When I worked for HDC MidAtlantic, a nonprofit affordable housing provider, my title was marketing and public relations manager. But I reported directly to the director of fund development.
There was a good reason for that. I was hired to support the fundraising efforts by practicing my public relations skills. Sometimes that was as simple as raising the awareness of the organization – through pitching stories to the media, for instance – which made it easier for my boss when she soliciting donations. Other times, we worked hand in hand to plan out a coordinated campaign.
During our time working together, HDC celebrated its 40th anniversary. We recognized well in advance that this milestone would be an opportunity to get our message to our various audiences and, in turn, leverage that into successful fundraising.
Planning is an essential part of any good public relations effort, and it was an important as we began preparing for the 40th anniversary year. In December, my boss, our administrative assistant and I booked the conference room for an all-day session to work through the calendar and determine what was happening when. We started with the important date in May, when the organization’s articles of incorporation were approved and worked backwards from there. This included decisions on when our quarterly newsletter would be published and how the anniversary message would be incorporated into communications during the year and, finally, how we would celebrate the anniversary itself. We decided that the pinnacle of the celebration would our annual fundraising banquet.
With our schedule set for the year, we then set to the tasks of enacting the plan. We knew we needed to build excitement about the anniversary with some of our key audiences, with whom we already had established relationships. Many also were also key prospects as donors. We were fortunate enough to have original board members still alive, some still serving on the board, so we planned a Founders Reception for them and about 40 others. It was not a formal event, just hors d’oeuvres, drinks and a few remarks to highlight the anniversary year and share memories. The evening served more as a homecoming for everyone, and a chance to build on the existing relationships. The original executive director also returned for the event, traveling from Florida. Following the event, we reported about it on our website, on our Facebook page and in our quarterly newsletter to engage and communicate with our other audiences.
Meanwhile, we assembled a committee for the annual banquet and began organizing the event. This was a Herculean task, with decisions to make on dozens of details: securing a location, finalizing a menu, scheduling a master of ceremonies (a well known personality who, it turned out, was one of the original board members), designing and mailing invitations, coordinating the program for the evening, and much, much more. We had wanted HDC’s original executive director to attend the banquet, too, but he couldn’t make it. That lead to one of the highlights for me. We planned a phone call with him, and patched it through the sound system. Our master of ceremonies did a brief interview, which was poignant and started the program on the right foot.
At our core, we public relations professionals want to tell stories. And when it comes to fundraising, one of the most effective ways to get donors to write checks is to talk about the impact their donation will have in the lives of people. At HDC, we had many moving stories about how having an affordable place to live had changed and improved the lives of people. To tell those stories, we produced three different videos and broadcast them during the banquet program – right before the important moment of asking people to write a check. (Unfortunately, HDC has since taken down those videos, but you can get a taste of similar stories here.)
What is a PR campaign without results, right? The same goes for fundraising. Our efforts to build momentum and share ongoing news and messages with our audiences paid dividends. More than 370 people attended the gala banquet, and we raised $100,000 through requests that evening and sponsorships of the event. At the time, it was a record for HDC. That was as satisfying as it gets as a PR professional. Icing on the cake came later in the year, when the Central Pennsylvania PRSA chapter awarded HDC with a Keystone Award, acknowledging “great use of existing relationships” and “great use of internal experts and creative materials” that helped exceed the fundraising goal and develop a memorable program.