Follow-Up: Fundraising’s Essential Action

By David A. Mersky

Recently, a colleague of mine was working with a nonprofit group to convene a gateway event. Gateways are used to introduce prospective, new major donors to the organization. The chosen venue was wonderful and RSVPs in the affirmative exceeded expectations.

Attendance was another matter— there was a 50% drop off from those who said they would attend to those who actually did. Further, there was no plan in place for reaching out to invitees in the days following.

Establishing a clear plan for follow-up* — to leverage the experience of those who attended and to continue engaging the group in the organization’s mission and goals — is vital for success.

The “Big Event” is Just the Beginning

When organizing a gala or gateway event, it’s understandable that the early focus is on the event itself. But from a long term, fundraising perspective, the occasion is just step one. It is the opening gambit in a process of engagement, relationship-building, and stewardship, all of which will ultimately yield the greatest philanthropic investment.

Consistent and effective follow-up is what makes all of this happen. That’s because when you make the effort to reach out to another person, you are saying, “You are important to me and our relationship matters.”

With that in mind, I offer three suggestions…

#1. Move Quickly

A follow-up call to attendees and non-attendees should occur within 48 hours. You want to make contact while the event is still fresh in their minds and before they have moved on to other things on their plate.

And yes, I am unapologetically old school in my belief that a phone call — not an email and certainly not a text — is the best medium for this task. The objective is an open-ended conversation in which you can hear the tone and emotion in the voice of the other person.

#2. Think Strategically

Who within your organization is best equipped to manage the relationship going forward? This is the person who should make the call. This may be a peer, board member, committee member, or member of the senior staff (hint: it’s not a summer intern!).

Remember that your list of invitees consists of key accounts — people who you hope will provide a meaningful gift at some point. It may or may not happen right away, so think strategically about who can best shepherd that personal connection over time.

#3. Act Deliberately

Every person on your invitee list was put there for a reason; each represents a future opportunity. So follow up with everyone, regardless of whether or not they attended. 

For those who did not attend, let them know that you were sorry to have missed them and that you hope they can join you at another event in the future.

For everyone else, ask:

What was your experience? 

Did you learn anything that was worthwhile? Was there anything that felt off target? What could we do to improve your experience in the future? Again, the key is to initiate a meaningful conversation.

Is there any way that you could see yourself becoming more involved with us?

You are looking to see if they have the time and if you have stimulated them to volunteer.

A common response to this question is for the other person to ask, “What would becoming more involved look like?” So make sure you have two or three specific things in mind that might advance the objectives of your organization. Would you be willing to host an event in your home or at your office? Would you be willing to serve on one of our committees? Would you come and speak to a group of our students (if the organization were a school)?

We know that those who become more involved end up making a greater financial contribution. This can be the point at which that involvement begins.

Can you recommend anyone else that we should invite to future events like this?

We must always be working to expand the size of our respective lists. People tend to know and socialize with others like themselves, so by making this inquiry, you are likely to be referred to other promising individuals.

Make Follow-Up an Organizational Imperative

When you follow up with a potential donor, you are validating the other person while improving the long-term giving potential for your organization. 

Done well, it is a win-win for everyone involved and an important habit to develop for yourself and your colleagues.

*You may be wondering why “follow-up” sometimes takes a hyphen and sometimes not. Well, as my children and grandchildren will tell you, I am a stickler for proper grammar in writing and speech. “Follow-up” is an unusual phrase in that it should be hyphenated when used as a noun or adjective, but not when used as a verb.