Psychology of Fundraising: How to Use Psychology to Create Profitable Fundraising Nonprofit Events

This blog post is by CharityHowTo Expert AJ Steinberg

Does Your Nonprofit Event Need a Psychologist?

Many organizations spend an enormous amount of time and resources on nonprofit events, only to have them fall short of their goals. They may try changing venues and changing themes, but still, the events fail to meet expectations.

Psychology of Fundraising

What these organizations should be changing instead is their own mindsets and figuring out how to fix their events’ psychology!

As a 20-year veteran nonprofit event planner, I deeply understand the psychology of fundraising through nonprofit events and how the choices we make during the event planning process will impact, positively or negatively, a guest’s experience and an event’s bottom line.

The Psychology of Gathering

Whether you are aware of it or not, all events and gatherings play upon certain basic human needs:

Belonging:  Since the time of cavemen, humans have felt the need for community. This need centers on gaining acceptance, attention, and support from members of a group as well as providing the same attention to other members.

By creating a welcoming environment at your nonprofit event, and offering opportunities for generosity in a public setting, you create a warm sense of community. Your event’s social hour or cocktail time is geared toward building a sense of community and belonging.

Self-esteem: Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall sense of value or worth, and it is often a measure of how much we feel other’s appreciate or like us. Making all guests at your nonprofit event (not just VIPs and sponsors!) feel their attendance is appreciated will go far in boosting each guest’s self-esteem.

Likewise, the opportunity to raise a paddle with other guests in the room witnessing their generosity elevates self-esteem as well.

Being a part of something bigger than oneself: The need for purpose is one of the defining characteristics of human beings. This craving leads people to step up and join others in working towards a higher goal.

A paddle raise offers the “community” of guests a chance to band together, make a pledge, and raise substantial funds for a meaningful cause.

Donor Motivation – The Emotional Triggers

Nonprofit events are unique gatherings with aims that go well beyond simply having an enjoyable time.

These goals include fundraising, community outreach, and guest appreciation. Nonprofit events also pull at emotional triggers, which can evoke both good and bad feelings in attendees. These triggers include:

Valued vs. less than: Guests can feel important and appreciated, or they can feel that other attendees received attention and benefits while they were overlooked.

Engaged and interested vs. disengaged: Nonprofit event guests can feel entertained and informed, or they can feel bored and emotionally/mentally check out, or even physically leave early.

Respect for a well-done job vs. it was a waste of time: Guests are impressed by the quality of your nonprofit event’s elements and stage programming, or they can feel disgruntled that event was poorly executed and a waste of their time.

Compelled to give vs. annoyed at being asked: Guests can feel compelled to give in direct response to being mentally and emotionally engaged, or they can feel overly pressured to donate to an organization to which they have formed no bonds.

Desire for more involvement vs. feeling negative about an organization: Nonprofit event guests can feel a bond with your organization and plan to keep the relationship growing, or they can feel antipathy towards your organization and have no desire to ever hear from you again.

Planning Choices Impact Guests’ Experiences

The choices made when planning nonprofit events heavily impact guests’ emotional triggers. Understanding these triggers will help you create an event at which guests’ emotions lean in your favor.

I am going to show you how to use psychology to create a community bond among guests, boost guests’ self-esteem, and make them want to raise their paddles and generously support your organization.

The three following steps will help you build events that positively trigger guests’ emotions:

Psychology of Fundraising

STEP 1: Take the Dinner Party Test

If you were to invite friends to your house for a dinner party, you would most likely prepare something special for them. You would probably choose a delicious menu, create a unique cocktail, set the table beautifully and give guests ample time for socializing before sitting them down for dinner.

Now think about your nonprofit events. Are you doing those same things for your fundraisers and galas?

When your guests arrive at your nonprofit events, are each of them greeted warmly? Do you give them plenty of time to socialize before ushering them into the ballroom for the meal and stage program?

Do you put thought into the food and beverage you will serve, with an eye to making the best impression? And, most importantly, do you keep the stage program moving along briskly so they remain engaged and interested until the end?

If you want to improve your guests’ enjoyment, maximize revenue and create post-event engagement, you must change your approach to planning your nonprofit events. Stop thinking of big events as large-scale cattle herding and start planning them as you would a small-scale dinner party.

No, this doesn’t mean you’d only invite a dozen people to your gala. It does mean, however, that you use the same thought process when producing large fundraisers as you do when hosting a handful of friends at your home.  Make them feel welcome, appreciated, and keep the event lively and interesting!

STEP 2: Assess Your Nonprofit Events’ Guest Impact

The following elements directly impact the expectations and emotions of your guests. Look at each of these and determine if they are helping, or hindering, your steps toward making a positive impact with guests.

  • The InvitationIt is proven that guests who have positive expectations for an event are far more likely to have a positive experience at the actual event.
    • Your invitation creates expectations. An email invitation indicates a casual get-together, while a mailed invitation printed on card stock lets us know this is a more formal party. Invitations that play up your event’s motif and theme trigger interest and excitement for your party.
  • Themed EventsThemes create pre-event excitement, which can boost your ticket sales and increase guests’ chances of enjoying your nonprofit event.  
    • Themed events raise expectations for an entertaining, enjoyable experience. Themes themselves can create expectations. For example, a Hawaiian theme indicates a casual event, a Masquerade Ball promises to be unique and creative, and we expect a celebratory mood for special occasions such as a 50th anniversary.
  • Greeting Guests – Welcoming guests upon arrival at registration creates a positive first impression and boosts guests’ self-esteem.
    • Organizations spend hours fretting over guest management systems, schematics, and seating charts. However, most overlook the all-important act of warmly greeting guests and thanking them for attending. A guest’s first impression at your nonprofit event is that of your registration team, and if the check-in line is overly long, or they barely get a glance from the person registering them, it can lead to an overall negative feeling right from the start.
    • Make sure you begin the process of bonding with guests right at check-in and provide your registration team with written protocols for properly greeting each guest like they are a VIP.
  • Introducing Guests Formally introducing people helps break the ice and gives them a sense of belonging to a warm and inviting community.
    • In a large crowd, conversations don’t get rolling on their own, especially if many folks don’t know each other. The first portion of your event is meant for socialization which leads to building personal bonds. At nonprofit events, it is up to your staff and board members to act as Goodwill Ambassadors representing your organization, and their job is to greet guests and help start conversations. Being personally greeted by a board member goes far in boosting guests’ self-esteem.
  • Creating an Inviting AmbienceIt is a fact that preconceived notions of enjoyment translate to a higher rate of actual enjoyment!
    • When guests sit down to a beautiful table, their positive perception is raised for the upcoming meal and stage program. Guests intuitively sense that something special is in store for them when they observe a good deal of effort has been expended on making the room look lovely.
  • Food and Beverage Quality MatterFood is the ultimate comfort and happiness trigger!
    • Even if you are working with a tight budget, the quality and quantity of food and beverage you serve will impact your guests’ overall experience. Being generous with appetizers and hosting an open bar during the cocktail hour may seem like a frivolous waste of money, but these things play into self-esteem and create happy, satisfied guests. This pays off with a boost in guest generosity when they are asked to raise their paddles later in the event.
Psychology of Fundraising
  • Bad Service and Long LinesFrustration over long lines and bad service makes guests unhappy and stingy.  
    • When you work hard to create a warm and inviting experience for guests, nothing kills that happy glow quicker than waiting, waiting, and waiting to be served a meal, pay for auction items, or get a car from the valet. Long wait times at any part of your event make guests feel frustrated, and their positive feelings about your nonprofit event plunge. Avoid these negative trigger situations by beefing up your serving staff, valets and training your registrations and cashiering teams in advance.
  • Boring, Boring, BoringPeople value their time, and it is important that we value it as well.
    • A stage program with long-winded speeches and inane entertainment adds nothing to your nonprofit event’s impact. What it does do, however, is cause guests to read text messages, chitchat amongst themselves, and leave your event early. Show that you respect guests’ valuable time by crafting a stage program with concise timing, meaningful messaging and genuinely moving moments. Throw in a bit of humor and donor-centric language and you have the recipe for maximum engagement and profitability.
  • Ask To See Them AgainOffer guests an invitation to continue your newly-formed relationship after they leave the venue.
    • Once you have successfully bonded with your guests, don’t let them leave the event without indicating that you want to take your relationship to the next level! All stage programs should conclude with a Call to Action. This could be an invitation to visit your facilities, or asking for help with a Sunday pet adoption, or a request for helping hands for a beach cleanup.
  • Keep in TouchKeep that love flowing!
    • After a successful nonprofit event, your attendees are feeling the happy glow that comes from an enjoyable, enriching experience. They are now emotionally primed to become more meaningfully involved with your organization. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by! By following Step 3, you will be able to build upon the relationship started by your successful event.

STEP 3: Leverage Your Nonprofit Events’ Afterglow

Your organization’s goal was not just to raise money during your nonprofit event. The time and money spent producing these gatherings are an investment in building long-term relationships.

This means gaining new supporters as well as stewarding existing donors to higher levels of participation. Either way, it is so important to properly engage your attendees in the days, weeks and, even, months following your event.

Does your organization have a post-event strategy?

Your organization should have a protocol in place for post-event engagement which clearly outlines each follow-up step to be taken in the weeks following your nonprofit event.

Since there is a lot of follow-up work for your organization immediately following an event, I suggest that all post-event email blasts and letter templates be composed well in advance, when there is less stress and ample time to compose thoughtful words of thanks to guests. This way, after your nonprofit event these letters and emails are already set to go.

To help you create your own follow-up strategy, click here for a 3-step protocol I have created to help organizations maximize post-event engagement! You can use this as an outline for your organization to use following all your nonprofit events.

You should also check out my nonprofit event Facebook group Everything Events with AJ where I share my knowledge and resources with an amazing community of nonprofit folk!

Also, for a deeper dive into the psychology behind events, check out Priya Parker’s brilliant book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

Looking to learn more about how to implement each of these tips in your nonprofit events?

You can learn more details about each of these tips in the recorded free webinar that I recently presented for CharityHowToCheck out all of A.J.’s CharityHowTo trainings here.

About the Author:

A.J. Steinberg has been creating outstanding special events since 1999. In 2015 A.J. created Queen Bee Fundraising which focuses on the art of nonprofit special event management.  Along with producing nonprofit events, A.J. teaches volunteers and professionals the strategies for producing successful fundraising events, along with guidance on how to successfully lead volunteer committees to achieve their goals.

Click here to view all CharityHowTo free and premium webinars by AJ Steinberg!