The Key To Selling Out A Nonprofit Event


I snagged my toe on the side of my desk a couple of months back. While this was merely a minor scrape, I felt like I was going to die. I winced in pain and, of course, had to show everyone within yelling distance my life-threatening gouge.

Doug uses Aplos as his home base to manage his nonprofit, Kulungu for Congo, and he happened to be in the office that day. So I hobbled over and showed him, too.

Of course, I exaggerated how much it hurt and that I was certain the toe would lose its nail. Doug turned to me and said, “Man that’s nothing, you should see the kids’ feet that live in the Congo. They don’t have shoes so a scratch like that is nothing to them…”

Well played, Doug. Well played.

In a matter of seconds Doug managed to turn my entire perspective around. I instantly regretted my decision to waltz around the office like a pansy, parading my tiny cut to everyone. What’s even more amazing is that I then felt inclined to donate all of my shoes to the kids in the Congo. Once again, well played.

Just as Doug made me a believer with one single comment, he sought to make believers of every attendee at his upcoming fundraising event. It was his first major fundraiser, so it was essential not just to raise one-time funds, but also to leave with a deeper donor base that would support his organization in the long run. Doug and his team understood the importance of not only attracting those who were interested in a night out, but also inspiring those in attendance to invest in the cause. With a goal of 300 attendees and a small budget, they had their work cut out for them to make sure those seats were filled with the right audience.

And they did just that. In fact, they surpassed their goal.

Event invitations: Brighter is not always better

Doug’s budget was tighter than a pair of my skinny jeans. Lavish invitations were not something he and his board wanted to splurge on. Instead, the invitation design was donated by a sponsor, Jeffrey Scott Agency, and it was created as a single-sided flyer to save money on printing.

Inaugural events are notorious for having low turnouts due to lack of name recognition, so Kulungu for Congo needed to nail the invitation. Invitations require a delicate balance between providing the essential information that will inspire your supporters to attend, without overloading your invitation with every amazing thing your organization does.

The point of an invitation is to get people in the door, so that you can communicate all the wonderful things your organization does in person.

Don’t get me wrong, telling your nonprofit story and connecting with your donors is the most important thing you can do. But your invitation needs to be a soft introduction to your organization. Identify your organization and communicate a feeling. You don’t want your invitation to sound like Richard Simmons on Christmas morning.

Some nonprofits focus on creating an invitation that is bright and eye-catching, but come up short on needed information.

For instance, somehow I’ve managed to wind up on a different nonprofit’s mailing list and was sent an invitation to their annual fundraiser. I was instantly attracted to the beautiful design, but suddenly became inspired to let my dog chew up the invitation for two very good reasons: my name was spelled wrong, and they failed to mention what the proceeds for the event supported. For all I knew, my donation would be buying the organization a new golf cart, instead of going toward student scholarships.

Clarity is key

It’s important to have the right kind of information on your invitation. You want to address the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your event. Doug did a great job of covering each of these points:

event-invitation-example

Right away your eyes are drawn to the organization’s mantra at the top of the page. This gives your donors a clear idea of what you will be using their donations to accomplish. From there, you can quickly learn:

  • The event is an awareness night
  • When it is
  • Where it’s located
  • Who will be speaking
  • How to buy tickets

The only unusual thing about his invitation is the section about sponsor levels. Usually you would approach sponsors separately, and then add their logo to the invitation for the public as an incentive.

Being short on time and resources, Doug and his board decided to make one set of invitations for everyone and recruit sponsors while personally hand delivering invitations. This simplified the ticket sale process, making it easier and more cost-effective for his organization.

If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to send out invites, check out Evite, an online resource to create and design invitations. They have hundreds of free templates to choose from, as well as premium designs if you’re able to designate part of your budget to invitations.

How to swing and hit your target… (audience, that is)

Kulungu for Congo had a well-designed but simple invitation. By now you’re probably curious about how they were they able to exceed their attendance goal and completely sell out in advance with such a simple flyer.

I’ll tell you… it wasn’t just the invitation that did it. They sent out some invitations by email, but Doug and his board members also personally handed an invitation to almost every person on their invitation list. I’m dead serious.

This approach is very bold and very time-intensive, but a great example of a go-getter attitude for getting people to your event. Nothing surpasses the effectiveness of a personal invitation.

Doug could have easily rummaged together an invite list of anyone and everyone he knew, dropped the invitations in the mail, and sat back and waited for responses. But that’s simply not in his nature. Doug is a people person – a tenacious people person. Doug loves to share his goals with everyone he meets, even perfect strangers. I’m telling you, if you were to look up the definition of tenacious in the dictionary, his face would be there.

how-to-drive-event-attendance

So let’s just say up front that hand delivering invitations was playing to Doug’s strengths. You may have a really strong, expansive email list. Or perhaps your social media network is particularly active. Know your strengths and know your network. And however you can, be sure to reach out personally to your key supporters by text, by phone, or by email to make sure they know their presence is valued.

In addition to Doug’s personal invitations, he also asked each of his board members to be in charge of filling two tables at the event. Getting your board involved is essential for amplifying your donor base by reaching into untapped networks.

Trying to organically bring random individuals to attend your event can feel like swinging a bat in a dark, empty room. You’re swinging at everything, but you’re not making any contact.

Your network is like a spider web. In order to create your web of connections, it has to have a base, and that base is mostly going to be comprised of your close friends, colleagues, and friend-of-a-friend connections. Once you’ve built those relationships, maintain them and keep working outward to continue to see it grow.

You convinced them to attend, now what?

So you’ve done your job well. You’ve succeeded in getting everyone you invited to agree to come. But now what? How will you have them register?

There are a few cost-effective solutions to do this. Doug used Eventbrite, a free online event tracker that allows attendees to register and purchase their tickets, provide contact information, and execute day-of check-ins. Using a resource like this is not only cost-effective, but helps eliminate error and improves record keeping.

Doug also provided mail-in options for those that received a hand-delivered invitation. Doug’s response rate with Eventbrite was low, but mail-in responses were high because of his efforts to hand-deliver invitations to everyone. While the online approach is definitely a more modern approach for the younger generation and can simplify things for a nonprofit, it’s always safe to offer both an offline and online option for event registration and donations.

It worked for them… can it work for you?

If you are searching all over the Internet for ideas on how to gets folks to show up to your event, trying to find a method that proved to be successful for someone else, then you’re setting yourself up for a wild goose chase. The answers you’re looking for start with you.

Look at your past events — was your turnout successful? Did you attract sponsorships or donations?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it simply means it’s time to re-evaluate your target audience, identify your strengths, and focus on improving your approach.

Don’t focus on trendy fundraising event ideas to see better results. It’s imperative to work on getting the right people to your event and that starts with donor relations. If your donor base is weak, and you’re struggling to get people to understand why they should invest their time in your event, then it’s time to start building better relationships with your donors. This can involve asking your supporters to advocate for your cause and introduce you to their networks.

Check out the next post in this series to find out how KFC promoted its event for free to build awareness, and gain some helpful tips on managing public relations on a dime.

You stay classy now…

Megan helps lead the marketing department in Email Marketing, Lead Generation, and Public Relations. She has a passion for creativity. In her spare time she enjoys torturing her husband with more DIY projects, writing fiction, reading, and binge watching Netflix.

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