Does anybody else feel their stomach sink a little when they are assigned a list of businesses to contact and ask for donations? We all know those people who are fearless in their pursuit of donations and breeze in with carloads of amazing items. We also know people who consider it a good day if they are able to get some free pens out of the cup at the counter.
It’s tough. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not the most glamorous of jobs. But it is important.
Some donations are just a nice incentive to encourage participation in a specific event. Others are rewards for good behavior or contributions. Still more are a crucial piece of fundraising for an organization.
Most businesses are happy to help where they can, but there are some things you can do to increase your success when approaching these businesses. A lot of these tips are general, but I am speaking from my experience at the theater and from my conversations with some other business owners in town.
Here are some of the most common tips:
- First and foremost… follow the rules. Some businesses have different requirements for requests. For example, the request might need to fall in a certain category or benefit a certain type of organization. Some places have specific dates that they will accept requests. If an accountant specifically asks that you not submit donation requests in the weeks leading up to tax day, it’s probably because they are so busy, they can’t look at the request and you are wasting time and resources by asking.
For the Movie Palace, we have a donation request form that we require in addition to your formal request/flyer. This form is available on our website as well as in theater.
- Know who you can talk to. Many small businesses are owned and operated by the same people. If you think you can only talk to a manager, you may waste lots of time trying to catch the manager during a free time. You may also waste time scheduling a meeting with them when the request could have easily been handled by someone else. Trust me, we started receiving donation requests 1.5 years before we opened. Your donation request will not be the first time we’ve seen one.
At the Palace, the staff may not be able to make a decision about what to donate, but they can definitely get the process moving faster. They can give you the donation request form so you don’t have to wait for a manager to call you and give you that information.
When you come into a business explain why you are there. Asking for a manager could delay your request.
- Provide all of the information you can. Make it easy for the business to help you. If you come in and tell our staff “we need a donation for an event” and that’s all you leave them with, most businesses are not going to take the time to track you down to see what item you need. If you approach the business with all of the details they would need… when is your event? What do you need? What are you using the item for? When do you need it by? What is your contact info? The business is more likely to respond quickly. Bonus if you have this all in writing so our staff doesn’t have to transcribe your message. Extra Bonus if you keep it simple and don’t make us read a 4 page letter with the details buried inside.
Be official. Have relevant tax documents if necessary. Have “proof” that you are legitimate. Letters and official flyers with relevant contact info and websites are great. Most of these events are pretty easily verified.
- This one is HUGE. In my opinion… this tip is the most influential. Be flexible but also specific in your request. Many people come in and request “whatever you want to give” or they ask for something like “a gift card for xyz.” You might not think you are asking for much, but the “small item” could be a huge burden on the business. When you request “5-10 tickets” you are asking the theater to give you $50-$100… and that’s just not practical for us all of the time. If you are able to communicate your needs, the business might have a better suggestion for an item. We have counter offered with items we were able to donate and many times we are rejected.
For example, if you are asking for a silent auction item, the business might want to give something unique that your guests might not be able to acquire on their own. While a lot of people bid high on items just for charity, a unique item could be a bigger draw. It could also benefit the business more. One time, we donated a private early screening of a movie. This wasn’t something you could just buy.
If you are looking for door prizes, we might be able to give you coupons or offer a discount on items. Many businesses will be happy to sell you items at cost instead of just donating them outright. This can benefit everyone because the business isn’t losing anything and you will have the opportunity to make that money back.
If you are trying to raise money, the business might have other ways to help. The theater typically does not purchase ads in sports programs or signs on sporting venues. We do have a fundraising program where your team/group can sell tickets and keep the profits. You can also earn money from concession sales. It might not be what you originally planned, but if your endgame is to raise funds, considering all options with a business can be helpful.
- Give them time. We have people that come in the day of their event and want a donation. This sends the message that we were not on your initial list and we’re a last resort. No business wants to feel like this. We also don’t want to feel rushed to give something out. Often, the person in charge of those decisions will not be around at that exact moment. 2-3 weeks is a good amount time. You don’t want to get a request in too soon because we will forget or it will get lost.
- Follow-up. But be smart about it. It’s perfectly acceptable to send a quick message or phone call a couple of days before your deadline. Keep it simple and provide your contact info in case the request was misplaced. “Hi, our event is in a couple of days, just wanted to see if you had decided to donate to the xyz. I would be happy to pick up the item at your convenience. If you need more info ….”
- Be mindful of changed circumstances. Sometimes the people that get your items do not treat the business with kindness. We donated 7 days of movies tickets to an event. 1 ticket to a different movie on each day. We knew it was unlikely that someone would want to come to the theater every day for a week, but also thought some people would share the tickets with family members. This was not the case and we experienced one of our most difficult customer interactions over these tickets. The customer demanded that we refund the tickets if we wouldn’t let them use all of the tickets on the same movie on the same day. The next year, when the business approached us about donating again, they requested the item we had given the previous year. I was happy to help, but was definitely not going down that ticket route.
It’s fine to remind a business about what they did the previous year, but understand that they may not have the same resources available. It’s nothing against you, but they may choose to give less because they had ten other events to donate to or business has been slow.
If you are rejected one year, unless it was for a very specific reason, try again the next year. You may have asked at a time we had multiple requests but next year, yours might be the only one.