How to Land an Amazing Headliner for Your Next Fundraising Event

Over the past few years, we’ve talked a lot about fundraising events. We’ve covered how to double your fundraising event revenue in one year, we’ve discussed holding successful silent auctions, and we’ve talked about how to hold hosted events. Today, we want to turn our attention to event headliners, and specifically, how to convince an A-level local or national celebrity to appear at your event.

Almost every non-profit runs a major fundraising event each year, and most of those that do wish they could land a key local, regional, or national celebrity, politician, businessperson or sports figure to speak at or be honored at their marquee fundraiser. Most of these non-profits spend lots of time dreaming about who they would like to have, and then settle for someone else because they have no idea how to reach a celebrity.

If you’d like to have an amazing headliner at your next event, follow these four simple steps:

1. Figure out whom to approach.

Before reaching out to anyone, figure out who you want to approach. My suggestion would be to start with a very broad list, then narrow it down to a final group of 3-5 celebrities. When making your list, keep two key criteria in mind:

First, the celebrities on your list will need to appeal to your audience. If you’re running an event primarily attended by senior citizens, don’t invite the latest teen idol. Similarly, while a talking head from CNBC will appeal to an audience of financial industry professionals and stock brokers, that same guest will be far less appealing to a 20-something crowd.

Second, the celebrities on your list should be a stretch for your organization, but not in the realm of impossible. For example, if you are a new organization that doesn’t have any track record of celebrity guests, focus on a local headliner that seems just out of reach… the local news anchor, the mayor of your town, or a local professional athlete. If, on the other hand, you’ve been doing this for a while, you can start to look at regional and national headliners.

2. Figure out at least 3 different ways to reach that person.

Unless you have an amazing connection to one of your target celebrities, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to convince them to appear through just one contact or letter. A more prudent approach is to try to figure out at least three different ways to reach celebrity you are working on.

For example, to convince a popular state governor to appear as the honoree at a non-profit fundraising event I once managed, we found a board member with a connection to the lieutenant governor, we developed a relationship with the guv’s local staff director, we had a friend of the organization who knew a big donor to the governor make a call, and we went through “official” scheduling channels. All four channels were working at the same time…

3. Craft an appealing pitch.

Know your targets, and craft an appealing pitch that will work for them. Does the celebrity have an affinity for your cause? Does one of their family members? Does your celebrity have any reason to want to be in front of the group of people you will have in your audience (for example, a local politician may want to be in front of potential donors close to an election, and a local real estate developer may want to be in front of wealthy empty-nesters who may want to purchase a new luxury nest in the city).

Try to figure out what about your organization and your event will be most appealing to the celebrities you are targeting. As with any ask, be sure to keep it mission-centered and emotional, including stories of those you will help through the event revenue.

4. Hit them from every angle.

This is the most important step, and the one that seems most intimidating to non-profits. Once you have your targets and you’ve crafted a pitch, it’s time to hit your targeted headliners from every angle.

You have to actually pick up the phone and call those people you have connections with who also know the celebrity, and ask them to commit to help. Don’t just send a letter to the headliner. Get on the phone, make calls, hold meetings, and work every angle that you can.

In the example I presented above about getting the governor to an event, it took working all four channels to succeed. Another time, we worked every angle without success… until our deputy finance director sent the target celebrity (who was also a well-known food aficionado) a delivery of one of our city’s culinary delicacies (she sent enough for the celebrity and his whole office). It worked, and he appeared at an event that raised over $250,000.

Getting Your Headliner to Help Raise Money

If you convince a celebrity to headline your event, either as a performer, speaker, or honoree, the next step is to see if you can get the celebrity to help you raise money for your event. The best way to do this is to ask if there is anyone the person would like you to invite, and also to send the headliner a stack of invitations they can use. If the person is being “honored” at the event, ask them who you should contact at purchasing tables close to the “honoree table.”

A Word on Headliner Pay to Play

One final word on celebrity headliners… occasionally, you’ll come across headliners who require a fee for their attendance or performance at your event. I have never used such celebrities, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this… the celebrity’s stock in trade is their talent and popularity, and they can’t be expected to always give it away for free.

That being said, if you build a relationship with the celebrity, or forge a real emotional connection with them through your mission and your approaches, it’s highly likely that they will be willing to perform or appear gratis, simply to support the event. Only pay for celebrity headliners when you can’t find one who will come for free, and when you are absolutely sure that the headliner’s attendance will dramatically increase your fundraising revenue from that particular event.

Photo Credit: modenadude