Northwest Network - Autumn 2014

Unpacking Signature Events

Saturday, 10 November 2012: 9:30am-5:00pm

Leach Botanical Gardens
6704 SE 122nd Ave
Portland, OR 97236


How does your organization create signature events and use them to raise money, attract people, and thank supporters. How does your organization sequence events so they are sustainable long term. What has your organization done successfully and what not?

Samantha Swaim of Swaim Fundraising LLC gave the presentation. She has been in nonprofit fundraising and event production for over 20 years and has a passion for working for a purpose with non-profits. Her presentation demonstrated how well she has integrated her experience in theatre & TV production into her consultation business and event planning to the benefit of those which whom she works.

The workshop: An overview on creating a fundraising event, one of the most important events for our organizations

Samantha Swaim began the morning session by asking each participant to discuss why they were involved with the organization they were representing and what events their organization was planning. This exchange gave people in the room some idea of what in each organization draws people to it and some insight into the variety of events possible.

The Philanthropic climate:

Then, she began her discussion of event planning fund raising events; she discussed the relevant philanthropic environment. Non-profit organizations have diverse revenue streams and use them all to achieve financial sustainability. Swaim mentioned the following:

    • Grants
    • Individual donors
    • Major donors
    • Corporate sponsorship
    • Earned income: memberships tickets, gift shops, tours
    • Events

Trends in giving indicated that no NPO can depend solely on philanthropic foundations giving and grants in the 21st century. Foundation giving has shrunk and grants, in general, have also. Private donors as a source of funds for non-profits have increased and their contributions account for 88% of giving annually today. A further indication of the importance of individual giving is that while donations have increased 3%, in the last year, the donations made by individuals last year rose 12.3%. (Source for these figures is the Chronical of Philanthropy 2014)

Fund raising events are important in our current giving climate because 87%of private major donors prefer giving at events.

There are a variety of types of fundraising events and the types of events your organization chooses to put on should be designed to match the audience’s place in what is termed the cultivation cycle. The phases in this cycle are: acquisition, cultivation, major donor, and stewardship-legacy.

    • Acquisition events would include special tours, lectures, and plant sales
    • Cultivation events would include receptions, dinners, and honoree recognition gatherings
    • Major donor events would include galas, private dinners, or receptions
    • Stewardship-legacy events would include planned giving seminars, and naming events

Your organization will likely put on more than one type of event each year and knowing your audience for each event helps you to organize it to best effect.

Knowing why individuals give also helps in organizing each event. People, Samantha Swaim indicated, give for three reasons: a) they want to be a part of something, b) they want to be known and recognized for what they do, and c) they want to make a difference.

Organizing a major donor event:

When you plan a major donor fundraiser think of it as event fundraising as this is the most important goal you have for the event. Develop your activities around two things: relationships and storytelling and you blend the two to increase the dollars given.

The four key techniques which you use to build an event fundraiser:

  1. Focus the attention of the crowd where you want it. being aware of the limits of the human attention span (human economics)

Samantha gave us a diagram of the major donor event from beginning to end: the start; the cocktail hour; the seating of the guests; and the program: welcome, the first part of a live auction, the appeal story, the special appeal, the collection, the second portion of the live auction, entertainment, honors and thank yous and the closing.

The energy in the room should build as the event progresses and peak when the special appeal is made and then, taper to the departure. This is described as the fundraising event arch. If you are going to achieve the best ROI the event arch is all important. Because emotion is as critical to success in soliciting donations as is fulfilling your mission, all of the emotive elements of your program should connect to your organization’s vision and mission. Your program speakers should be compelling and brief. They should not tell the whole story of your organization, they should focus on that which successfully raises funds. Celebrate the work of the organization, set priorities with you audience in mind and do not try to do too much. Keep a sharp eye on the passage of time and keep to a schedule which does not exhaust people mentally or emotionally. At the end the entertainment gives people a chance to further their acquaintance and recognize one another for their giving.

  1. Give people participating in the event an opportunity to initiate or further relationships, design this into the event.

Give people libation and snacks and time to talk with one another (cocktail hour) Give people entertainment they can enjoy together and time to talk to one another.

  1. Focus on your goal of raising money using people emotional connection to you mission, so you have a good ROI.

There are things you can do before, during and after the event to improve your ROI:

Before the event:

Sponsorships—Sponsorships help your organization with expenses for an event either by contributions of money or goods or services. Sponsorships are not a form of philanthropy. A sponsor does not achieve any tax relief for sponsorships and most businesses consider sponsorship as a form of advertising. They consider that they are paying a fee to you for a benefit they receive. Your organization needs to be aware of this and give each sponsor what they consider benefits that recognizes the value of their sponsorship. Sponsorship offers your business partners marketing in the form of direct customer contact, advertising exposure through your publications, and the community recognition that the sponsoring business is a supporter of your mission. Sponsorship arrangements should be negotiated and often are year or multi-year commitments. The sponsors should be able to pick the events with which they would like to be associated during your calendar year of activities. The benefits they receive: mention in the program, a table at your gala event, a mention in your newsletter, etc. should be clear to them and to your organization.

Ticket sales—sell tickets to the event

Pre-committed giving-– Make arrangements with major donors which take the form of commitments to bid on certain items in the live auction at predetermined levels and commitments for certain levels of donation in response to the special appeal

Collect Stories—collect the stories you think have potential for use at the fundraiser form donors, volunteers and visitors.

During the event:

Include the following--a special appeal, a live auction and or a silent auction or both, and raffles and games. (Live auctions generally raise more money per item than do silent auctions. The recognition for giving that donors appreciate is partly responsible for this.)

Keep your event logistics as simple as possible; remember you have a limited time in which to make your pitch so keep your program and speakers focused, brief, and informative. The room layout should help focus people on the program and speakers; the quality of your sound system should be good; the guests should be comfortable; and to facilitate giving it is helpful if people are relaxed, serving alcohol is one good way to facilitate relaxation.

After the event:

Send thank yous and acknowledgements

  1. You need a program, the program is the heart of your fundraiser and to be most effective, it should be honed by an understanding of why people give. The program should be handled as if it were a drama orchestrated to promote giving.

You want to use the program to build the energy arch, focusing people on their relationship to your organization. Begin from the mission your organization has, the why of its existence, and show your guests how they can make a difference by giving to your organization. The ideal way to sequence your program in this current giving environment, as mentioned before, is: a brief welcome to your event guests, the first phase of a live auction (which introduces the giving money to your organization at the event), a speaker who sets the stage for the special appeal, a speaker who makes the special appeal, the collection of donations, the second phase of a live auction, thank yous and acknowledgements, entertainment, a closure to the event.

Your decisions about who should speak and when should support the event arch. Identify speakers who can connect to the audience emotionally. The story told should directly relate to the work of your organization and its mission. Each speaker should capitalize on the emotional impact of the previous speaker and continue to link that emotion with the organization building to the request for donations.

The story told in the special appeal should be carefully constructed to convey why your organization exists, its mission its vision. When people speak about vision, the message goes to the part of the brain in which decisions are made and in which feelings are held, the limbic brain.

The story should include an example of how your mission has been realized using a specific example of when your mission was realized to good effect. Use this person’s experience as a symbol of the impact your organization has realizing its mission. People are able to empathize more easily with one person or a few people than with many. Empathy is more likely to yield action than thought.

While the statistics your organization collects may be employed to support your argument, do not use them. They are ineffective in motivating people to give, in part because they appeal to the rational part of your mind, the neocortex, and not the decision making part of the mind. Currently, the special appeal often takes the form of a video which is designed to connect your organizations mission to an emotionally significant life experience of an individual or individuals. The video format allows you to create an engaging, concise story in a compelling format.

In summary your program should tell a story of how the vision of your organization has been realized in the experience of one or a small group of people with whom a potential donor can relate. This tale demonstrates the effectiveness of your organization. Please visit the posted video of the TED talk given by Simon Sinek to see an explanation of why the special appeal is structured as Samantha has recommended. URL:

Another website to visit which gives some information on decision making is URL:

The special appeal is followed by a request for donations. “The ask” should be compelling – it should be a call to action. It is best if the ask is not be made by someone from the staff of your organization, but a volunteer. Collect donations then and there. When the collection is undertaken in a manner in which those donating are immediately recognized for their donation, the amounts given are usually greater. After donations are collected, you can hold the 2nd phase of the live auction so people who failed to participate in the direct donation fundraising have an opportunity to contribute in another fashion.

Plan your appeal using past giving information, which you should be recording. Organize your appeal to maximize contributions. If most of your donors at a similar past event were in the 50.00 range you can try to move them to a 100.00 contribution. You could use a matching gift for those who give at the 100.00 level to entice people from the $50.00 level to the $100.00 level.

Taylor your event fundraiser to the audience you are inviting:

While your event needs to contain the four elements for success, the exact form it takes can vary and should take into account the preferences of the potential donors who will be in attendance. You can ask your donors what they would like.

What are the relationships your organization has with the people attending the event and what relationships do they have with one another? Knowing this can aid in your ability to structure the event to strengthen relationships as well as raise money.

If your major donors have a strong preference for silent auctions forgo live auctions, and do a raffle or something else to make up for the difference in giving amounts.

The Swaim Strategies website has much useful information URL: Samantha has also made her power point presentation available. If you would like a copy, please let Tanya DeMarsh-Dodson know (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Question and answer time:

Samantha Swaim suggested that both the live auction and the active collection of donations usually resulted in greater donations because in both instances the donors are immediately recognized by the guests and other at the event for their contributions.

The tour of the Leach Garden was enjoyed by all.

General Meeting

Project reports:

The GCNN website: The website was down due to host problems for the site. The site has been back up as of the middle of November thanks to Ben Streissguth and he is working to update it.

GCNN Survey 2014 Results: Thank you to all who were able to complete the survey, this information aids the national office in keeping our granting agency informed of the value of their investments in the organization and it also is important to me and to the steering committee in making decisions about what to do in the future.


  1. What is this organization doing right?

The workshops are appreciated my most responders for their educational value most responders also mentioned that they appreciated the networking and sharing opportunities the organization offered.

In what ways has your organization benefited from your membership and participation in the GCNN workshops, resource sharing, networking, and communication about horticultural events and public gardens in our region? Many replied that they benefited from the education their volunteers and staff have received and the networking and associations they have developed with people from other organizations People feel comfortable sharing information with one another. Others commented that it is heartening to know other organizations face similar challenges and to visit gardens you might not otherwise see.

  1. What could this organization do better?

There were several suggestions: more of a web presence for the public and members including an archive of documents, more promotion of gardens and horticultural educational programs here in the Pacific Northwest, educate the public to appreciate horticulture and public gardens, support greater interaction among members in between meetings. One suggestion was that the organization keep member gardens better connected through publishing a newsletter which could list upcoming events, links to resources for our organizations. Another suggested that they would like to know what issues other membership organizations are having.

  1. Is there something this organization might do that it has not done that would benefit member organizations?

There was one request to know how the GCNN fits into the overall vision of the Garden Conservancy, two suggestions that the organization initiate a more active approach to promoting member organizations gardens and attendance at educational events.

  1. What single benefit of membership do you value most?

4 respondents suggested they most valued the workshops, 3 respondents the networking with people in other organizations, one respondent mentioned the contact information received after every workshop as useful

  1. Have you collaborated or partnered with other GCNN organizations? If so with what organizations have you collaborated with and what was the nature of your joint venture?

One respondent did not answer, 5 indicated they had cooperated with other member organizations, and 2 indicated they had not cooperated with other organizations

  1. Would you be willing and able to pay 125.00 for an annual membership in the GCNN with 25.00 going to the cost of evolving and maintaining the GCNN website?

Yes: 6 respondent No: 1 respondent

Are there any considerations you would like to mention? 1 respondent abstained

  1. What style of website for the GCNN would you prefer:

a. A sparse, trendy website that changes design frequently

1 respondent

b. A fully featured website that focuses on content and changes design less frequently?

6 respondents

  1. If we are to use the GCNN website to promote communication within the organization would you be more likely to use either/ both:

a. An online document repository for the group

2 respondents

b. A blog-forum for the group

1 respondent

c. Both

4 respondents

Workshops for 2015: The spring 2015 workshop will be at the Bellevue Botanical Garden on Saturday 21 February the topic for the workshop is Interpretation in Action. Nancy Kartes and her staff will do a presentation on the public face of the interpretive work that comes from the interactive plant accessions database. In the afternoon she asked that we have a discussion which would include how other gardens have put interpretation into action in their gardens.

The autumn workshop will be at the Lord and Schryver home garden in Salem, Oregon. Soon you will be receiving a questioner which will aid in determining the date of the event in September-October and the topic of the workshop.

Return to top


Last update: 18 February, 2018