Its All In The Gift Bag

May 15, 2009       Michele Donohue      

“I hate to get gift bags with nothing but ads and coupons,” said Sarah Gardner, public relations and marketing coordinator at Texas Discovery Gardens. So when it came time to create “green” gift bags for the Dallas-based organization’s organic fashion show, Gardner wanted to offer more to attendees than a pile of advertisements.

A local magazine donated leftover issues that featured the organization and Gardner found companies that were undergoing seasonal stock changes or discontinuing items and asked them to donate products.

“We received nice incense gifts that were discontinued from a local wellness store,” she said. “They were worth the price of our event ticket and made the bags feel like a true gift.”

Gift bags offer the perfect opportunity to showcase a sponsor’s products and remind your attendees how much you appreciate their support. Nonprofits gearing up for special events and galas are trying to get creative when working with cash-strapped companies.

The first step is figuring out why companies would want to work with your nonprofit. Step Up Women’s Network, a national membership organization based in Los Angeles, harnesses the power of the network’s demographic — upwardly mobile professional women who are usually the key decision-makers within their households.

“As an organization, we are really savvy from a marketing perspective and we are constantly surveying our members and providing that information to potential gift bag sponsors,” Danielle Carrig, executive director of Step Up.

She explained that just showcasing demographics aren’t enough to persuade a company to donate in this economy. “You have to think like the company and think why would they be willing to give something to you. It’s not a donation from a foundation,” she said. Polls within the network show that 73 percent of Step Up members are more inclined to support a company referred by the organization – hard numbers that can push companies to add their products to the swag bags.

“We realize it’s a fundraising vehicle. We wouldn’t do it if it was just giving product to people who don’t really need it and there was no return on it. It’s about getting their membership dollars. It’s about hard fundraising goals and we utilize our women and the volunteer base that we have for outreach for those products,” said Carrig.

Samantha Swaim, founder and director of Samantha Swaim Fundraising, LLC, a management company for nonprofit events in Portland, Ore., said the bags are “about connecting your demographic to the product that you are also trying to connect to the event.” An organization’s event planners should approach marketing departments or outside public relations firms that usually handle product donations with demographic information already in hand. Swaim said having that compelling information will bolster the ask, especially since she’s seen several businesses signal that they might not donate products this year.

She also explained that nonprofits shouldn’t overlook the little guys. Small businesses might be more willing to give products that they can’t sell. “Small business owners, I think, are looking for exciting new ways to get their product out there and don’t always have the marketing dollars behind their product to be able to do test samples in grocery stores across the country. Being able to provide it in key target gift bags is a great way for them to market their product,” she said.

Nonprofits can also tie gift bag contributions to a larger event sponsorship. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif., puts together gift bags for the annual event Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The sponsorship benefits include donating an item to the bags. Volunteers actually had trouble cramming more than 50 items in the bags for the 2008 event, according to Deanna Kosaraju, vice president of programs at the Institute.

“If you are a hosting organization, you typically get more out of someone who will write you a check and in return they get to display a product to your audience. But if you are on the other side and you are a company, you just want free marketing,” said Katherine Reishman, director of Smithsonian Young Benefactors in Washington, D.C. She said that companies usually get more visibility as an event partner but offer gift bag participation as a part of the larger sponsorship.

Step Up Women’s Network partner agreements mandate that if a corporate partner will financially benefit from members, like a shopping event, the company is then responsible for providing a gift bag and its contents.

Companies might not be able to dole out products for every attendee – but as the old saying goes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Try to accept as much product as possible and work that into your overall event. Swaim said special gifts in combination with another incentive, like priority seating or a complimentary drink, could help market different ticket levels.

Promote VIP ticket prices, which can be marked up several times the amount of a general admission ticket, and couple that with high-end donated items. That way, you are utilizing the products you receive and generating more revenue through those pricier tickets.

Companies aren’t the only ones nonprofits should worry about. Organizations should always keep the attendees in mind. There is no point in creating a bag that attendees will soon forget. It will be a wasted marketing opportunity for sponsor companies and the organization. Step Up’s Carrig said members love the gift bags and have come to expect the swag every year at the annual holiday membership event. The organization doesn’t just hand out a gift bag – they make sure that members know the bag’s retail value is around $500.

“I think, especially for nonprofits that are in large, urban centers, gift bags have become very ubiquitous. You go to any event now and you’re handed something when you walk out the door. And the range of the quality of those gift bags is huge,” said Carrig. “We are pretty proactive in making sure the women realize what it is and now we have also built a name for ourselves.”

People go to technical conferences and they are used to getting items. “And we really push on the sponsors to provide things that are appropriate for the attendees as well as the location and theme of the conference,” said Kosaraju of the Anita Borg Institute.

The Institute encouraged sponsor companies to stick to the event’s ecologically-friendly theme and provide items that attendees would find useful. She even provided guidelines and connected sponsors to a vendor that offered green products. Sponsors responded by donating items such as binoculars, hand-pumped flashlights and dye-free paper.

The Institute also had recycling bins placed at the conference for attendees to leave items they didn’t need or couldn’t fit in their luggage. The items, such as pens, pads and lipgloss, were then donated to local elementary schools or homeless shelters. NPT