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One of the simultaneously most rewarding and most difficult aspects of nonprofit work is the reliance on community members to support an organization’s cause. It can be challenging to communicate the importance of a nonprofit’s work in a way that motivates action in others; however, when an organization does successfully reach those people, whether they be volunteers or simply curious parties, the results can be tremendous in terms of both generosity and support. For your group to see this kind of impact, you need to place an emphasis on helping outside individuals establish a personalized relationship with the cause at hand. The best time to create this one-one-one dynamic and instill a stronger connection with the issues at hand is your organization’s events. Fundraisers present valuable opportunities to generate a stronger understanding of and commitment to the given cause within the attendees. This may sound like a daunting task, but it all comes down to maximizing the available data and integrating it with existing customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Blackbaud to enhance the event experience for each individual.

The many uses of data for enhancing an event can be broken down into three categories: before, during, and after.

Planning the event

The planning and promotion of an event is your first opportunity to begin gathering valuable information about your invited guests. It’s your first point of contact with the attendees and, as we all know, a lot can be gained from a first impression.

As you collect the registration data, there are several beneficial methods of segmentation that can be implemented based on the information you receive. For example, has the attendee come to this event in the past? Better yet, has he been coming for the past several years and knows more about the event that the presenters? If this is the case, use that information to put a personalized touch on his event materials. He doesn’t need the background about the event itself, but might appreciate something more along the lines of a “Welcome back!”

Gaining this kind of valuable information ahead of time is simply a matter of asking the right questions. Initial submission and interest forms offer the opportunity to ask far more than simply names and titles. Use the chance to learn about an attendee’s background and goals, and you’ll be able to make strong connections with the right people before the event has even started.

At the show

When it comes to asking the right questions, it’s not all about learning how you can improve the pre-event experience; you can also use that data to personalize the event itself.

While larger components such as keynote speakers or auction items are often set in stone before registration data comes in, there are smaller finishing touches that can be put in place with less advance notice. Are some of your attendees vegan? They might appreciate some appetizers that reflect their dietary needs. Does someone go by her middle name? Show you paid attention by putting that on her nametag. Is there a group of people who spend their weekends hiking? Work your recent experience on the Appalachian Trail into the conversation when you introduce yourself.

The devil is in the details, and people will respond to that extra effort, or lack thereof. For nonprofits that run on the generosity of others, both in terms of time and money, personal connections can make all the difference. Data will open the doors to these more impactful gestures, which can lead to memorable nights for your attendees across the board.

The wrap-up

Your chance to put data to use isn’t over when the last guests leave. In the same way the pre-event registration questions create opportunities for customization, a well-crafted post-event questionnaire can be a valuable commodity. Your attendees appreciate personalized efforts before and during the show because it shows you’ve taken the time to appreciate their contributions; a survey following the event that asks for honest feedback — and then acts on it — demonstrates the same genuine interest and gratitude.

Which speaker was most well-received? What auction item motivated attendees to contribute their highest bids? Once your event data is fully integrated with your existing system, you can check which attendees are repeat donors, and whose average donations increased following the event. This information can help you gain a much clearer understanding of what worked and what didn’t, allowing you to reduce costs on unnecessary initiatives and ultimately improve the event’s overall effectiveness and return on investment. More importantly, these are the kind of highly beneficial adjustments that will result in even happier attendees the following year. Happy attendees are the same attendees who recruit their friends to come to the next event, and in the nonprofit community, that kind of word of mouth is the most valuable resource available. When you combine these sorts of customized touches before, during and after the event, you ensure your event becomes cost-effective and highly optimized to be more than just buzz; it becomes a catalyst for results. And all you need to make that happen is the right data.

Putting Data to Use for a Successful Nonprofit Event, September 15, 2014, NTEN, by Matthew Wainwright

Many boards never understand and utilize the potential each member has to invest in the organization. Having committed to a board, new members are often “on-boarded” out of any fresh, innovative, or challenging ideas they might have. Instead of grooming members to fill the usual skillset, I work to build stronger boards through understanding the value each member brings to the table.

As board members, we can work on building strength through a diversity of new members and a balance of ideas. I’m talking about bankers, artists, architects, techies, and venture capitalists just to mention a few. If we build our board from individuals who have different lenses on the world, who bring thought diversity, we will be able to approach our challenges from new perspectives.

I often remind organizations that board members made a commitment to the organization. Strength comes from honoring those commitments and listening for the interest and value each member has brought to the team. By listening to new members instead of telling them how we operate, I have found we are able to open our board up for change, to see the potential as well as new directions.

The Technique

I apply community-building techniques that re-examine the views and skills each member brings to the table. The method includes asking clarifying questions, active listening, and building understanding before approaching the challenges we face as board members. And, the technique has brought real impact. Through using it, one organization increased donations in one year by 400 percent. It all hinges on learning about each other, respecting our differing methods, and being open to new possibilities. Balancing the thought leaders on our board and allowing them to take ownership for their commitment to the organization builds real strength.

In the BLF session I will be leading on Building a Stronger Board, the participants will work in groups to explore this method. By asking clarifying questions and through active listening, the exercise helps uncover the value each member brings to the team. Commitment, diversity, perspective, and skills are explored in a more personal way that allows each member to get to know the other.

Part of strength also comes from solidifying commitment. Each board member may be able to contribute a range of skills. Each also has a number of commitments they balance. Understanding this ebb and flow can help increase the value your board members can bring to the organization. I have found it also helps in determining when a member should transition off. This type of personal examination can help members understand on their own when it’s time to move on.

How the board views and tells your organization’s story can also bring strength. What is it the board doesn’t know about me as a member? What value could I offer that has not been tapped into? The value and perspective each member has can enrich the way the organization’s message is relayed. As ambassadors for the organization, it’s important that we understand the organization’s story, but it’s equally important that as board member, I can own our part of it. Understanding how each member views the organization’s work will help us shape a stronger message.

The Method

The method I present is more about looking at board process and structure, not about solving problems like scarcity, need for funds, better leadership and how others should change. It focuses on replacing advice with curiosity and exploring an issue from all sides. It is in this search for deeper understanding that we are able to lift the cover on the root of our challenges. To learn what core issues are and how people outside the organization may see them. It leads to building a stronger board.

Are You Listening to Your Board Members?, September 25, 2014, Board Source, by Peter Zehren

Numerous recent studies and articles have pointed out the critical role of philanthropy in communities—not only in supporting the social sector, but also in creating a culture of civic engagement, caring, and trust. But how do you actually build a culture of philanthropy in a community?

I had been working in the nonprofit sector in New York for years when my husband suddenly received an incredible job opportunity in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time, I knew nothing of the social sector in Vegas—after all, when you think about Las Vegas, the first thing that comes to mind usually isn’t philanthropy.

We moved, and I soon joined the Moonridge Group, a catalyst organization that connects nonprofits and philanthropy, and facilitates community-wide initiatives. Our work focuses on growing philanthropy, building capacity in nonprofits, and ensuring that we increase collaboration and minimize duplication, particularly in Las Vegas. So far our greatest challenges have been community engagement, and building a culture and a legacy of philanthropy.

Las Vegas is a fascinating example of a big little town. It’s a city that essentially exists because of tourism, yet it’s also a thriving city with 2.2 million residents. It was one of the hardest hit by the recession and real estate bubble—and although the economy has rebounded, there are deep wounds. Like many other cities across the United States, Vegas has deep social needs and a low density of nonprofits. It is highly transient and, due to it’s relative youth, does not have an ingrained culture of philanthropy.

Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how you can build a culture of philanthropy, and we have refocused our organization as a result. Here’s what we know about what works:

1. Everything begins with engagement.

In communities where there isn't an established culture of board participation and volunteerism, it’s important to start by creating opportunities for fulfilling engagement. One specific thing we did was to create a better pipeline of volunteer leadership. We did this in a few ways. First, we launched a “board matchmaker” tool, which helps pair organizations that need board members with executives who are looking for a way to get involved and give back. We also wanted to make existing philanthropy more strategic and visible. We formed something called the Greater Good Council, which brings together individual and family foundations to engage in strategic, collective impact-like giving. Finally, we began guiding nonprofits toward creating structured volunteer opportunities for individuals and groups, knowing that once someone volunteers, they often develop a vested interest in supporting that organization into the future.

2. Although philanthropy should be strategic, it’s fundamentally personal.

Of course we all want philanthropists to engage in high-impact giving, but when you are starting off trying to build a culture and tradition of philanthropy, it’s most important to inspire people to give. We find that storytelling—sharing personal pathways to giving—works well. We implemented an annual Philanthropy Leaders Summit, where 150 community philanthropists engaged in conversations about how and why they give. We are also starting a video series featuring local leading philanthropists who share what inspires them.

3. You have to reach Millennials directly.

It’s also critical to reach out to and engage the next generation of philanthropists. We helped several nonprofits launch youth philanthropy groups, which focus on volunteering, personal experience, and professional development. We also involve youth in our Philanthropy Leaders Summit.

4. It’s important to help nonprofits better engage with the philanthropy community.

As the tide of philanthropy rises in a community, it’s important to ensure that nonprofits are equipped to accept and effectively steward contributions. We collaborate with other community organizations to create a spectrum of capacity-building services for nonprofits. We also work directly with organizations to develop clear communications with donors (for example, providing information such as “investment updates” to donors so that they can see how organizations are using their funds). We also launched a series of community roundtables to help nonprofits better understand the funding landscape—for example, this fall we will organize a summit with the Nevada Corporate Giving Council (which we helped form) and the Nonprofit CEO Advisory Council (convened by the United Way of Southern Nevada). There are always misconceptions on both sides in terms of funding needs and availability; this is just one step in the direction to better communications and collaboration.

Building a culture and tradition of philanthropy for an entire city is a massive undertaking, but it is vital. Like many communities across the country, Las Vegas has deep social needs, and it is up to all members of the community to help support their neighbors. It’s so inspiring to see a rising tide of national philanthropic efforts (such as the Billionaire’s Pledge)—but it all starts at home, in our communities.

Building a Culture of Philanthropy, September 19, 2014, Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Anna Pikovsky Auerbach