Complexity is the enemy – how one shrewd charity doubled corporate event results

A key distinction I’ve noticed in the very successful corporate fundraisers I’ve interviewed is that they proactively focus some of their energy on things that will make companies want to meet (and in due course partner) with them. This is different from the way many charities approach corporate fundraising, which is to instead focus energy on how to get money from companies.

When the digital marketing expert Grant Leboff spoke to our club Bright Spot members at our last LIVE event, he helped us see the implications of the fact that in the modern world of the smart phone and social media, everyone is now able to publish content, at any time of day or night. This is fundamentally different to a decade ago, when most content we viewed was created by a handful of media companies. And so with this stream of information competing for our supporters’ attention, if we want them to pay attention long enough to start to build a relationship with us, we need to create content that is in and of itself valuable and interesting to them, without necessarily asking for donations.

So I love the approach that has been implemented so successfully by Kate Billingham Wilson, Charlie Strawa and their colleagues Steve and Katy in the Events Team at ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Both Kate and Charlie took part in our Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme, in which we shared our Five Strategies for securing more ‘test drives’ (ie informal coffee meetings) with the companies on your Dream Partner list. One of these strategies involves creating (or adapting) events so that they truly serve your overall corporate partnerships strategy by helping you create relationships.

Events that first meet their needs

This innovative team has created a series of events designed to be truly valuable to the kinds of companies that the charity likes to partner, whether or not those companies were yet considering a partnership.

The series is called The Influencer Network and is designed to give leaders of companies a chance to network with peers and to hear inspiring, relevant talks about leadership in times of intense change, from outstanding leaders from the British Army. One thing that is smart about the events is that not only are they usually hosted (and the catering costs covered) by the charities’ existing partners, but also that it makes use of one of the charities’ existing strengths, which is their strong connections to the British Army.

As well as hearing these excellent talks, the audience also hears stories about the amazing work of the charity to support soldiers, veterans and their families.

There have so far been 4 events in the series, with attendance growing from around 40 to around 70 business people per event.

Similar to the success of Damian Chapman and his colleagues at Police Care UK who used a different event strategy to get such phenomenal results, which I wrote about in an earlier blog, this is a great example of deliberately using events not to raise income in the short-term, but to set up chances to properly meet the right companies to discuss more in-depth relationships. We’ve found that events are great for getting people interested in what you stand for, but to create any meaningful partnership you need to use them to then set up informal face to face meetings, where there is time to understand each other’s needs.

The first three events were already proving successful for generating these follow up meetings but a few months ago the team decided to explore if there was anything they could do to get even better results.

By talking to some of the attendees they discovered that though many were keen to get involved, some were a bit confused as to what exactly they should do.

Turning this insight into action…

Having reflected on what the participants had said, the team wondered if there was a way to simplify the messages that interested business people were receiving.

They realised that in the events up to that point, at the end attendees had received information and fliers about several different ways of partnering the charity. To be fair, there were only a few options, but still they wondered whether making the next step even simpler would help the attendees to take action.

So at the most recent event, they reduced the number of materials each participant received, and gave them just two simple things:

  • A branded notebook, which includes a powerful case study and some very top line information about the charity’s mission within the pages.
  • One slightly larger than usual business card, with the corporate partnerships team’s contact details, encouraging participants to get in touch if they wanted to discuss getting involved. This messaging was also reflected in Kate’s speech where crucially, the sole ask was for participants to meet the team for coffee.

Complexity is the enemy

To shed some light on why the decision was taken to simplify the materials and messaging so emphatically, it’s helpful to briefly look at the work of the behavioural scientist Sheena Iyengar who found that when we try to encourage action by offering more choice, we often reduce the likelihood of people making any choice at all.

For example, Iyengar once conducted an experiment in a supermarket. The researchers set up a table at which customers could taste different flavours of jam, and varied the number of flavours available. When 24 flavours of jam were available, lots of people stopped to taste it, but only 3 percent of customers actually bought any jam, whereas when there were only 6 flavours available to try, the percentage of people who bought jam rose to 30 percent!

As Barry Schwarz puts it in his book The Paradox of Choice, as we face more and more options, ‘we become overloaded. Choice no longer liberates, it debilitates…’

What happened?

The first three events had already been effective in helping to build relationships with the right kind of companies, and yet at the first event where this simpler messaging was used, the number of follow up meetings DOUBLED.

How could you make use of this idea?

Sometimes, it’s not that people don’t want to take action, it’s just that they get overwhelmed.

So when you are next seeking to help someone take action, whether a supporter / partner / trust, or indeed someone within your charity, one way you can improve your results is to ‘simplify the script’ as this team did.

Taken out of context, this advice sounds counter-intuitive where we are often told the approach is to micro-manage less and empower more. But this idea of Simplifying – reducing the number of choices and making each step easier to take – is one of the three powerful tactics recommended in the excellent book Switch.

If you think this blog would be helpful to your team or friends, please share it.


Curious about how to increase your corporate partnerships income?

Kate and Charlie took part in the the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme last year. If like them, you’d like to make serious progress with your corporate fundraising, all the strategies, and the training and coaching support you get from this programme will help, so you raise more money with less stress.

You can find out more about how it works here.