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December 4, 2021
Keep Your Friends Close and Your Donors Closer
By Elizabeth Cohen and Rebekah McKinney

Elizabeth Cohen and Rebekah McKinney
Elizabeth Cohen and Rebekah McKinney
If you’re not focusing on cultivating your donors already, you should be, since an organization's strongest donors are usually those who are most involved.

Further, statistics show that donors with personal relationships to staff and board stay involved longer and give more. If that’s not enough to convince you, consider the fact that it costs up to seven times as much to bring in a donor as it does to hold onto the ones you have.

But at a time when many donors seem to be suffering from gala exhaustion, how can you persuade them to show up yet again?

Families First found success in using a new kind of content-rich development event to bring existing major donors closer to our organization and to widen its pool of prospects. It’s called the Gatherings and focuses on parenting education, consistent with the organizaion’s mission to provide parenting education workshops to low-income parents who lack access to other parenting resources. The same basic model could be replicated for the benefit of any organization, however.

Each Gathering consists of a mini-workshop, hosted in a donor’s home, that addresses a salient parenting concern for donors and friends. One Gathering last year focused on how to avoid the pitfalls of parenting in today’s media-saturated, device-cluttered environment. Attendees get an hour of content, some time to talk with friends, an overview of the organization and a short, soft ask.

The goals of the Gatherings are to give donors a better understanding of the power of the organization’s work, provide lots of opportunities for them to interact with the organization and each other, and give the organization access to new prospects. Because of their success, the Gatherings have become a major component of Families First’s fundraising strategy, enabling it to drop one of the two large, annual ticketed events.

Why do a series of small events instead of another big gala?

The large, ticketed events that are standbys for many nonprofits are expensive and labor-intensive. Much of the giving that supports these events can only be described as transactional. Your committee members get their friends to buy tickets in exchange for a promise to attend benefits for their causes. This kind of quid pro quo may fill chairs for an evening, but it does not add committed donors to your rolls.

On the other hand, small cultivation events are inexpensive and a much lighter lift for staff and board. Since these are non-ticketed events, it’s pretty easy for board members (even those who are less experienced with fundraising) to assist with creating lists. Holding a series of events creates opportunities for multiple donor “touches” over time. Finally, the intimate size of the events allows for conversation, and therefore for opportunities to follow up.

To develop your own version of the Gatherings, identify content you can offer that will pique the interest of donors and prospects—this is one time when you should be thinking about what you can give to them. Make sure you can tie whatever topics you choose back to your organization’s mission. Then use these Dos and Don’ts to plan your own successful series so you can bring your donors—and some new prospects—closer. Good luck!

  • Engage your board members and volunteers; encourage them to bring friends
  • Make the program something educational, captivating, unique, or fun
  • Bring in a client story
  • Ask supporters to do the ask and share why they give
  • Pick a host or house that is a draw
  • Research every person who will be in the room
  • Follow up with all attendees
  • Survey the crowd to see what they thought
  • Spend lots of time on data or focus solely on your programming
  • Make the program too long or make the ask too big of a focus
  • Use a PowerPoint
  • Choose a location that is difficult to find or park near
  • Make assumptions about anyone who comes #147; be curious!
  • Over pack a room #147; make these exclusive events
Elizabeth Cohen MPH is executive director of Families First Parenting Programs, which provides critical parenting education to low-income parents in Greater Boston, and Rebekah McKinney serves as the organization’s director of development and communications. Email them at and
January 2015
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