Archives for category: How To

I want to talk about dinner parties again, as a metaphor for nonprofit special events. I can’t pretend to be an expert, because I’ve only given a few, and my home is not what you’d call glamorous. (I think “rustic” is putting it kindly.) But I like to think that people can still have as great an experience dining in my rustic abode as they would in a marbled Newport Mansion.

And if we are to listen thoughtfully to editor Jan Masaoka at the indispensible nonprofit newsletter Blue Avocado, we agree nonprofits are all different. In her example, there’s Target, and there’s Williams-Sonoma. Both succeed, but with very different strategies. It’s most important that your nonprofit’s special event is aligned with your mission. (Some great examples can be found at Livestrong,  whose partnered events range from an actual and virtual chance to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro to a fashion show. )

Which brings me back to dinner parties, and the guest list. Who do you invite? Who do you want at the table?  According to my food-writing hero, MFK Fisher, the perfect guest list consists of one long-married couple, one somewhat newly-married couple, and a couple who should be married but doesn’t realize it.

How to use that in deciding on an invitation list for a nonprofit event? Start with dedicated supporters, always. They are the long-married couples of your dinner party. (If you check out Livestrong’s annual golf tournament, you’ll notice it’s been hosted by longtime supporters.)  Add some newlyweds – these would be new donors who have recently come on board, and deserve special attention. Finally, some great prospects — those who should be supporting your mission, but don’t yet realize it.

Finally, for sheer pleasure, I’ll end with this lovely, MFK Fisher-esque musing on dinner parties from one of my favorite style bloggers at Privilege.


The best dish I ever had at a dinner party was my friend’s ex-girlfriend’s adaptation of a chickpea curry. (This isn’t a picture of that, it’s a picture of a rustic apricot tart I made last summer. Don’t ask.) Most people like dinner parties. Even introverts like me enjoy good company, and if the food is well-made and the drinks delicious and the music interesting and the setting pleasant, there’s almost nothing better.

Dinner parties make people feel good. Maybe that’s why so many nonprofit leaders believe special events are a great way to plump up the bank account. Events are an easy sell, to the board and to the public. Staffers like to pitch in. Adrenaline pumps. Sometimes, the media calls. Fun is had.

The only thing that suffers is the organization’s account balance. Because, here’s a secret – studies show events are not a good way to raise money. This data from 2007 shows that it costs more than a dollar to raise a dollar. I’m no business major, but to me, this doesn’t add up to a great return on investment.

In this 2010 post, nonprofit consultant Susan McLaughlin asks, can you afford another special event?

Think about it this way. If you’re having trouble paying the heating bill, are you going to throw a roast in the oven, stock up on Bordeaux, and invite three other couples over? Well, maybe. But if your goal for the evening was to end up with more food than you started with, you’re better off saving your energy and eating cereal alone for dinner.

I believe nonprofits should have special events (just as folks on a budget should have dinner parties). But these need to happen for the right reasons, and in addition to – not instead of – other efforts at shoring up the bank balance. There’s nothing like an event to raise your profile and make people feel warm and fuzzy about your mission.  There are so many ways to leverage the good feelings that come from a successful soiree.

So, go ahead and plan your dinner parties for 2012. Just be sure you’re doing it for all the right reasons. And message me if you want that chickpea curry recipe.

A few weeks ago I made a shepherd’s pie for a potluck supper. (It wasn’t Alton Brown’s recipe, but I’m a fan of his, so that’s what I’ve linked to here.)

I wanted to use the leftover gravy from a pot roast I’d cooked earlier that week, so I rummaged in my fridge until I found a container of brown, viscous stuff and poured it in. As it blended with the meat and vegetables, I noticed that the texture was a little grainy, but I didn’t think twice about it.

I didn’t think twice because I was in that white heat mode of hurry, ticking off task after task, my internal engine revving as if I had downed six cups of coffee. This I s a feeling I’ve had all too often in the fundraising office, and one that fellow blogger Janet Levine rants about here.

Later, at dinner, my husband commented that there was a sweet taste to the dish he didn’t recognize. I’d eaten a scoop myself but was so distracted by the conversation that my eating was not as, well, mindful as we’re told it should be.

I tried some of the pie again; he was right. And then I realized that in my hurry, instead of mixing the filling with gravy, I’d mixed it with the applesauce I’d made wth the last of the bag of utility apples from the orchard up the road.

None of my friends mentioned that my food tasted funny. It did, eventually, get eaten. It was … okay. But I know that if I’d taken the time to do it right, the casserole would have been a whole lot better. Next time I’m faced with competing priorities, I’ll remember my inadvertent, applesauce shepherd’s pie.

Not only is my head is spinning with last-minute holiday obligations, but it’s filled with thoughts of what this time of year means. After reading more about the winter solstice, I’ve been ruminating about the immense good fortune most of us have to be living in such abundance.  For centuries, January through April were traditionally famine months in temperate climates like mine. This reminds me of how very new – and maybe fragile – our current food storage and distribution systems are.

At the same time, I came across the best fundraising blog ever, Nell Edgington’s Social Velocity – and her reference to nonprofits’ “starvation cycle.” This term is new to me but it’s been around for some time – the article I’ve linked to is from 2009. In a nutshell, funding overhead is not sexy, but it is necessary.  I think the same applies to the issue of human hunger. And again, I feel lucky.

In her latest post, Edginton refers to “the nonprofit sector’s proclivity to endlessly beat around the bush, tell donors what they want to hear, and sugar-coat the truth.” This is something I addressed in my second blog post.  I think it will be a perennial problem for fundraising communications.

I’ll leave you with the best recipes ever for chocolate bark – I’ve kitchen-tested these myself with thrilling results. Now, I’m off to my errands and make a gift to my local food bank.

Happy holidays!

Here’s my confession; I think Thanksgiving food is boring. I love to cook and I love to host, but that holiday menu is so, well, dull. Every item is pretty much its own thing. Turkey. Potatoes. Squash. Snooze.

As an annual fundraiser, I have felt the same way about solicitation methods. Phone.  Mail.  Email.  Egads. Taken singly, they are enjoyable, but not exciting. For me, the fun begins when I can think of ways to combine two or more of these ingredients into a tastier concoction. I’m pretty sure this is what they mean by multichannel marketing. Or, more specifically to fundraising, integrated solicitations.

When I host Thanksgiving, I know better than to mess with tradition. For example, I wouldn’t dream of putting wasabi in the mashed potatoes (which is something I’ve been seeing at local eateries.) Similarly, when I’m communicating with a group of donors, I understand that some are traditionalists. They like to make their one gift in December, and they like to give via the response mechanism in their annual solicitation letter.

And yet – don’t get me wrong, I enjoy eating the traditional meal as much as the next person – I am never as happy as when it’s time to be creative with the leftovers. Turkey sandwiches with slices of stuffing and a dollop of cranberry sauce are classic. So is the post-holiday pot pie. There are wonderful recipes for post-Thanksgiving turkey soup. For years, I didn’t know what to do with all that leftover squash, but then I found this delicious casserole.

In the same way, other donors respond to a mix of messages and methods.

These donors might like an email spiced with news about a favorite program, layered with links to giving opportunities and topped off with a fun holiday animation. They might like a phone call that wraps a personal thank-you around a meaty update on how their gift has helped, followed up by a mailed note. They could find themselves sampling a planned giving website that was served up as a link in a letter.

I’m all for keeping the meat and potatoes going strong, but I think the future in fundraising might lie in more flavorful combinations. What do you think?

Making Turkey Soup

Striped Bass

As a fund raiser working with limited resources, I’ve often found it easy to make decisions based on the old saying “fish where the fish are.” In other words, if my organization has 30,000 prospects but only enough resources to solicit 10,000, I will plan to solicit the 10,000 that have previously given to our institution.

Last week, I was lucky enough to literally go fishing, off the coast of New Jersey, with this charter company.  It was a new experience for me, and I was fascinated as the captain and the mate kept checking the sonar. We’d stop whenever we were above a large school of fish, and drop our lines, jigging along the bottom to tempt the striped bass.

It was a clear and cold run out to the fishing grounds, and we had spectacular luck. We caught our limit of bass in about an hour, and spent the rest of the morning zig-zagging along the shore, catching and releasing more bass, shark, and bluefish.

But at some point, about 10 a.m., the fish stopped biting. All of them.  Our guides said it often happens and they didn’t exactly understand why. Even the most seasoned outdoorspeople admit that they can’t do anything when the fish don’t bite. The sonar showed we were sitting on top of what they called a “pig pile” of bass, and yet not one of them responded to our lures.

I think it’s helpful to remember this can happen in fund raising, too. Sometimes we are appealing to the right prospects, but for some reason, they don’t respond. There could be any number of reasons, but they’re all beyond our control. You can do everything right — use the best technology to sort out our seas of data, hone the most alluring message to a sharp point – but none of it matters if the fish just aren’t biting.

The only thing to do is to refresh our dedication to our missions and try, try again. Is that how you cope?

Once a year I struggle with mashed potatoes. I love potatoes in almost all the ways they can be had – as chips and fries (unfortunately for my waistline), baked, roasted, home-fried, what-have-you. But I never liked them mashed.

Bear with me – this is about communications, I promise.

My lack of love for mashed presents a problem each Thanksgiving, when the dear members of my family gather in my home for the annual feast. Everyone else loves mashed potatoes – they represent the holiday as much as turkey does –   so of course I serve them. Over the years, I’ve found a good recipe or two, and I feel confident they are up to par. Still, if it were up to me, they wouldn’t even be on the menu.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is what my audience wants, and I think that’s a mistake that a lot of organizations make in their communications. People tend to create what they like to consume, whether it’s a side dish or a solicitation letter.

If I could give one piece of advice to would-be successful communicators, it’s this: pay attention to your audience. They will surprise you.

I once worked at an educational institution that sent out a holiday card appeal each December. Each year, the card was similar – photos of happy, smiling student faces with a brief sentence or two. Everyone felt this was what donors responded to. One year, an interim director decided to change things up. He used a wintry campus landscape photo and an excerpt from a poem. The appeal brought in twice the amount of money it had the year before. Was it a fluke? We used the same formula the next year and it outperformed the previous. Contrary to original assumptions, it was what our donors responded to.

This shows that you need to pay attention to the audience, but don’t ignore your own taste buds completely. I recently took a chance on serving an apple, fennel and olive salad to half a dozen guests, and they loved it. It was gratifying, but the stakes weren’t particularly high – I wouldn’t have experimented with the entrée (chicken parmesan).

As you look over your communications schedule for the year, think about your audience as dinner guests. Does your menu include mashed potatoes? If the answer is yes, your bases are covered. Then go ahead and try a fennel salad with a small test group to see if they like the same things you do.