Penny Marshall directed a 1988 American fantasy drama film called “Big” about the wish of a 12-year-old boy to become an adult. After being transformed into a 30-year-old man, Josh (played by actor Tom Hanks) travels to New York City to work for MacMillen Toy Company as a new toy tester. There is the banter between Josh and his best friend Paul in the movie that goes like this:
Josh: I’m much better at video hockey.
Paul: That’s not a sport.
Josh: It requires hand and eye coordination.
Paul: It’s not a sport if you don’t sweat.
During a recent conversation with a colleague, I was reminded of this scene. We spoke about a gala dinner he attended in a wealthy community in South Florida. Over 1,200 guests attended the banquet on behalf of a well-known Israeli nonprofit. My friend was amazed at how much money was raised.
In my colleague’s words, “The founder told everyone that the nonprofit needed to raise $13 million.” The founder highlighted the excellent track record of the institution and then disclosed their plans for using the funds. A humorous quip he made to the audience was that “The organization has the money it needed, but it was in people’s pockets.”
There was a murmur of disbelief in the crowd, like electricity arcing through a live wire, and the evening progressed phenomenally. Following the master of ceremonies’ announcements, large video screens projected huge pledge announcements. By the end of the night, $13 million had been pledged. It was an astounding show of support for a worthy cause. My friend was in awe of how this breathtaking result could be achieved in one evening.
While I wasn’t privy to the planning, I can tell you it didn’t take place in one evening alone. Of course, this is not how the nonprofit wants the event to be portrayed. It appears more dramatic if it’s depicted as a sudden burst of generosity. However, it isn’t. It is likely that the night’s incredible fundraiser unfolded as a scripted outcome due to well-planned actions and good luck.
As Paul says in the movie “Big,” “It’s not a sport if you don’t sweat.” I guarantee the evening’s success resulted from lots of sweat and diligent work. But it doesn’t end there. The planning for this year’s ball began on the evening of last year’s shindig with a passionate discussion among the leadership about which high-powered honorees would not only draw a large crowd but also one of considerable wealth. Yes, nonprofits must act like mercenaries to attract altruism of the highest order.
It takes many variables to make a gala bonanza. In this situation, the following factors were relevant:
1. Think Big. An extraordinary financial goal requires a constituency that will support it. A mature, courageous and professional mindset is also needed. This nonprofit had a history of meeting or exceeding mind-blowing monetary goals, with some celebrity support. It begins with the self-confidence that “we can achieve it.” Pessimism has no place in this process. It also helps to have a bit of faith and a lot of skill.
2. Everything Is First-Class. Your organization is a first-class operation. Got it. It’s now imperative that every function you launch is also first-class. Nothing less will suffice if you wish to attract the right crowd.
3. Covert and Sponsorships. By charging $1,000 per ticket, the affair starts with $1.2 million in the bank. Sponsors then become the next significant component that drives the campaign thermometer upward.
4. Honorees. High-powered honorees not only draw but also give generously. Here, two awardees pledged $2 million. A lot of effort by the nonprofit made this gift possible.
5. Life-Saving Equipment. It is irrefutable that the equipment this organization uses saves lives. This started a domino effect of many guests each pledging over $200,000 to secure essential equipment on behalf of the organization.
6. Prized Auction Items. A major celebrity who entertained donated several musical instruments which he autographed. Anonymous patrons purchased these to the tune of $720,000.
7. Peer Pressure, Celebrities and Spontaneity. A wide range of business associates, fellow donors, family, colleagues, celebrities, and others played a major role in enticing contributors to make and “stretch” their gifts to reach the goal. And there is much to be said about “spontaneous combustion” as a natural thermal reaction occurs when one major contribution after another is called out.
8. The Six Ps. I have written before concerning this prescient rule of thumb: “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.” If you think $13 million was raised by accident, then you need new medication. To accomplish this remarkable feat, personal visits were required, as well as numerous missives including texts, emails, calls, video meetings and other forms of communication. Quite a bit of time and energy was invested.
I was privileged to attend the Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, on August 1, 2012. Among the speakers was the famed Rabbi Yissochar Frand, who spoke eloquently as only he can. A quote from him always stands out for me: “Just because something isn’t within your reach doesn’t mean it isn’t within your grasp.” This is a pearl of wisdom to keep in mind when planning your next fundraiser. Think big!
Norman B. Gildin is the author of the popular book on nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the President of Strategic Fundraising Group whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits to raise critical funds for their organization. His website is www.normangildin.com.