We are joined by Carly and Ann of Ann Plans
So you guys have to tell me a little bit about you before we get into the topic. Tell me Ann about how you got in the business.
Ann: So I started my career out of college in nonprofit fundraising. It’s not what I went to school for. My first internship out of college led me to a position where I was helping to start a new nonprofit get going. So that’s where I started doing fundraising. I had the opportunity really early in my career to work as part of the staff for the 1991 international Special Olympics. So we had 6,000 athletes coming from 90 countries. I was part of the sponsorship team. And then right then and there I knew that I liked fundraising, but what really gets me excited and what I’m really passionate about is bringing large groups of people together to make important things happen. And I love challenges. I love problem solving. I get bored super easily. So when I was doing grant writing and direct mail, it’s like, yeah, I could do that for about a year for an organization. And then it’s like I need more, I need more challenges. So the work we do, there is never a dull moment.
So you’ve been, so you’ve been doing events now you said 20 years?
Ann: For over 20 years. Started Ann Plans 12 years ago and our marketing materials our websites said, it was really me for the first five years working with our organizations. We took out a client about seven years ago. Courage, Kenny Rehabilitation Institute invited to do plan three to five major events for them at that time. I knew if we were going to take on that new contract and still be able to work with all these other great organizations, we needed to grow the team. So brought, my first person on and um, right now we’re a team of four people plus some contractors who help us day of events.
And we’ve got Carly, Carly, you’ve been around the nonprofit and fundraising area for awhile?
Carly: I have, yeah. I actually have similar background as Ann I was working in nonprofit fundraising for about seven years. That is what I went to school for. I was an arts administration major at Butler University in Indiana, a little liberal arts school. They basically kind of teach you the and outs of running a non nonprofit, which obviously a big part of is those donations and fundraising. I also enjoyed it, but you know, I actually really did love the direct mailings. I wanted a change and asking people for money all the time can be a little challenging. And I realized, you know, a consistent of my background and my jobs, were those donor events and galas and I really just kind of loved them. And so here I am. I love seeing something go from nothing to just a memory that someone has for years That is just such a cool memory.
You’ve been all over the place, right? You said Chicago, Texas, Minnesota. Why Minnesota?
Carly: I’m from Chicago. I love my now husband, brought me to Texas and then a few years living in Texas, he started job searching and life brought us up here, back to the Midwest. And we love being here.
You’ve seen non profits succeed and fail at putting together an event, lead us tthorugh that.
Ann: Absolutely. So when we start working with a client, whether it’s a client that’s looking to create a brand new event or a client that’s looking to take their event to the next level, one piece of advice I give is that whatever we decide to incorporate into this event, we need to execute at a super high level. One of the biggest compliments I think an organization doing a first time event as an example can get is for their guests to come and say, oh my gosh, I never would have believed you hadn’t done this event before because the whole guest experience from start to finish is flawless. I think build a base of supporters who are going to be your cheerleaders and champions and really help to spread the word and get others invested in the event. So we work with some events that don’t have committees. Sometimes that works fine, but the most successful events that we get to be a part of have a strong committee. And those committees are made up of people who typically are well connected in the community and or have a tremendous passion for the organization. These days we don’t necessarily need committee members, who are gonna pick out the napkin color, although they’re welcome to weigh in. But we’re really looking for committee members who are passionate about the organization, can help secure sponsorships, individuals who can put together a table of other people and are going to do that strategically. One thing I say to clients is it’s not about filling the room with warm bodies. We want to get people there who are excited about this work or have the potential to get excited about what you’re doing and to invest in the work.
So while we’re on that topic, how would you do that if somebody was like, hey, so we have like 500 people, but like nobody gives money. Like what are the things you would do?
Ann: Right. So what are the strategies that has worked really well for some of our clients is to have as part of your committee, a group of folks are really focused on the guest recruitment strategies. An organization here in the twin cities we work with and they have just two subcommittees. They have an auction subcommittee and they have a guest recruitment subcommittee. I think part of it too is it’s just having conversations with your individuals who are hosting tables or your corporate sponsors, helping them to think about what kinds of people does it make sense to have at the event. In most cases we would rather have other officers of the organization, people in leadership positions versus filling the room with just kind of as a thank you to the employees and, and to do that. Sometimes it’s okay, but if you have a room that’s just filled with people who are there kind of for a fun and free night out. You’re not gonna see the results. My husband now and then I can rope him into volunteering at some of our events. The ones that are more fun and interesting. He says to me, when I come to your events, I just, I just can’t get a deal at the auction because people are bidding these up and he understands that. That’s totally what it’s all about.
How do you create a guest experience that is centered around the mission?
Carly: We definitely have seen so many creative ideas. Some of the things that we do is asking the guests a mission focus question during the reception. That is just a neat reception idea, an interactive element. So the example is a big heart at one of our events, tthat was raising money for cardiovascular health. We asked the guests just on a large sign, I care about heart health because… And that gets your guests thinking about, okay, this is a mission focus question, why I’m actually here, what this event is raising money for and why? Yeah, why am I here? Why do I care about heart health? And it’s then it can also be a really cool piece that you then bring back to your organization and use in some capacity.
Ann: It’s large three dimensional, it lit up,great photo opportunities. Something really cool that an organization we work with that does rehabilitation work for people who have had injuries, strokes, those kinds of things was we were raising money through the direct giving moment for a piece of robotic technology and it’s called the exoskeleton. And so it’s basically a robotic suit that people who are unable to walk on their own, they can put on this suit and they can have that experience, that sensation of walking, which isn’t just about the empowerment of I can walk, but it really has proven to be a really effective therapy model to get people closer to being able to walk on their own. So during the reception for their gala one year, we had a gentleman wearing the suit walking around the reception, so here was something that people had never seen before. It gave them a little sneak preview of what they would be an invited to support later that evening.
You have to keep them thinking about it the whole time?
Ann: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of my favorite ways that we welcomed our guests to an event, this was several years ago for a children’s theater company and the theme was based on the wizard it was called the Emerald and Ruby curtain call ball. And we had theater students who were young teens who dressed in these really formal flying monkey costumes. They were super classy looking but people knew they were flying monkies. We actually had the yellow brick road red carpet and the valet would pull up and align the red brick carpet. We had like 12 of these students and so right then and there it was fun. It was creative and people were reminded of why they’ve been there.
During that direct giving part of your event. Um, many of our clients will have some of their participants like the Guthrie Theater has youth who are in their education programs who are bits batters, during the fund to need and another way to just remind people of why they’re there and why this work is important.
Carly: We also have seen some really cool photo opportunities where you can incorporate a neat background that can really speak to what your organization is raising money for, bring that into your photo op because that’s where your people are taking photos and then sharing it across social media. So just another way to kind of explain who you are and define yourself.
Ann: A fun way to bring some technology and social media into your event is to do a social media wall. Have monitors throughout the event space as well as in your program area where people can post photos. We suggest having multiple places throughout your event space that remind people of how they can do that. Because once people start seeing their friends and their colleagues and they’ve had a couple of drinks we have got to sometimes remind them, hey, just text it here or post it on your Instagram.
Let’s talk about being intentional in crafting the messaging for a really strong program.
Ann: Yeah, absolutely. So I believe the event messaging needs to start from the very beginning when you’re communicating with your potential guests and your guests. So we really are advocates and we’ve seen this as a trend over the last couple of years where more and more nonprofits aren’t being shy about saying this is a fundraising event that we are inviting you to. And this is how you can make a difference. So when we work with our clients on their marketing collateral, starting with the save the date and our preliminary social media, it’s like let’s remind people about what they’re coming to support. Don’t be shy about what your fundraising goals are.
When we’re working with our clients on social media posts, pre event, we want to share a lot of the fun things. Some of the things we don’t share because we want them to be surprises, but we want people to be like, oh my gosh, this is going to be an amazing night. They have all this cool stuff going on. But it’s also an opportunity to share a little bit about a participant story or to share some facts about your organization. When it comes to programs definitely a trend is shorter programs are the way to go. And we’re really finding the majority of our clients are on board. We don’t necessarily need the CEO and the board president and this person and that person. We don’t need eight or 10 people unless it’s an awards program. I think it’s, it’s important early on to be really clear about what are the aspects of the organization’s work that are most important for people to hear. And remember that people, many of them will have had three or four drinks by the time you get to the heart of your program. So you want to repeat those messages throughout the program. It needs to all tie together. You folks are experts when it comes to producing videos. My favorite videos are those where your watch them and you’re like, oh my gosh, I wish it had been longer. You know, like it’s like, that was so cool. I want more of that individual story or I want to more about the organization because the story was told in such a creative way. So we really focus on doing it a lot of it through storytelling. So even if it’s the MC or the CEO of the organization whose main job is to talk about some exciting highlights of what’s going on, if that person can also share a personal story of why this work is important to them, I feel like everyone going on stage should have a story that helps people to connect to the heart of the work.
Now take me to fund to need. How do you really get people to take action on it?
Ann: A lot of pre planning is key to a successful fund to need. So one part of that is determining what your dollars are going to support. Many of our clients, the money goes to general operating. That’s where they need the money. In some cases it’s actually more powerful. One of the biggest key factors, once you kind of figure out where the money’s going to go and how you’re going to message that is to do your homework on getting some donors lined up with pre commitments. If your auctioneer is going to start at 25,000 or 50,000 or 10,000, whatever your top level is, we want to make sure we have one ideally two or more donors at that level. I believe you ideally have pre commitments at your top two or top three because sometimes you get a couple at the top and then youget to the second level and there is no one. Match components can be really powerful as well. We did an event recently where every dollar in the room up to $200,000 would be matched. Most of the matches we see are not that large. So typically say we have a $10,000 match or a $20,000 match, we’re not going to announce that right off the bat because if someone raises their hand at 20,000 and the match it was 20,000 we just, we just match the match. So I 20,000 or $10,000 magic, let’s save that for the lower level. May maybe we get to the $500 level and the auctioneer can introduce the match and it’s their way to build it.
I want to talk about trends that we’ve seen in nonprofits. What kind of trends are you seeing?
Ann: Organizations are branding their event more and more to the mission of their organization. Habitat for humanity, for example, has the hard hat and black tie affair. So it speaks to the fact and their event name. This is a formal event, but it also speaks to their mission and people have a lot of time fun wearing hard hats and jewelry made out of nails and all of that. We do some work for a local affordable housing organization. Their event used to be called the grand gala. Does that tell you who they are? It says nothing about any organization can or have had the grand gala. So they rebranded last year as a celebration of home.
What other trends are you seeing?
Carly: Balloons are so hot right now, back and booming. Not just arches but sculptures. Different components being used.
How do you lay the groundwork for a first time event?
Ann: Start early, I would say ideally we’re looking at least a year out. We met with a client last week that’s looking at doing a first time event the fall of 2020 and they’re like, are we starting soon enough? They’re actually having us put together for them kind of a proposal to do a proposal.They said, can you put together kind of a roadmap for us? Are there things that we need to think about and need to feel we can have in place? So one of those things is they’re concerned about do they have the types of board members who can help make this be the kind of event it needs to be in terms of the fundraising and the attendance? So they’re actually doing some work overall on board recruitment and board development. And so they’re thinking about this event and what are some of the local companies where we might want to try to tap a board member out of their company?
I think another thing that’s super important is to know ultimately what are you trying to accomplish with this event? We worked with one organization and at one point it was going to be a concert at a local sports venue then it was going to be something inside of a theater. And when it came down to it, they really wanted an organization that welcomed the community to come and celebrate with them and learn more about who they are. So we did a block party for them that’s at one of their local sites and had entertainment and kids’ activities, some information about their programs, food trucks, and really brought people to their property and said, everyone’s welcome here.
So lastly, how do you plan for the unexpected?
Carly: Even the best of planners, they can’t expect everything. The opportunities are there to just learn once things happen. We’ve seen obviously have a rain plan if you’re going to have an outdoor event, step one, have a rain plan. Program like we were talking about is so huge. What’s going to be your plan B if one of your speakers is sick or can’t show up that’s pretty common.