I overheard the donation-request conversation at the front desk of our spa and introduced myself with a warm handshake. Nervously, our customer described her back to school night event, which would include 500 affluent families in our town. She was the new President and hated doing "asks." She apologized several times for the imposition.
Her idea was to have a quick drawing at the beginning of her two PTA meetings (on consecutive nights) and award a $25 gift card to one parent in the audience. Her vision, she said, was to help participants feel more "cared for" by the organization. Oprah style, the gift cards would be attached underneath chairs. She would draw one winner each night.
Her request was incredibly modest.
"We're not going to give you two $25 gift cards," I began, as she shrank back in dismay. "We're going to do something better."
First, I described our Community Investment Program which is a system we've created to both manage donation traffic, which can be very disruptive in a small business, as well as provide a new model for fund raising that conserves volunteers' valuable time.
As a non profit board member myself, supporting a terrific domestic violence agency I believe that event-driven fundraising has its place, but it's also too often a fire drill. Small businesses get fatigued by being constantly asked for donations. Volunteers, like this poor woman, get burned out. An organization can erode its base of support by demanding too many stressful "asks" of its volunteers.
The Community Investment Program enables any supporters of one of our registered non-profits to designate 3% of their spa purchases to benefit that group.
"Once you're registered, all they'll have to do is mention the Saratoga PTA as they're checking out," I explained. "We'll send you a check once a quarter."
Periodically, we offer "double rewards" and "triple rewards" for a designated period, to create some fresh excitement for our charities. We also offer the opportunity to do a "micro fundraiser" with four or more participants, and receive "quadruple rewards." (which is still just a 12% donation for the spa.)
A nearby jeweler and hair salon also participate in the Community Investment Program. The jeweler presents her checks at the non profit's meetings to make sure to drive the point home. Schools, arts organizations and social services organizations are all participants in CIP.
Back to our PTA President. She was delighted to hear about the CIP. But I wasn't done with her yet. I liked her concept, but I knew it would get lost in the shuffle of a big meeting with 250 parents each night.
"We're going to give you six $50 gift cards for your drawing," I explained. "Three for each night. That will create a little more excitement."
I thought she was going to faint.
"I shouldn't say this," she finally told me. "But I was just down the street at (Spa X). At first, the two young women at the front desk were friendly when I walked in. One was on the phone at the time."
"When I launched into my request, the one on the phone held her finger to her lips and 'shushed' me," she said in astonishment, obviously still reeling from this experience. "And the other one stopped smiling."
They sent her away empty handed.
The new, excited, President of the Saratoga Elementary PTA had just been given the bum's rush by my competitor for a request with a hard cost of about $20.
She walked through our door next. No wonder she was so apologetic!
Not only did we grant her modest wish (and then some) we provided her with a real connection. We gave her a new way to raise money, as well as exceeding her expectations. By demonstrating generosity and support, we sealed her loyalty as a passionate advocate of our business.
People who lead organizations are generally not shrinking violets. They're usually from the group that marketers call "Influencers," the 10% of the population who tells the other 90% where to shop, eat and play. The woman who is charged with leading a group of 500 parents and teachers is now in our corner.
This experience underscores several key behaviors and attitudes that are helping us survive the downturn:
1. Remain generous and supportive of your community, especially when you don't feel like it! Be careful what you cut, and the messages those cuts send. A business that relies on discretionary income and consumer confidence can't afford to send the message "times are tough." It's too easy to spook customers right now.
2. Get closer to your customers. Spend time on the operations floor. So many serendipitous connections come from having an ear open, and being in the right place at the right time. Most good spa managers and operators are out of their offices. A recession requires "all hands on deck."
3. Get closer to your staff. My presence doesn't have to be heavy; I often am "incognito" as a 'customer' having my makeup applied, or enjoying a manicure at the manicure bar. This is the perfect way to catch your staff doing things right, coaching on the best verbiage, or demonstrating the way to respond to situations like a donation request.