Thompson Child & Family Focus, in Charlotte, N.C., managed to raise $1.3-million in under an hour at its annual fund-raising lunch last month. That's a big sum for the group -- it represents about 9 percent of the social-service group's annual budget.
Ginny Amendum, Thompson's president, didn't set a goal before the charity's annual fund-raising lunch started. But everything else was carefully orchestrated to ensure success.
John Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer who served as host of the luncheon, quickly scanned the crowd and felt the energy in the room. The audience reacted well to a six-minute video about a young man the nonprofit helped become a thriving teenager even though he had suffered serious mental problems after he spent time as young boy in a Russian orphanage. People stood up and applauded the young man's story, and then Mr. Fennebresque took advantage of the emotional feelings spreading around the room: "We need to raise a million dollars here today." He announced that he and his wife would provide $50,000 themselves over five years.
Raising more than a million dollars was a stretch for Thompson. Last year it raised $652,000 during the luncheon, its only fund-raising event of the year—far less than the $850,000 the event raised in 2008, before the effects of the recession started hitting many of its donors.
Thompson did a lot of work before the event to get donors ready for a pitch. It appointed loyal volunteers and donors to serve as "table captains" and invited them to several happy-hour events and social gatherings to get acquainted with the organization.
The table captains were each urged to invite 10 people to the lunch. But before that, they were urged to bring two or three of their guests to Thompson's campus for a behind-the-scenes tour. The staff members wanted to get these potential donors "up close and personal," connecting them with the work that Thompson does before they attended the lunch.
The lunch was free but open only to those who were invited. Thompson made sure that the table captains told guests they had no requirement to give but that they would have the option during the lunch to make a pledge. "We don't want people to feel like they have to pay," Ms. Amendum says.
"We don't talk about bringing people who are rich," Ms. Amendum says. "If you do bring somebody with great capacity but they're not drawn to what you do, then there's no connection. There's no synergy."
About 700 people attended the luncheon, which was short and timed precisely. By 12:04 p.m., guests were seated with their lunch captains at the table, and they were out of the room by 12:58 p.m.
Before the luncheon, Thompson staff members solicited sponsorships that covered the costs of hosting the luncheon, so all the money raised could go directly to support the nonprofit's programs and services, Ms. Amendum says.
Ms. Amendum credits two principles that have made the luncheon successful over time. "Pick a model you think will work with you. Don't do it if it's successful for somebody else," she says. And another: "Stick to it. Stick to it. Stick to it."
Four and a half hours after the luncheon ended, Ms. Amendum had a clear idea that a record might have been broken and that this year's lunch may have achieved unprecedented fund-raising returns.
She told her staff members, "Guys, we need to pause a moment here, because we are approaching $1.3-million, and we still have several envelopes to open."
When the last envelope was opened, and the tally was validated, "there was screaming and yelling and table pounding," Ms. Amendum says. "Everybody was standing around the table. It did get a little rowdy for a while."
One of Thompson's board members called and asked, "Are you all dancing down the hallways?"
Ms. Amendum told her, "Just about."
Watch "Portraits of Courage," the video shown at this year's luncheon.