A bigwig in your community is called up to the stage to receive an award at a fundraising event or gala. They speak for a few minutes and then head back into the audience. Their wealthy friends cheer and slap them on the back.
Is this a fundraising strategy?
For some nonprofit organizations, it is.
For many nonprofits having an honoree at the annual gala is a tradition; a tried and true method of fundraising at special events.
If your nonprofit hasn’t yet boarded the guest of honor train, take an extra minute at the station and make sure this is something you really want to commit to. Because once you get on this train, it is almost impossible to get off. Know what your nonprofit is getting into before starting down this path.
Most nonprofits choose a well-connected, well-known, wealthy individual as their honoree. This is because they believe the honoree will invite their network to watch them receive the award at your event. The hope is that this group will make a large token donation in support of your organization and in honor of their friend who is receiving the recognition.
Most nonprofits choose to have an honoree because they believe the following formula is true:
Wealthy person + giving them award = wealthy person invites all their friends to see them receive reward
∴ Your organization reaches fundraising goal due to large donations from honoree and all their wealthy friends
This formula is not always true. In fact, this formula is often false.
We know that the best way to fundraise, especially for major gifts, is true donor cultivation. Unless your honoree and their network have already been cultivated as donors there is a high likelihood that they will not turn into long-term, major gift donors.
Instead, you may get a donation once, when they are being honored. Typically, unless properly cultivated and connected to your organization, honorees and their network will not attend your nonprofit special event again. And why should they? They received the award from your organization, they impressed their friends, and now they’re done.
This fundraising method is great for a quick infusion of cash, but it is not sustainable over the long-term.
However, if your nonprofit has found that the honoree method DOES work for you, following the tips below will ensure your continued success when honoring a member of your community.
Securing an Honoree
If the date of your annual gala is already set, start by making a list of four or five people in your community that you could honor at this event. It is best if these people are already connected to your nonprofit, but it is not an absolute necessity. A list of four or five potential honorees is key because it increases your chances of finding an honoree who is available on the date of your event.
If the date for your annual gala is not set and you have an honoree in mind, you should set the date of your gala around their schedule. This often means having a fundraising event on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Sunday because your honoree is so busy.
When soliciting guests of honor it’s important to have a game plan. You can’t just call the person up and expect them to say yes, especially if they have never heard of your organization before.
Networking is key. Introduce yourself to other people around your target honoree and work on educating them about your nonprofit’s work in the community. If one of your board members already has a connection to the honoree, ask them to reach out on behalf of the organization.
Have a reason for honoring the person. Don’t just pick a random wealthy person from your community in an attempt to secure a large donation. Learn about the prominent members of your community, the work they do, and their other philanthropic interests. Reach out to potential honorees that make sense for your nonprofit mission.
What to Do When They Say Yes
When they say yes, it’s best to put all your cards on the table. Set your expectations up front.
Explain what being honored means, what you expect them to do before the event, and what you need from them during the event. If you don’t lay out your expectations in advance you can easily end up in a situation where both parties are disappointed after the event.
Some common expectations are:
- Sponsoring the event and/or purchasing a table
- Encouraging their high net worth friends to attend
- Publicizing the event through their social media accounts
- Donating and/or purchasing live auction items
- Giving a speech
- Sitting on the host committee.
Honoree Best Practices
- Put your honoree’s name, picture, and a short bio on the invitation.
- Have them write personalized notes on the invitations for their close friends and connections.
- Consider creating a video about them and the work they have done to receive the award.
- Ask them to arrive early so you can take pictures without distractions.
- Decorate their table differently than the rest of the tables at your event. Consider a different color table cloth or a different, slightly larger centerpiece. Anything to make it stand out. Additionally, your honoree should have the best table, typically closest to the stage or podium. Make it obvious to others which table your honoree is sitting at and go out of your way to make sure they are comfortable.
- Follow up with them after the event. Make sure they were happy and get their honest feedback. You need to know what did and did not work so that you can adjust your process going forward.
In my opinion, it is better to spend your time cultivating major donors that know and care about your organization than researching and working with new honorees every year and hoping they donate to your organization.
I personally like honorees who are actually involved in the nonprofit organization; someone who gives their time and money every year. These are the people that really make a difference for your organization and truly deserve to be honored. But I also believe it’s better to receive $5K from a valued long-time donor and all his friends each and every year than to receive a one-time donation of $25,000 from an honoree that is not connected to you.