To Raise More Money, Look for More Engagement Opportunities

Smart nonprofit professionals know that fundraising success involves much more than simply asking for money. You need to identify prospective supporters, educate them, cultivate them, then ask for support, and finally steward your donors. An essential, often neglected, aspect of cultivation is engagement.

Sadly, many nonprofit organizations think of donors as piggy banks or ATMs dispensing money. Those charities tend to assume that charitable giving is, by its very nature, transactional. They further assume that low donor retention rates are just the way things are. Those organizations are correct … regarding themselves.

By contrast, nonprofits that treat prospects and donors as partners are more likely to attract support. Furthermore, they are more likely to retain and upgrade donors over time. One way to establish a partnership with people is to engage them in meaningful ways.

So, what does meaningful engagement look like?

PTC’s See & Be Scene Event.

For decades, I’ve been a fan and supporter of the Philadelphia Theatre Company. Recently, my wife and I were invited to attend “See & Be Scene: A Sneak Peek at the 2020/21 Season.” The event involved readings from eight plays under consideration for the upcoming four-play season. Subscribers and donors were invited to attend for free while the general public could purchase tickets at $15 each.

Through the event, PTC accomplished three important things:

  1. PTC expressed gratitude to its ticket subscribers and donors.
  2. Staff gained useful audience feedback that will help them select the plays of greatest potential interest to PTC’s audience.
  3. By giving them a real voice, PTC made its supporters feel like partners.

At intermission, I had the chance to quietly ask Paige Price, Producing Artistic Director, what she and the staff were hoping to get out of the program. She told me that they were interested in audience feedback. They wanted to know what people thought of each option, what they liked and didn’t like. They also wanted to be able to address any questions the audience might have about the upcoming season or the theatre company itself.

I also had the opportunity to speak privately with one of PTC’s board members. I asked him the same question I asked Ms. Price. He gave me a similar answer. Then, I mentioned that the event was a great way to cultivate ticket subscribers and donors. While he acknowledged it was, he told me that the primary purpose of the gathering was the opportunity to engage the audience and learn their thoughts about plans for the upcoming season.

I believe what I was told. PTC used the program to build a genuine partnership with people. Judging from the audience response, PTC succeeded with those in attendance. During the discussion session following the readings, one audience member said, “I think next season we should perform…” Someone else began her comment by saying, “As a member…” Clearly, at least some people in the audience did indeed see themselves as partners with PTC.

Another way that PTC seeks to engage theatregoers can be found in the lobby. A large sign invites people to make suggestions:

Have an idea? We want to hear from you.”

PTC’s Call for Suggestions.

People can take a card or use their ticket to write down their suggestion. They can submit it anonymously or include their phone number or email address so that PTC can respond.

With the “See & be Scene” program and with the request for feedback and suggestions, PTC engages people. Even those who do not take advantage of either opportunity will appreciate having had the opportunity to be heard.

Part of what makes the PTC engagement initiatives effective is that they are sincere efforts to build partnerships rather than cynical, manipulative gestures. By building meaningful partnerships, PTC will likely continue to develop a loyal base of ticket buyers and donors.

Engagement efforts that are sincere and true to an organization’s mission are most likely to be seen as meaningful. And they are most likely to build partnerships that lead to loyal support. While performing arts organizations have a number of obvious ways they can engage people, other types of nonprofit organizations may find it more challenging to do so.

The Philadelphia Children’s Alliance brings justice and healing to the survivors of child sexual abuse. PCA does not have the same opportunities to engage people that a performing arts organization does. Donors don’t usually visit the organization’s offices. They don’t pick and choose the services that the organization will offer. Nevertheless, PCA has found a number of ways to engage supporters in meaningful ways.

One way that PCA engages supporters and gives them an opportunity to perform a direct role in helping the organization achieve its mission is its teddy bear collection program. PCA invites supporters to donate a bear that will comfort a young child. In other words, supporters who donate a teddy bear will be collaborating directly, in a small yet meaningful way, with PCA to help children heal.

If a charity that deals with something as terrible as child sexual abuse can find ways to engage supporters, so can your organization. You’re only limited by your imagination.

If the only time your donors hear from you is when you want money, you have a problem. To address the problem, look for meaningful ways to engage people, particularly opportunities that give people a chance to collaborate with you in fulfilling the organization’s mission. To find out what would be meaningful to your organization’s supporters, ask them. That in itself is an opportunity for engagement, and it will lead to other worthwhile ideas. You’ll have happier, more loyal supporters if you often engage in compelling ways.

For more thoughts about engagement, checkout: “9 Hard Truths Every Fundraiser Needs to Face in the 21st Century.”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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