What is the SEARCH foundation? Now more than ever we need something with hope. We are joined by the members of the foundation in this special episode of Meeting Minds!
This week we welcome back Jim Leighton and he shares some of his secrets that has led to success in the fundraising business!
Tell us a little bit of your story.
The last 14 years I was at Children’s Cancer Research Fund. We produced large events in the twin cities. I’ve raised all my money with great teams in the twin cities, but what we are doing in the twin cities, doesn’t have to stay in the twin cities.
Don’t be afraid of events because events can be a sustainable revenue model. In the development offices across the country people are scared of the word, but let’s not be scared of that word. You can do it effectively. I’ve built programs with sustainable growth.
You can be hired.
Make it RAIN. That’s our goal. There are so many non profits and people ask if there is a mission I’m focused on. My mission is non profits. I’m excited about when people are excited about their mission. I’ve taken one step back and are more of an advocate of the whole industry.
How much money have you raised over the years?
Ten’s of Millions. Great teams’ I’ve led have raised about 52 million dollars. Impact. The more impact we can have for non profits the better our communities are. Individual giving is what’s going to make the difference in what’s going on in our country and in the world. That’s where we need to focus.
How do you use events to make money?
People need to decide what it is they are raising money for and let’s not be afraid to dream a little bit. My first thing is: how much money do we want to raise. Just because you raised 50,000 last year, that’s not the answer to the question of how much money do you want to raise. If a group can raise their budget what can they do with that? What impact can they have? That’s exciting. An event can bring a community together. One of my catch phrases is be bold. Be bold in our goals and not afraid to go get them. The work to get that money doesn’t scare me and it shouldn’t scare you. I’ll hold your hand and help you get not scared. We will set your goal to attainable and inspirational.
88% of an organizations funding comes from 12% of their donors.
This is interesting, at the end of the day it’s a very small group of people providing most of the money.
It’s a very small group of people driving most of the money. Now, are those small things important? Those are important, as they become more successful they can give more. You’re at 88% you still need that 12%. When you talk about the 12%, those are event attendees, a lot of them are people that you will get to know through events. Events and major gifts should be holding hands.
Let’s talk the general strategy.
You have to have a strategy and the strategy has to be there before we get into the ballroom or brewery. It has to be able to tell a story. I think production is important. The real work is after the event. That’s when we start to build those relationships. I am going to introduce you to something:
- Produce: Produce a quality event. It doesn’t need to be a high end gala. Make it comfortable, inviting, and fun. Able to tell a story and convey why there is a need in the organization.
- Prospect: Before the event. Get your guests names. You don’t know who your donors are going to be. At least an email, get that information. You want that information in advance, at least before the show. The earlier we get it the more work we can do.
- Prepare: Once we have the event and I have more information. We now strategize. Who were the top ten percent or top five percent.
- Pursue: Now we are going out and getting coffee and meet these people. Find out what is their motivation. Don’t ask for money for a while were going to get them more engaged. Let’s get them quickly in the next couple of months to the organization to experience the impact. Immerse yourself in the mission.
- Prosper: This is where those words turn not just into a single donation but a life long partnership. A lot of these donors will become partners.
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Does telling a compelling story actually raise more money? Elizabeth Warmka is a master story teller! She helps to explain how story telling should be weaved into the entire event, from invitations to the moment they get out of their car, to the video played on screen. These are tips you don’t want to miss.
Tell us a little bit about you, how does someone get started?
Most people that become an auctioneer grow up in the business. All the auctioneers that work for us, most of them have a family member that was involved. My dad became an auctioneer in 1978 and I had no plans to go into the business. I went to Wilmer high school graduated, went to Hamline University and have a degree in communications. I was working for WCCO tv in college and out of college.
Then my dad had a heart attack and a stroke. He had a stroke the morning of my wedding. I left my job at WCCO and went back to our family business. My dad wanted my sisters and I to go to auction school, the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City Iowa. We all went there, I went in 1994 and in college, I started doing these events when I was 19. I had no money I was living in St. Paul. People found out this kid in Drew Hall at Hamline University had his license. I was 20 years old and I was doing little events to raise money. By the time I graduated from college I was doing 30 of these a year in the early 2000’s. Then it went from 30 to 50 to 90 to 150 and today this year our company will do 300 all over the country.
You fell into it in a way?
I did fall into it. I will tell you a fair amount of growth and success we’ve had is a little bit of God given but also who we are. You have to have a heart for non profits to be successful in this. You have to care about why this is important to the community. You have to care about what it will do for people. It is hard to be successful at what I do if you stand on a stage in front of 1000 people and don’t have empathy for what your raising money for.
Yes you have to be excited about the vause or you can’t do your best job.
The business today is so different than what it was 5 years ago and 10 years ago. The audience can sense if your not authentic. They can sense if you’re there for a paycheck. They can sense if you haven’t done your homework. You can’t just be standing on the stage going through the motions. I tell the auctioneers that work for us all the time is the real key is can you build a bond with the audience. You are building a bond and they are saying I trust this person cares I know what the money is going for. Today, the two portions were involved with, the live auction being one and the fund to need giving moment being the second portion. The second portion is raising 80% of the revenue. I tell people, if I’m on an airplane and somebody asks what I do for a living, my lead answer is I own a company that consults and advises and facilitates giving moments for non profits. So much of the revenue is from people pledging financial support, not me auctioning items.
Maybe you can speak more to someone who doesn’t understand the difference between the live auction and fund to need?
I wouldn’t be here today if the fund to need hasn’t’ grown to what it is. About 20 years ago in the industry, people would do the events, raffles, silent auctions. They identified there are so many people in the room that don’t win or don’t care if they get the wine basket. You have to create an opportunity for guests to pledge financial support. That’s the moment where the MC or auctioneer stands up and makes a case why you should donate to the mission of the organization and people pledge financial support. For those of you listening, if you don’t remember anything I say remember this, do a fund to need and focus 90% of your energy on mission based giving where people can pledge financial support. I think years from now it is absolutely the future and direction of fundraising. It is the total key. The big thing now is a lot of people are not driven by buying something, they don’t care. They’d rather write a check to build wells than purchasing a night on the town.
We have been talking about the shift in millenials and how different the mindset is of giving.
Before the end of the show I will highlight there still are live auction items that are selling really well. There is one interesting that’s happened, last year congress made some tax changes on the deductions you can make. We have seen an uptick in people spending money in live auctions because now there’s a limit to how much you can donate to a non profit to have a tax consequence. Dinners are the best, in home dinner with a chef is the best item, and how we’ll sell those things for $7,000-$15,0000. Some people are wanting to give 15 thousand but in this case I’m giving and getting a dinner.
To your point about millenials, the big change that we’re seeing with younger people aging into the marketplace, this is probably the second most important piece I’m observing right now in the business. 15 years ago this business is about seen to be seen dress to the nines, what is the new hot ice raffle bar etc. What’s the new trick and gimmicka? The new change is millenials want to think and feel this is important. It’s not what’s the hot new thing, people still like to be entertained, the biggest thing for younger donors is, is there there behind it.
Sometimes people show up to have a party and it’s hard to weave mission and fundraising in that.
Not only is it hard but sadly, the planners have miscalculated what they’ve created has put downward pressure on the fundraising environment. They’ve actually created an environment that is more difficult to raise money because they believe it should have been about a party or something unique or cool. My wife, when we were dating, she’d come and sit down, I’m going night after night, she’d sit down and in the first 20 minutes she would say I totally get it, I get why this is important. She wouldn’t know about the organization but based off the opening the show, how they communicated she would know. There were other nights where she would sit for an hour and say, I don’t get why people care. The mindset of the donor changes throughout the night.
When people come to these events you can tell the ones that came because they wanted a party vs the ones that are there to have fun, but they are there for the cause. I want to get back to the statement about how the planners can make it more difficult to raise money. What are things they can do to make it easier?
We now know, on any given saturday night that we will raise more money at 8:20 than 9:05. You will raise a significant more money, they are more engaged there mindset is more clear, their buzz is a little bit better. It is significantly easier to raise money earlier. Timing is a really big thing, the time at night. One of the greatest mistakes you canmake is getting into your fundraising too late.
The second big thing is it has to be mission focused. Does it really make a personal connection about why this is important. Design your showflow so it leads in right before the fund to need, are they sitting in their seats and are they able to say I get it. There has to be clarity in messaging as well. A lot of event planners will set it up but do not connect the dots on what it means and what it will do. Talk to people in advance see the momentum donors. When I am standing on stage and trying to raise money, 99 times out of 100 when I am asking for a large sum I know one or two people will give. They are called seeded or momentum gifts. If you don’t have that in place, people don’t want to be the first one to raise their cards, but after 2 or 3 people do it they’d be happy to do it. You have to alter the mindset, if 2 or 3 people give 25 thousand dollars there’s 600 people sitting in the room and they think more about there donation. Create the perception there is organic enthusiasm around what you are raising money for.
The program length is critical, tell me what’s the perfect program like?
Almost everyday we get a call from a new perspective client. I’m handling these calls and I’ll tell people now, we will roughly know how you will do three days before your event. After we look through the shoflo, we know who is in a more tricky spot and whos going to be in a great spot. The right length of the program, if you can make it about an hour and fifteen minutes I think that is helpful, that’s assuming a fifteen – twenty minute break for dinner. You have to build in time for the live auction, air on the side of caution.
How many items for a live auction?
It depends, it’s changed, the short answer is fewer today is better. There are nights now where we are doing two or three items because the fund to need has grown, it is rare in the midwest to see events with other 500 people with more than 9 live auction items. A general answer would be someplace 4-7 live auction items depending on the size and history of your event.
Often times we will raise more money with fewer items. You’re not creating competition within itself for the items, and the environment and energy around the live auction is usually higher. The other thing we are evaluating is if the fund to need giving moment is coming after the live auction, I’m looking at how much money and energy is there in the room, because those two items are contingent on eachother.
You’ll laugh when I say this, there are so many nights that I walk out and think, why did people ever hire me when I was 23 years old? In the moment, the decision you are making and experience helps, you have to be intuitive and thoughtful, you have to be data driven. In the moment many clients don’t realize the choices and decisions the auctioneer makes makes a $7500 difference in the moment.
The other piece, if you ask me aside from mission based giving and fund to need, if I said where’s this business at five years from now, I would say it’s not based on just how much money we raise night after night. That’s a big mind shift. It’s a shift about how we are thinking about this. We also have to make decisions based on how to keep donors more active and involved and keep those relationships strong regardless of the financial gift they make that night. The big thing is the auctioneers I hire, they have to be mission focused, look at the big picture, and they have to make people feel valued and appreciated. It can not be driven by did we top last year’s financial goal. Now there are so many non profits, the real question is can you keep your donors longer than anybody else. It can’t be a revenue equation, it has to be a relationship equation that is built on trust, accountability, communication, and authenticity.
The other thing that surprises you over the years, there’s nights where somebodies giving $100 and maybe that’s all they can give or used to giving. Then six months later they will gift a farm to them. Sometimes these relationships that are based on a $100 gift, the long term upside to sincerity and thankfulness is a big deal.
I’ve seen some of your tricks, what tricks do you have?
When you have a double item you can sell twice, it’s super helpful. A lot of committees don’t understand how complex and in the moment that is for the auctioneer. A lot of times when I am doing that I can’t sell that second dinner unless I’m at x amount for an example. Then I have to get both of these people and keep them both with me. As they are bidding you have to gauge their interest. You have to stop before you lose the second person. It’s a lot of dynamics and in the moment.
A really helpful trick or experience is, so much of the value of these items has nothing to do with the item, it’s the relationship around the item.
How should an auctioneer be charging for their services?
Some charge a flat rate or a commission fee. A flat fee is better in the nonprofit world. I don’t want people to think we are giving different advice based on our compensation. The fees across the country vary, and they’ll change. A lot of auctioneers will prorate their fee based on their revenue. I also tell folks whether they hire us or somebody else, I encourage them to grill the auctioneer before they hire. If you spend a half hour asking the tough questions you’ll figure out who the right fit for you are. You should interview a couple two or three. The challenge depending on the size of your event, we schedule a year or two out so you have to be really on top of that.
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You’re using events to create awareness, welcome to the show! Tell us about Matter and what you do.
It’s an organization that was started here in our community by some people in the commercial real estate space. I love the way it started. It started by asking what can we do with our own two hands to serve the world. As successful business people there were people coming to them all the time saying can you support our cause and they said well what do we have that we could use to help others. In their case their answer was unique they had real estate space. They had all these warehouses. At times they were empty at times they were full with tenants. They said how can we leverage that to serve others? They started to adopt this concept they called repurposing corporate surplus.
They took in different items from the community. It started with food, sometimes office equipments, it got quickly into medical equipment. Over the course of the last 18 years the organization has matured and grown into this movement really of people that believe there are a lot of great people that don’t have access to a great life. But we can provide that access to have a great life. We are working primarily in the food space. Of course asking the same questions our founders asked, what does Minnesota have in our community we can export to the world? We have incredible food companies, we also work in the agriculture space, lastly we’re often known in Minneapolis as medical ally. Access to all this medical equipment. We take in millions of dollars of medical equipment that we repurpose all over the world. The last 15 years we’ve worked in over 70 countries around the world. It’s fantastic! Our community is such a generous one. We really become a beneficiary of the equipment and food that we can then repurpose so everybody in the world can have a shot at having a better life.
Everything is new in our hospitals, the equipment is being constantly turned over and I was thinking where does it go? There are places in the world that would love to have gently used equipment. You guys do that!
Exactly, we live in a competitive hospital environment. Especially in Minnesota. It’s very competitive and we become the beneficiary of that. This year I was in Congo and walked into a large hospital. Inside the maternity ward there were about 40 women giving birth and there wasn’t one bed in the room. They were all giving birth on the floor, there was blood and fluids all over. It’s one of those moments where you think to yourself this is not right this is not ok. Here we have a warehouse full of gently used hospital beds. That really becomes our urgency and mission. It’s the right thing to do to give these women beds to give birth on. It’s just the beginning of it. It’s something we have great access to here in Minneapolis. Thankfully we can serve others around the world. I have the best job in the world. I get to serve people.
How do you choose where you are serving?
It’s a good question. The line is long this list is long of people who would like to partner with us to get this medical equipment. Really for us it comes down to partnerships. It’s about the relationships you can build with people. Find those shared values, visions, outcomes that meet and align. We look for those partners around the world where we can go hands on face to face. What is the vision you have? Are we the right group to help? It starts there, once we establish that then it becomes detail work. Figure out what needs to be done.
Getting your hands on stuff is a task on its own, then deploying them is another, it takes time and money. Something you do a great job with is engaging people in your mission. How are you using events to grow your engagement?
There are two areas I’d like to touch on. I started reading the book the Power of Moments. It’s a very intriguing book. They are making the case that when you reflect on your life there are these moments that stand out. It’s the power of those moments that shape your life moving forward. It forces you to make certain decisions of what you are going to do. It’ impacts where your family will be involved. He has so many cases in the book that he draws to prove this point. I found it helpful and interesting especially for events.
That’s what events become, a powerful moment. At least at Matter that’s what we are hoping to do. We want to create a powerful moment where people consider what’s important to them what do they need to invest in. The two areas for us, in the food area we have a Matter Box. It’s a box of healthy shelf stable food. It’s really a healthy eating starter kit. We collaborate with hospitals in the community and different organizations. The design is to help kids primarily understand what healthy eating looks like. It’s not that confusing or difficult but sometimes if you don’t have a tangible example you don’t know. ‘
We assemble these boxes and our strategy is called companies that matter. We engage corporations in town, and ask them to consider coming with their team and packing these boxes. We create an event. One of the things we’ve said is we want it to be the Disney experience. In that context it’s not oftentimes a big event sometimes it is though. It can be a work team of 10-20 people sometimes up to 100 people. It really becomes a moment for them to consider, I’m getting my hands dirty helping the community and we try to bring beside that what is the meaning you can bring to your community and whole life. Those are opportunities to create an experience for people to have that powerful moment. That’s the one space to grow engagement.
It creates an experience that is memorable and that’s what a lot of non profits or people conducting events struggle with. You want a take away people can have that is memorable. We are trying to create that. One of the interesting things we came across, we did a large event with General Mills. It became a nation wide experience. Ellen Degeneres got involved with her million acts of good campaign. What we developed was a movement around this you matter idea. We created these little you matter notes. Every volunteer writes a note of encouragement. It could be as simple as you’re special, keep going. Every volunteer that packs a matter box writes a you matter note. A kid gets that and read that. That became almost more so than the food the inspiration, really that was the moving piece for them. That was a powerful thing that we incorporated into a event, a simple idea that I thought it was a silly idea, but it’s amazing. Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that can be the spark.
One of the events I’d like to mention is an event we created with Cargill called Matterbox Madness. It’s an opportunity especially this year with us hosting the final four event. We bring companies together, last year we had 30, and they each form a team and get really competitive and compete against each other bracket style to find a champ that is a Matter Box packing champion. It’s a fun opportunity, another principal we employ, people like to have fun. To come together and create something fun.
Another thing we’ve tapped into is the corporate groups are type A personalities and they like to compete. That’s an event that is coming up this spring around the final four tournament. We are going to try to incorporate as many companies as we can.
A lot of people ask the question, when you approach these companies with these ideas, you have to have them flushed out, but at the end of the day, how do I go approach them?
I wish there was a silver bullet for this one or a magical answer. Our development team is always looking for what’s that sneaky magic, I hate to break it to our team and myself, it really is a lot of hard work. Classic networking, getting out, knocking on doors. I would say there are some strategies we use. We work with our board of directors, we have this group of influencers we’ve brought together and ask them who do you know. We ask our board members every quarter that they would make one connection to an influencer in the community for our development team.
People want to have fun and want to feel like they are enjoying themselves, how do you design an event that is fun and entertaining?
That’s the second category I want to reference, it’s the gala events, we have a handful events we do that are more what you’d call traditional gala events. One of the things we looked as is trying to really push on the status quo or how things have always been done. We get in the room and do what we call the fight unite strategy. Let’s get in a room and fight about ideas and then unite on something in the end. We push for outcomes through that strategy. It’s helped us to challenge some things. A lot of galas we go to we see stereotypical things. What happens is it becomes a little mundane. We are always looking for things we can do that are different.
Two years ago we decided to do our gala event at the sun country airline hanger. The owner is a friend and supporter of ours. There were a few things that happened. It allowed us to reduce cost on venue space, it gave a lot of flexibility on what we could do in that space, it allowed us to put the financial resources into a creative outlet. We were able to pull off our most successful event raising over 1 million dollars and everyone that was there was blown away. I don’t think it was that we were magical in our execution or set up, I think it was so many different elements that people were taken back by that.
When you do something like that, tell me the benefits with not dealing with a hotel or traditional hotel.
It’s a great thing to comment on because we took a different approach to it this year. There are cons as well. It’s a lot of work, you are trying to figure things out every time. There are benefits to going to the Rivercentre. It creates a lot of work for our team and the folks we work with. But there are real upsides, for example, we did our Gala at our own warehouse. The venue was free, and then we were able to work with food vendor’s in town. We had 7 different restaurants that agreed to donate. When we went to each of those, they donated an item or a couple of items so it wasn’t a huge burden to each group. We took our food budget from $55,000 to $0.
So what does that money go to?
It’s a combination, some of that goes to the bottom line then we are able to leverage that for other things. What’s really cool is during the event we announce that! There is a round of applause. There’s an element of stewardship, we have the flexibility to do that, but you can’t do that for every event.
You brought up a really good point. A couple of principles we employ is we are always looking for those win-win situations. Where a company comes, donates, we acknowledge them, they gain business. We win from the financial side and they win as well and feel good about it. We are continuing to look at what are those win-wins. Two of the words we use when starting the planning process are fun and meaningful.
Tell me more about the fun element.
I’ve become a believer in data driven decisions. Data can help. We try to do as comprehensive of a survey as we can to find out what the elements are that people like. It’s nice to get the data and have data to prove people like these elements. That’s one place we start. We do a team debrief and look at those elements. People here in the midwest like other interesting people that come to town outside of Minnesota, celebrities, artists, comedians, whatever that might be. Most people won’t say they do, but the reality is, from our research and surveying, people actually do like it.
How do you tie the meaningful part in while keeping it fun?
One of the constant critiques we get is that the event is too long. I don’t think anybody complained about a short event. I think that’s a challenge for organizations, you have so many things going on and you want to tell them it all in one night. It’s a difficult thing to widdle that message down. That’s an area of growth and opportunity for us. You can kill the fun if you try to get too much information across. Other things get hurt along the way.
When it comes to using these events to get the message across, how much of the program is helping the audience to understand the mission?
We survey the audience to see what works. It’s something we can continue to improve. For us the power of the story is really one of the things we put at the top to drive the meaning. The most effective story is video, you can limit and control what’s being presented and how long. This year was a little bit unusual, we had a gal, a new partner is in Zimbabwe and had all our friends from there come over. One of them, when we got to know her, could tell she had a gift for sharing stories and captivating your interest so we had her before the appeal get up and share a story. There’s a little risk in that, but she has a true gift to be able to understand the audience and she hit a home run.
Check out Matter
Meeting Minds by EideCom