it straight from senior staff, like your ED or development director. Just remember to keep it warm and personal.

Author's note: Stretch break! This time, roll your neck to stretch it out and roll your eyes at how many different events you're trying to put on this year.

Location

Where you decide to host the event is just as important as what happens during the event. Donor cultivation events are more intimate in nature, so hosting a house party is always a good way to go. Ask around at your next board meeting or ask a major gift donor that you have a close relationship with if they'd be willing to volunteer their home for a few hours. Another option would be an AirBnB, or even your office if you've got pretty cool digs.

Whatever you choose, just ensure that it's small enough for people to have meaningful conversations with guests but with plenty of space for you to present your nonprofit case in a memorable way. Creating the right ambiance leaves your guests engaged and comfortable and cultivates a desire to learn more about the work you do and how they can become a part of it.

Program

Impact, impact, impact. Impact is the name of the donor cultivation game. Your organization's mission and impact should be woven into the fabric of the event to drive your primary message home. Namely, your nonprofit's work is important and only possible with the help of potential donors like them.

But remember, even at major donor cultivation events, you're not asking anyone to give any money. You're simply stating where you've been, what you've done, and where you plan on going in a succinct yet memorable way.

Your event should start with an informal welcome from leadership (CEO or executive director) and make time and space for networking with a strong storytelling component included. Invite your development director to say a few words, too, making a clear connection between your work and how the involvement of the guests can make a difference. Drive the idea home that the work you do isn't possible without them, and use hard data or storytelling to back up your claims.

Type of event

While the event programming is your donor cultivation raison d'être, you also want a generally enjoyable event. After all, you're building relationships, and if everyone's shivering at a garden party in November or facing a coffee-less breakfast at 9:00 AM, you can say au revoir to a successful event. 

So! Know your donor types and know their preferences. Maybe it's a bagel brunch, or maybe it's a cocktail reception. The point is that strong relationships with donors are not built on growling stomachs, so even if it's not your primary focus, have plenty to nosh and plenty to imbibe. Oh, and don't forget to accommodate individual donor dietary restrictions! (Need the perfect food fundraising idea? We've got you covered.)

Author's note: Final stretch break—you're in the home... stretch! (Go ahead, laugh!) Do some of those waist twists that kind of look healthy but also look like a dance. Then finish reading.

Follow-up

All the magic really happens after the event is over. The post-event follow-up is where you work to nurture your relationship with the attendees and move the donor cultivation cycle along.

Make a follow-up plan for each guest and thank them for attending. We love a phone call because it's personal, and you can get a response right then and there. However, depending on the type of donor, you can also text, send an email, or go old school with direct mail, asking if your donor prefers a call or a personal visit. If you call, ask if they have a minute to talk about the event, then dive in to gauge how they felt about it, what was most impactful, and if they have any suggestions.

End the follow-up by asking if they'd be interested in getting involved with your organization and in what capacity, be it volunteer opportunities, monthly donations, future events, or an advisory board position. Their answer will set the stage for communication going forward, get the donor cycle rolling, and, hopefully, be the beginning of a long-lasting donor relationship.

As you can see, donor cultivation events are a key component of any relationship-building fundraising strategy because they're different from any other fundraising event. So, if you're thinking of planning one, now is as good a time as any! Good luck, nonprofit friends.

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