Make sure your guests have a wonderful time!

Gail’s Guide to Brilliant Major Gift Cultivation Events

You’re having events all the time – to open doors, make friends, cultivate potential supporters and thank your current donors.

Make sure your guests have a wonderful time!

Make sure your guests have a wonderful time!

All of these gatherings are wonderful opportunities to bring people closer to your organization.

I LOVE events as cultivation opportunities! Why? Because it’s easier to engage donors in a conversation when you are being social.

The setting is not as formal and intimidating as an office visit. The donor is more relaxed and so are you.

Here are just a few things you can find out from a simple conversation with a prospect at an event:

  • how enthusiastic they are about your cause
  • why they care
  • their personal experiences that tie them emotionally to your cause
  • their other interests, including philanthropic interests
  • their apparent level of wealth
  • their family situation

Here’s how to make the most out of these marvelous cultivation opportunities:

1. Turn your event into a party.

WHO wants to go to an “event,” anyway? Not me for sure. The word “event’ sounds so very boring!

But I’ll be the first one to attend a “party.”

So first of all, you need to turn your events into parties.

Having a fun, pleasant time is paramount to your donors. Why else would they bother to attend? Remember that this is a social occasion – you can’t be too serious or heavy.

Your most important goal is that they enjoy their experience with you. You need to be an excellent host and be all about your guests. Then they’ll be more likely to come back to another event.

2. Don’t skimp.

If you are entertaining wealthy people, or top corporate executives –  all these people are used to living nicely. They are used to good wine (no box wine allowed!) more sophisticated food (no hot dogs unless it’s a cookout), lovely flowers and nice venues.

Make sure your food is nice and fits with your organization's personality.

Make sure your food is nice and fits with your organization’s personality.

If you are staging a quality reception, then you need to make it quality. If it’s a barbecue, then have good quality BBQ food and trimmings.

Just don’t skimp. Whatever the style of your party – It’s worth it to entertain your guests nicely.

But be sure the type and mode of entertaining totally reflects your organization’s culture.

3. Triage your guest list.

Some attendees may be very important to your organization: they will be the ones with deep pockets, or people you are cultivating for an immediate gift, or they may be long term donors. So slather attention on them!

Take a look at the guest list, and divide it by thirds. Identify the top group of most important guests.

Make a plan for them. Know who is coming, why they are coming and how you might move your relationship forward with them at the end. Think of questions you might want to ask them.

Assign these prospects to your staff and board members! THAT’S how you make the most of these events!

4. Give your board members official roles as “hosts.”

Board members often welcome an official role. Here’s what a host does:

  • Greets people warmly at the door.
  • Introduces guests to each other and fosters conversation among them.
  • Seeks out wallflowers (you know those awkward folks standing next to the wall clutching their drink) and welcomes them.

Give them a special name tag that makes it easy to recognize them as board member.  This makes them feel special too!

Assign board members as official hosts!

Assign board members as official hosts!

AND, if board members are up to it – they can be assigned to a couple of guests for a cultivation conversation – “So glad you are here! What is your impression of our organization?”

5. Use a pre-event gathering to make people feel important.

Invite a small subset of the most important guests to arrive 45 minutes before the main event.

Then use that time to give people a preview and tell them why they are important to your organization.

I’ve found that the VIPs will come to a select, private, more exclusive event readily – and then they will stay on for most of the second event. Yay!

6. Offer transportation for older donors.

If you are inviting some older donors, arrange to have them picked up and brought to the event and then driven home afterwards.

You can have staff members do this or recruit board members or other donors who plan to attend the meeting.

Not only will they appreciate the ride, but that’ll increase the likelihood that they actually get there.

7. Manage the program with a charming iron hand.

Worried that your program is going to go on too long? Even when you tell people that they have 5 minutes to speak, they often go on much longer.

My strategy is to have a skilled Master of Ceremonies who knows just how to get people on and off the stage. Encourage your MC to stand right beside the speakers when their time is up.

And be sure to let every speaker know what the MC plans to do to keep the program running.

I usually walk right up to my speakers and say with a big smile, “Remember, you are going to be charming and brief, right?” They laugh but the message gets drilled into their heads.

8. Casual events are often more fun and also more productive.

I love having porch parties at my house. I have a big porch – and people like to come to something that has a more casual feel.

The more relaxed your guests are, the easier it is to have a meaningful conversation with them. So try cookouts, porch parties, and picnics. You might be surprised!


With a little planning, you can make your donor cultivation event your donors will never forget – AND you’ll go home with new information on where your donors stand!

What are YOUR tips for a fabulous donor event???

Leave a comment and tell me!


  • Heather Lynch

    Gail, these tips are great, particularly #2. In all of my years as an event planner, I was
    always telling clients, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it.” You certainly don’t want your event to be remembered
    for the wrong reasons! I love the idea
    of hosting a more casual event at home.
    Donors will surely feel special being welcomed into your home, and it’s
    a great way to foster personalized relationships.

  • gailperry

    Thanks so much Heather! I love more casual events – especially when they are designed to open doors to new donors. It’s a busy social season here in Raliegh and I’ve been to several lately in people’s homes. (and have hosted them too!).

  • Linda Foley

    Hospitality with mission. Break bread together. After you have people to your (or another’s) home, they feel an affinity with you. Nothing like a dinner for a few folks to “just plain talk and enjoy themselves.” No requests made! At some later date, these same people remember the way you made them feel — if you are genuine, they will feel connected and want to stay connected. Remember, think less in pyramid terms, and more of the cyclical revolution — people coming and going, giving more sometimes, less at other times, but all gifts, money, time, stock pledges, connections to others, etc. are to be valued.
    Mix it up.

  • Marcy Heim

    Gail! Loved this! I am constantly quoting you, “When in doubt, throw a party!” While we are “composing a good world” (thank you Maya Angelou and will never forget you) we can also be sharing the power and JOY of philanthropy! This is not about counting attendance numbers! Thank you, Gail!

  • Susie Jones

    Do you recommend selling tickets (or requesting a minimum donation) to events large enough to be preceded by a “pre-event gathering”? Can you share more tips on how to decide when to ticket an event &/or when and how to make an “ask” during an event? Also, if no “ask” occurs in advance of or during the “party”, what is the most effective way to follow-up with an ask?

  • gailperry

    thanks Marcy!

  • gailperry

    Susie – it all depends. Some events work fine with a ticket price. Many major donor events also are free to the guests. It all depends.

    I went to two events recently for the NC Opera – one was a donor cultivation cocktail party at a friends house with no charge to the guests.

    The other was a Tuscan Dinner by the Pool (la-te-da) catered, bartended, etc and it had a ticket price of $75. Both were designed to open doors to new friends and donors.

    Following up with an ask needs to be done face to face in person. My motto is never ask for more than $1k over the phone or in a letter. Anything more than that needs to be done in person if you wanna be successful.

    Good luck!

  • mmp

    Gail and all readers,
    We love the reminder to do it right – a great atmosphere, food, etc. can make or break an event.

    How do you feel about expensive invitations and programs at and for the party? Should the money be allocated more to the food, entertainment, etc. or are those pieces just as important when it comes to high end?

    Would love your thoughts!

  • Christina Walker

    These are great tips Gail. In my experience working with principle gift donors, the host is really critical. PG donors get asked to social/charitable occasions multiple times a week, and they won’t go to someone’s house or restaurant they don’t know or haven’t read about. I never charge for cultivation events. For PG donors, I keep it small: 4 to 10 couples with only the CEO and Chief Philanthropy Officer as staff (or maybe the local major gift officer if s/he knows the prospects.) Follow up is everything though. We always have a follow up plan done in advance as part of our overall moves strategy for each prospect. Regarding the budget, agreed that you shouldn’t skimp. We try to get the host to cover everything, but we also make sure to budget for cultivation events.

  • gailperry

    Christina, you are right on! I bet you are making hay with these events!

  • gailperry

    I like an expensive program when it is a thank you event for a very large gift or to celebrate a significant milestone. Not sure about expensive invitations – I hate to say but it depends on your exact objectives in bringing these people together.

    I have seen some very nice simple invitations that had huge impact because of the words on the paper – who was issuing the invitation, where it would be and the occasion for the event.

  • mmp

    Thanks, Gail! Agreed – a stewardship event deserves something unique so it continues to focus on the donor. My team helps with the language for other events and I agree, it’s really the right words versus maybe the right paper.

  • gailperry

    Hi mmp – glad I was on the right track here! 🙂
    thx for your comment!

  • Lisa Atkinson

    Gail, what are some key words to include on the invitations. Do I let the donors know why they are being invited?

  • gailperry

    Lisa, certainly let donors know what type of event it is. If it is an Ask Event, don’t say that on the invitation but do share it orally with guests.
    If it is a cultivation event, you don’t say that either on the invitation. You might invite them to “meet xxx” or to “celebrate xxx” or to “honor xxxx.”
    Invitations need to be worded traditionally and graciously.

  • Valerie Cammiso

    I’m having my first cultivation event in the Middle East in 3 week. I want to invite many of the wealthy Saudi CEOs to a VIP reception prior to an awards dinner. I’ve never been to a party without alcohol but that’s what this will be b/c of the culture. I’m struggling with the invite. Any advice or sample invitations you can guide me to?

  • Hi Valerie, you need to be sensitive to cultural norms and traditions of course. I’d ask one of the VIP’s to help guide me on how to do this correctly, and also I’d ask one of them to actually do the inviting so that it doesn’t come from me.