CMDI developed some tips and tricks while helping our 2012 campaign clients raise over $488 million in funds from events. Luckily, we weren’t obligated to attend every one of those thousands of rubber chicken dinners, but we did observe more than our fair share of stump speeches and political rallies—picking up a thing or two about the current state of political event fundraising along the way.
These dos and don’ts should help your events be as productive as possible:
DO use a fundraising data management system to ensure you’re matching the appropriate prospective donors with an event that has the highest probability of generating a donation. Inviting low-dollar donors to a black-tie, high-dollar event is a waste of resources and could be very of-putting to your prospect. Conversely, inviting high-dollar donors to attend a pep rally at the local high school could be a serious social faux pas.
DO track all RSVPs and responses. Closely tracking who has responded and how will help you get the right butts in the right seats. Make sure your VIPs get follow-up calls. If someone declines the invite, send a new invite out to the next prospect on your target list.
DON’T keep your guests waiting. Long lulls between when the doors open, when the drinks (and food to a lesser extent) are served, and when the surrogates or the MC approaches the platform, as well as late candidate appearances are party killers.
DO create timelines. You’ll actually need three timelines. The first comes three months prior to the event for invitation order and drop times, RSVP cutoff dates and things like meetings with the caterer. The second timeline is for event setup and reads: 1:00 setup crew arrives at venue; 3:00 florist drops of centerpieces; 4:30 staff arrives for evening instructions and so on.
Lastly, you’ll need a program timeline, which should look something like this: 5:30 doors open and guests are escorted to their seats; 6:00 CEO welcomes guests; 6:05 salad is served; 6:20 dinner is served; 6:45 dessert is served; 6:55 slideshow starts; 7:00 surrogate introduces candidate. These lists take time, but your whole committee will be on the same page and your guests will notice.
DO set up a process for collecting spontaneous donations on-site. Be ready to collect a donation from the unexpected guest of an invitee. How are you going to handle it when someone who rejected your invite shows up? What about that spontaneous donation? Be sure to have a process for collecting checks and processing credit cards in real time. Consider FEC-compliant smartphone apps that allow you to pull up a prospect’s record and process their credit card simply by swiping or entering the number. Not only is having guests put their credit card information on paper a huge security risk, but it also leads to typos, rejected card numbers and follow-up calls to confirm giver information.
DON’T skimp. We’ve all been to parties (social or work-related) where the people hosting it are way better guests than party planners. The plates are so cheap they bend at the sight of a meatball, the food is gone in the first 30 minutes and the beverage glasses are Dixie cups. When you leave, you remember what went wrong but you’re hard-pressed to list the positives.
DO invest in making your event successful. You don’t have to spend a fortune to throw a great event. After all, you’re a scrappy political campaign and you don’t want to seem frivolous with your funds. Instead of buying 10 dozen expensive shrimp, go for the 15 dozen chicken skewers to ensure everyone gets their fill. If it’s a casual event, forego the china but use heavy paper products and silver-colored utensils. There are a ton of great party products that are budget-friendly and much nicer than disposables of the past. Obviously, you’ll need to factor your choice of venue, meal options and favors into the cost of the event. Come of stingy and you’ll lose your audience. Treat your guests right and they’ll be back—with friends.
DON’T let your event drag on. As a rule of thumb, three hours is plenty of time to feed and entertain your guests and hit them up for a donation. Any longer and they’ll go into a food coma. I’ve been to events where there’s a slideshow, guest singer, guest surrogate speaker, candidate speech, donation ask, testimonies, campaign strategy overview, and candidate bio movie.
On a Friday night after a long work week, supporters want to do their good deed, network with the candidate, see and be seen, eat some decent food, and get home. When it hits four hours, many guests will leave regardless of where you are in your program.
DO leave them wanting more. Here’s my generic formula: an hour to eat, an hour-long presentation and a half-hour before and after to socialize and schmooze with the candidate or surrogates. Clearly, your guests are interested in your campaign or else they wouldn’t attend, but you can’t cram every aspect of your candidate backstory, interests and plan for the country’s future into one evening—so don’t try.
DON’T forget to say thank you. Many events are hosted at a supporter’s home or organized by a bundler. A nice bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers for the hostess are both worthy signs of appreciation. You should also send a thank you letter to your guests for both their donation and taking the time to attend. The sooner you do this, the better.
DO have fun. The best parties are the ones where the host is having a blast. You and your staff are going to set the tone for the party and represent the personality of your organization. Yes, it’s hard work, but take the time to breathe and enjoy the evening.
Erik Nilsson runs sales and marketing for CMDI, the largest Republican fundraising technology platform.