11/25/2013 08:16 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

When Cultivation Events Are Not Cultivation Events

I think there is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of 'cultivation event.' Every arts organization I know mounts several of these a year - from pre-performance lectures, to drinks parties in board members' homes, to lectures by curators to studio showings. These events are typically considered important elements in the organization's fundraising strategy. They can take a good deal of board and staff time to organize but they must pay off in future donations. Right?

Well, not always.

As obvious as it may seem, cultivation events only have an impact if they are part of an overarching cultivation strategy for a given donor. Bringing a group of people to one cultivation event is not enough. Too many people are invited (or often even begged to come) to an event by a board or staff member, enjoy the evening, and are never heard from again. The organization has devoted scarce time and resources to creating the event and gets little in return. Then they start over with a new group of prospects at the next event.

Smart cultivation requires:

- Developing a target list of prospects who are the most likely to support the organization. These are the people who should be invited to cultivation events, not those we have to beg to come simply to fill a room.

- Creating a series of cultivation events that are exciting and likely to draw our major prospects. Too many cultivation events are simply not special enough--that is why we have to beg marginal guests to come in the first place. While we cannot expect any prospect to want to spend several nights a month with us, we should work to engage someone three or four times a year.

- Following up with every prospect who attended to determine whether the cultivation strategy is working or not. Is this simply not the right prospect for us (in which case we should amend our prospect list and find new people to add), is there an additional interaction required (invitation to the studio to watch rehearsal, meeting with the artistic leader, talking with a board member, etc.) or is it the right time to solicit a gift?

- Sharing information with our prospects at regular intervals. While cultivation events can be potent, especially for those prospects who value an enhanced social life, we can heighten their impact by sharing important, positive information about the organization with our prospects, ideally in a personal phone call or meeting. News about major grants received, important artistic accomplishments or awards, tours booked, new board members, etc. will confirm to the prospect that the institution is thriving and worthy of attention. When this news is shared by an artistic leader, board officer or other luminary, it has even greater impact.

A thoughtful cultivation plan, well executed, greatly increases the odds of building new streams of revenue, convincing board members that they can raise money, and generating excitement inside and out of the organization. An unfocused set of events does exactly the opposite.