fund a need

The Keys to Going Out on a Limb in Fund-A-Need

For years, one of our recommended strategies for a successful fund-a-need has been to begin asking for pledges at the highest level with a lead donor lined-up in advance. In other words, start asking for money at a level you know will be immediately successful.

Even the most impromptu moments are the result of tons of planning, and your fund-a-need is no different. 

Even the most impromptu moments are the result of tons of planning, and your fund-a-need is no different. 

We had a lot of rationalizations for this: It forces events to have important conversations with donors pre-event; it pre-determines whether or not key supporters believe in what you’re asking them to help fund; and the night-of the event, it ensures that the fund-a-need starts off with immediate momentum.

In the past few years, however, we’ve had some phenomenal successes starting the fund-a-need “out on a limb,” at a higher level than our lead donor commitment. At one event we had a $10,000 donor identified in advance, but we went out on a limb and another donor offered to pledge $100,000. He was followed by two more donors at $100,000, including a woman who was completely new to the organization.

We’ve also had some abysmal failures, which are difficult to recover from. At a recent event, I was sent out on a limb at $50,000 and told to ask for $25,000 next. We received zero pledges at those two levels, killing most of the momentum the testimonial had generated. 

We have, therefore, identified four keys that will determine whether going out on a limb in the fund-a-need is appropriate for your event.

1)  Can you justify starting higher? It seems like a silly question to ask, but do you need more money? If so, you need to be able to tell that story the night of your event in a way that empowers people to support you at a higher level. If you are going to send your auctioneer out on a limb, make sure you have tied that limb to the change you are asking people to fund.

Example: You normally start your fund-a-need at $5,000 but this year you’d like to ask for $10,000. Prepare some examples of what $10,000 will help you do and utilize them as a reason for asking for more money.

2) Determine if your existing lead donor(s) will be upset by you asking for more than they agreed to pledge. Sometimes ego comes into play with high-dollar donors. I’ve seen instances where lead donors felt slighted because they thought they were going to be the top dog in the fund-a-need, and then we asked for more.

3) If you go out on a limb at a specific amount, make sure you have a *guaranteed* donor committed at the next level down. A fund-a-need that starts off with no pledges at one level can recover quickly if there is an immediate pledge at the next level down. Two levels of zero pledges can have a significantly negative impact on the momentum of your appeal and the amount you raise.

4) Do you have donors in the room who have the capacity to support you at a higher level? The $100,000 example above was set into motion the previous year, when a donor came to us after the event and assured us we had started the fund-a-need too low. He was right, as he was one of the donors who stepped up at $100,000.

You may not know all of the donors in your room and may not know the individual capacity of all of them, but you should have a good sense of the potential capacity – or at least know someone who does. When in doubt, ask your supporters – your table captains or board members – for a reality check. You may have untapped potential in your crowd, and you’ll never know if you never ask.

Personalize your paddle raise

The paddle raise is the most important component of most fundraising auctions, often raising more than the rest of the auction combined. The way it is introduced is crucial to engaging the crowd and ensuring success.

A good paddle raise pitch tells stories that connect your audience to your mission on a personal level. It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to be overly dramatic, it just needs to be honest and engaging. Like this video of Trent Yaconelli, associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of St Helena and Calistoga, at their BIG Night gala.

When Not to Do a Challenge Grant

Challenge grants are one of the most useful ways to increase participation in a fund-a-need. Donors like to know that their money is being put to good use, and nothing lures potential donors like the possibility of their money being doubled. Challenge grants are a way to engage new donors, and they are a proven mechanism for encouraging donors to increase their giving and “step-up” a level.

The success of a fund-a-need is based on visible participation. Don't do a challenge grant if it is going to take visibly pledged money out of the room.

The success of a fund-a-need is based on visible participation. Don't do a challenge grant if it is going to take visibly pledged money out of the room.

It is difficult to obtain tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to use in a challenge grant. Many organizations get creative, and use multiple donors to cobble together one large challenge grant. This idea is great, as long as it isn’t “taking money out of room.”

We often get a challenge grant that has been created by supporters of the organization pooling their resources. And while this might seem like a good idea on the surface, I believe it actually hurts the performance of the fund-a-need in the long run. One thing that makes a fund-a-need successful is the visible presence of leaders within the organization participating in the fund-a-need.

Think about it this way, if someone invites you to sit at their table for their organization’s gala, and then proceeds to make a pledge to the fund-a-need, you take note; especially if it was one of the higher pledges. You would probably feel obligated to participate in the fund-a-need, and hopefully would do so at a level at least commiserate with the ticket price if not above.

But if the same person invites you to sit at their table, and then the auctioneer simply announces that “a group of supporters chimed in to create a challenge grant for tonight” it loses its impact. The supporter is no longer actively participating in the fund-a-need. Even if they stand up as a group to be recognized as contributors to a challenge grant, the amount they individually pledged is a mystery and thereby doesn’t apply as much pressure as if they’d raised their paddle.

Less people raising their paddles also means we’re losing potential momentum in the room, because all of those paddles are now remaining stationary.  Challenge grants are nice, but it is better to have people raise their paddles at whatever level they were planning on participating than to have them sit on their hands and challenge the rest of the room. Active pledging applies more peer pressure, and generates more momentum for the fund-a-need as a whole.

Write up the fund-a-need In your catalog

The fund-a-need is the most crucial component of almost every fundraising auction. The fund-a-need raises more money than any single auction lot and often raises more money than the rest of the auction lots combined.

All of which underscores why the fund-a-need deserves prominent placement in your auction catalog or your written program for the evening.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone attending your event knows what you are raising money for. Take advantage of the opportunity to market your mission in a heartfelt manner, and encourage newcomers to become supporters by enabling a very specific component of your mission. The fund-a-need is your chance to tell your story in a more focused way to engage existing donors and potential new donors alike on a meaningful, empowering level.

A successful fund-a-need doesn't just happen, it is the result of well-orchestrated marketing, reinforced at every opportunity - including in the written catalog.
A successful fund-a-need doesn't just happen, it is the result of well-orchestrated marketing, reinforced at every opportunity - including in the written catalog.

The catalog provides you with a means for educating people about your fund-a-need: laying out the case for supporting you and quantifying how they can help you change the world. Even if you have a spectacular speaker, or an incredible video, you should still make an engaging case for your fund-a-need in your catalog.

Spell out exactly what the fund-a-need will help you do, and quantify your ask in very specific ways. It always helps to quantify your need in increments that map directly to the levels you will be asking for in the fund-a-need. For example, if you know you’ll be asking for $5,000, $2,500, $1,000, $500, $250 and $100, tell people exactly what a donation at each of those increments will help you do.

And make sure your quantifications carry heft. People are more likely to respond emotionally if they have already arrived at a logical conclusion. Guide them to that logical conclusion in the catalog, so they can get emotional with their paddles when the time comes to make pledges in your auction.