Promotion on a Skinny Budget with a Committee of Volunteers

comedy-web-banner2Recently, I initiated and managed a fundraising event for my synagogue on the skinniest of budgets. It was a comedy night featuring three comedians. It came off beautifully, with nearly 150 people attending including folks who had seen our publicity on telephone polls, on the web, at storefronts, and others who heard about us via phone, direct mail, and word-of-mouth. The feedback: It was a terrific night and, moreover, garnered net profits of $4,000.

Since there must be others wondering how to pull off an event like this, I share what I learned.

First, a word about what “skinny budget” entails:
• A budget so compact that even paid advertising for a week was nixed by the committee;
• A pool of effort that relied almost totally on volunteer commitment, and these folks were already busy, busy, busy;
• A historical pattern of one-off fundraising events that earned a few thousand dollars and consequently, a risk-averse posture among volunteers: “Don’t increase expenditures beyond what we did the last time” … or “Don’t increase the breakeven point.”

An additional complication: We planned a Saturday evening event in the winter, in the Northeast. Not only was the weather unsure on any given night, but also due to highly uncooperative Mother Nature–this year in particular being her worst tirade in memory—people were reluctant to buy advance tickets. This can become a planning disaster, so work smart to forecast attendees and get tickets sold beforehand.

Nine lessons learned to make your fundraising event successful:

1. Make all your graphics at the outset. This includes:
• Direct mail postcards for the target mailing as well as plenty for everyone to post at the local Starbucks, the hairdresser’s, the post office, gym bulletin boards, auto mechanic waiting areas, medical offices, and everywhere. Consider mailing to friends of friends at the same time you send to the mailing list, gaining the benefit of the cheaper bulk mail rate.
• A full-color 3’ by 5’ banner, to be placed in front of the house of worship, as close to passing cars as possible
• Stocks of telephone pole posters, 11” by 17”
• Small, square low-resolution images with the most important text, for uploading to Facebook
• Low-resolution images for embedding into emails, all text included
• Low-resolution banner without text, for uploads to “Add an Event” tabs on local newspaper/media sites, since these have separate fields for text

Since our graphics contained saturated background color, we also made an 8.5” by 11” poster in pdf format that could be printed easily and cheaply in large quantities from our office printer or personal home printers, on the fly.

Ensure that all your collateral points to a unique landing page for that event–not your entity’s home page.

2. Develop a list of local publications, both online and offline, for sending your Press Release.

Write to individual journalists. Offer them the “hook” to craft a news item from your event, or to recommend the gig in a more prominent way in a weekend section. Remember that a human being decides which events to put at the top of a page, or before the “click-through” button of an email tickler.

Sometimes if you write to reporters one by one, you get a personal follow-up. At other times, you get a response containing precise instructions, for example, a directive for getting into the New York Times weekend section. Or you get an updated email address to keep your list of media contacts current.

I found sending from my personal Gmail account was better than sending from a mail server. Yes, automation makes it quicker, but nowadays, when social and promotional emails are being auto-filtered, something from a personal account is more likely to reach the recipient’s Inbox.

3. Develop a comprehensive calendar and time line for committee meetings and purchasing/organizing deadlines.

Set all meeting dates and times at the outset, for every week leading up to your event. Ask for RSVPs from volunteers for each meeting, create meeting agendas, and share task lists from your notes.

4. Create a FAQ sheet for the office and every committee member that anticipates questions.

5. Create two classes of tickets: patrons and regular. We charge slightly more for patrons, and in recognition, had table toppers listing patrons’ names.

6. Get a temporary liquor license. This is easy to do now that the New York State Liquor Authority has switched to an online application. You can smile and execute in your bunny slippers. Takes two weeks, and the license comes to your Inbox!

7. Offer multiple payment options and track registrants.

Given the fact that most of our congregation is older and unused to ecommerce, we offered two ways of paying—PayPal and check. Be sure the person who steers the committee is copied on PayPal ticket purchases in addition to the bookkeeper; otherwise one hand doesn’t know what the other sees.

Create a customized thank you page at the end of the PayPal checkout, informing that tickets will be held for pickup on the night of the show. Cut down on mailing, time, and cost, as well as confusion.

Create an Excel spreadsheet showing event registrants and how they paid, carefully tracking check payments and PayPal payments. If people buy tickets for guests, be sure to get the guest’s names so you don’t double count attendees.

8. Spread the word via multiple touch points, everyone in “sell” mode.

Robocalling. We made two rounds of robocalls to every member household, which is a very inexpensive way to keep folks aware and excited.

Starting two months’ out, every committee member should email everyone they know, and include a personal message and the embedded (NOT attached; people don’t want to open attachments nowadays) graphic. Then, add a follow-up one month out, and a gentle reminder the week before.

Send direct mail postcards to every household and all your friends, your friends of friends, your enemies, and your neighbors. Print twice as many as you think you will use. And, then use them.

Activate all arms of your organization. For example, we have an Early Childhood Center (ECC), a Religious School (for kids k-8th grade), Youth Groups (7th-12th grades), Young Families group, and Sisterhood. Find one person within each entity to become the point person for promotion. For example, in the case of the ECC, all folks received a postcard stuffed into cubbies plus emails from their “inside promoter.” So parents were apprised of the event multiple times in multiple ways.

Go up a level in your org chart and be sure to press every Officer (Board of Trustees and/or Executive Committee) into collaborating.

Print up tickets, number them, and ask every Officer to sell six tickets. Then, circle back to them for names, payment, etc. Really lobby these folks—they are individuals who can serve as an extension to your committee volunteers. Sometimes it may feel you are being pushy. So be pushy, but be polite and keep smiling as you do your work!

Suggest tickets as a “giveaway” by professionals for their colleagues, i.e., two tickets are perfect as a prize for “Employee of the Month” at most any office, or as part of a Holiday basket of bonus money plus two event tickets.

Ask everyone on your committee to put “each one reach one” into overdrive in the last two weeks. Befriend the phone and have every one calling whomever they know, personally inviting others. I found there is simply no substitute for personal phone calls. Very labor intensive, but it cannot be overlooked. And it is the best way to forecast attendance and collect monies in advance.

Post the event regularly on your organization’s Facebook page, including via promoted posts. Have individual committee members likewise use their social media profiles to build awareness and spread the word.

9. Consider auctioning off three big-ticket prizes.

With advance planning, weekend vacation homes or sports tickets are a great add-on to incorporate.

If your event is a success, build it bigger the next year!