In late 2017, Congress passed a tax bill that represented the most sweeping changes to the tax code in three decades. Like many nonprofit organizations, WXXI began hearing from donors with questions about how the changes might impact charitable giving and related deductions.
Danielle Abramson Swartz, WXXI’s associate director of major giving, saw an opportunity. “We wanted to inform our donors about how they could continue supporting the station while also getting valuable information that would be relevant, regardless of how they do their charitable giving,” she says. What if WXXI could position itself as a resource for its community—especially related to the topic of giving and tax law? And what if this could help establish new relationships and enhance existing ones?
Swartz knew some manner of tax education made sense from a philanthropic standpoint, because confusion about the new law could potentially limit donations. “There was a lot of synergy going on, so why not do all these things through a public event?” she explains.
Taxation and Representation
WXXI began planning a luncheon for major donors called “Tea & Taxes.” Swartz reached out to enlist partners—financial planners, wealth management companies and law offices with dedicated tax divisions—for a panel discussion. “Our underwriting department helped us identify the people they knew because they had those established relationships,” she says. Swartz and her team approached the suggested experts with an invitation to help with the event.
Three tax professionals agreed to participate in the panel, with Swartz as a facilitator. “We had representatives from two wealth planning firms and a tax attorney,” she says. A week ahead of the event, she arranged a planning call to speak to the participants, bringing up potential topics and making sure everyone was on the same page. “It made sure they understood it wasn’t a heavy lift. All they had to do was come and answer questions rather than give a formal presentation. That allowed them to feel really comfortable with the structure,” she says.
The Tea & Taxes event took place in the back room of a local restaurant, which provided a classic spread of tea, sandwiches and cookies. “We had registration and provided takeaway material at everyone’s table. Some of that was provided by our partners,” Swartz says. Taking advantage of the audience, one participating company brought customized, branded wine glasses for every participant. Others provided branded notepads and pens. WXXI encouraged the swag. “It meant potential future business for them, but also demonstrated their connection to the station,” she says. “They got to talk about what their businesses did and it was in the context of them as experts.”
Holding Their Focus
Around 60 people attended—and paid attention. “A lot of them were older in age, as one might expect for an afternoon event and this kind of conversation,” Swartz says, laughing. “And no one fell asleep! In a panel discussion about taxes!”
She says the attendees were grateful for the information. “One of the things we heard was that they didn’t feel like they were being pitched about supporting WXXI. It wasn’t a hard sell. They came to ask questions and had a place to do that.” All participants received a follow-up email with additional resources, links and contact information.
Swartz says the success of the event has WXXI strategizing about the future. “We’ve been trying to establish an engagement plan for donors in order to enhance the value of their membership,” she says. This opportunity allowed the station to enlist corporate partners to come alongside the station in this effort. “It got us thinking how corporate partnerships can be used outside of monetary sponsorships for these high-touch engagement events.”
Holding the event off-site, at a restaurant, seems to have been another factor in its success. “It was a little higher-end, so it felt like [attendees] were being treated to something nice. It felt like a lovely reception and a way to thank donors for their support,” Swartz says.
More of these “insider events” are in WXXI’s future. The station maintains that it is vital to engage donors in ways that promote the value of membership apart from on-air content. “A lot of people can circumvent the stations to get public media content,” she says. “We have to remain relevant in this community. These kinds of events really demonstrate that and enhance personal connections to WXXI and public broadcasting in general.”
At the same time, they enhance WXXI’s connections with corporate partners, and further shines a spotlight on those partners at the same time. Everyone wins.