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The annual gala has become a cornerstone of fundraising for the majority of nonprofit organizations. But while the gala reigns supreme, many groups are becoming more and more savvy about the value of using smaller cultivation events to expand their donor base. Cultivation events can be small or large scale, but the idea behind them is to provide a more targeted, intimate experience by which the organization can interact with and get to know current and future donors in a deeper way.

As a fundraising consultant, I’ve worked with organizations from many different areas with vastly different missions. I’ve seen an unmistakable trend in innovative, micro events that augment the macro impact of the annual gala in exciting and impactful ways. Many of my clients have been able to increase involvement of current board members, as well as create new relationships, by hosting dedicated events on a much smaller scale.

A client organization whose mission is medical research and patient advocacy has introduced a series of information sessions with experts in the field. Guests gather for a brief cocktail hour followed by an informal presentation that offers valuable insights and an opportunity to make a one-on-one connection with leading authorities in a vital area of concern to them. My client has developed several key relationships through these events, including many individuals who have joined their gala committee or signed on as co-chairs.

Another client encouraged two new board members to reach out to select guests to attend a causal evening at a local jazz club featuring top-flight entertainment. It was a chance for these board members to take ownership of an event and invite potential supporters they may not reach out to for gala support.

The innovative approach one foundation I work with is taking gives them the chance to open up new relationships on many levels. They are planning an evening spin cycling event in collaboration with a prominent trade organization as a sponsoring partner. The trade organization is reaching out to their membership to sponsor a bike, with funds going to the foundation’s fundraising efforts. No tables, no flowers or food; the evening combines the event approach to fundraising with the run/walk model.

Some events may be larger in scale, but still function as providing an alternate approach to donor cultivation. One of the organizations I work with has been running a casino night for a number of years. The event has grown steadily over the years, and now rivals or exceeds fundraising totals that may organizations see from their primary gala events.

The choices are limitless. Information sessions, bowling nights, book signings, concerts, comedy events–whatever works for your organization and ignites the enthusiasm of your board members—can offer very real returns on your time investment. Using cultivation events as a catalyst to build new donors support is an increasingly vital component of a winning fundraising strategy.