Menus, Venues and lack of Revenues – Why do Leaders like Major Donor events?

This is a question that I have pondered for many years.   They are hugely time consuming and often do not achieve what they were set out to do.  So why do Major Gifts Executives buckle under the pressure of their leaders?   Here are some reasons that potentially mist up our thinking:

  • Budget is magically released for events (so of course you have no excuse)
  • Leaders feel a sense of achievement circulating within a room full of corporate leaders
  • There is a great sense of well being at ‘presenting’ to high level individuals
  • It is certainly something to discuss at the next Chief Executives’ networking forum (oooh that was super cynical)
  • Great excuse to partake of lovely food, wine and ambience
  • Wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to Trustees how far the charity has advanced

The fact of the matter is that:

  • Leaders do not read the briefing material thoroughly and are not equipped
  • A Chief Executive is often ‘too busy’ to prepare his or her presentation thoroughly and frequently prepares last minute causing the MGE a late night
  • Worse – they wing it!
  • They do not follow the very carefully timed plan
  • Do not follow the MGE’s guidance on what is suitable for the group but speak on their favourite topic
  • Speak for too long (there is something very fulfilling at proclamation to such a prestigious group)
  • Leaders do not write up their conversation notes on each person sufficiently for the MGE to follow up each conversation

All in all – sadly – the event comes and goes and not much has changed in the development of the Major Gifts Programme in your organisation.  Your leaders feel fulfilled.  They played their part well.    However, if no results come from the event, then of course it was the MGE’s fault for not following up sufficiently.

Please forgive me for presenting this so cynically.  But honestly I have seen this happen time and time (and time) again.  There are lots of down sides to hosting an event:

  • The Major Gift Executive’s time is absorbed in trying to make this a success (after all Trustees will be there)
  • Time is taken away from the true role of building relationships with high level individuals one by one
  • More time is spent on menus, venues and lack of revenues (I like that – just made it up!)
  • The Major Donor Programme is ‘on hold’ while everyone focuses on the event
  • It is unlikely to raise the revenue that seemed so promising

So let’s balance this with a positive view of events and their use.

Firstly, some events can work really well.   I have observed success in two ways in particular:

  1. Gathering philanthropists who already know you and have a growing relationship with your organisation.   Individuals who are ‘qualified’ on to the Major Gifts Executive’s caseload (forgive the jargon!  To find out more on these topics read former blogs at  They are likely to come because they know you and like you.  It is an opportunity to introduce them more widely to others in the organisation, to hear strategy and better still – beneficiary stories that will endear them even further to your cause.  Also to meet others of like mind who support you.
  1. Gathering prospects (not cold ones as honestly – why would they come?) who are more distant from your cause but will come because a friend invited them or they are interested to hear a well known ‘name’ speak (make sure you have one). However you have to work super hard to engage with them personally at the event (route the Chief Executive on welcoming to speak to each one) and have a stringent follow up plan for each individual.   Without this there is actually no point in hosting the event in the first place.

What do I mean by ‘work really well’?   I don’t mean revenue.  We actually don’t want individuals to give £’s at the event.  If they do it will be ill considered and inevitably much lower than it could be.   ‘Success’ is engaging the person/couple (attracting their interest – look for that sparkle in their eye – what subject brings them alive?) enough to take a next step with your organisation.   This next step could be going to meet them for 30 minutes, sending them a little more detail (don’t overdo it) on the aspect of your work that they spoke to you about at the event, encouraging them to visit your headquarters.

This requires much listening on your part so you are able to ‘hear’ where their interest lies and what will be the most effective next step.

The movement from the event along a series of planned ‘touch points’ will bring them closer to your work and closer to making a substantial gift.

Because this is intensive and highly focused, small events are more effective, small and personal so you can meet everyone and have some quality control.

Also some Chief Executives are really excellent at supporting the Major Gifts Programme.  They are happy to be briefed and understand that it takes time to build a solid relationship with a potential philanthropist.  These are the ones who have listened and learned their important role in the cultivation of each wealthy individual.   They are happy to be part of the team and look forward to hearing what the Major Gifts Executive would like them to do.   They know that it is an important part of their job as a Chief Executive and they don’t just ‘talk at’ Major Donors, they listen to their heart, what they want to achieve, their values and engage with them accordingly.  This takes time to develop.  In my experience a minimum of three years for a CEO to fully understand and practise.

If you do need a big event to keep leaders happy then make sure you have sufficient administrative support for the event organisation.   That is probably enough to encourage some discussion, please let me know your thoughts here ……

Ruth is the principal and founder of Ascent Philanthropy, author of two books and passionate about helping non-profits with their major gift programmes by offering advice for introducing a new major gift programme or enhancing the productivity of the philanthropy team

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