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1-On-1 With Nicole Walters: Relevance Rules In Engaging Members and Sponsors

Lori Halley 23 October 2014 0 comments

The 1-On-1 Advisory Series is a special feature on the Wild Apricot blog in which we interview stand-out members of our Small Membership Advisory Community.

In this session, Shiv Narayanan and I interviewed Nicole Walters, Program Manager of the San Diego Venture Group, a non-profit organization focused on entrepreneurship, new ventures and networking. This is the first of two blog posts we’ve created offering highlights from our interview with Nicole.

From “Cool Companies” to “match-maker” programs, Nicole explains how her organization has “stayed relevant”, launching programs that benefit members as well as their sponsors – who play an important role in their non-profit’s success.

Full audio recording of our interview with Nicole

If you’d like to listen to the entire audio recording of our interview with Nicole, you can access it here:

Wild Apricot: Nicole, can you tell us about your organization – your mission, your objectives, and a little about your role?

Nicole Walters: San Diego Venture Group is a non-profit networking organization. We support capital formation in San Diego in the high tech and life science industries. We offer different programs throughout the year for networking and education purposes. We also do a little bit of match-making, as well, to connect companies with venture capitalists in the San Diego area. So we do a little bit of everything, but we do hold 11 large programs a year and those are typically between 250 people, upwards to 700 people, depending on the program.

Our organization has been around for almost 30 years. But although we have a lot of members – close to 800 – our staff is small. We just brought on a new president, and there’s me, along with two consultants that help us on a part-time, remote basis.

I am technically the only full-time employee, so I really get to wear a lot of different hats in the organization. I manage all of our programs, from conception – working with committee members – all the way through to execution of the actual event and program. I also manage our membership and sponsorship, as well.

Why don’t you offer a little more detail about the events your organization focuses on?

Of the 11 events, 8 are breakfast programs, which are free for our members. They typically have a very similar format: little bit of networking; then we’ll have a moderator; then a little more networking; and then a sit-down breakfast. We do mix that up occasionally with an evening event. These networking and educational events for entrepreneurs, executives, business advisors, investors, really anyone in the industry, looking to learn more, to network and meet new people, or an update on what’s going on in the industries.

The remaining three, we call our premium programs. We just had one in August, which is our summer social beer bash. There’s no educational aspect – it is really just a fun party to celebrate the end of summer. We do beer tasting from local breweries and we have a live band.

The other two premium events are our Venture Summit, an annual conference we hold every summer. That’s our largest event, with just over 700 people from all over the country. We bring venture capitalists from all over for a networking event the evening before the conference. Then the next day we have nine different speakers, and 30 what we call “Cool Companies” exhibit at the conference – showcasing what is cool, new and up-and-coming here in San Diego. 

Staying relevant is key to member engagement and retention

San Diego Venture Group started in 1986, so it’s been around for a while. How do you maintain event attendance and encourage people to keep coming back?

I think it’s a matter of staying relevant and current on the trends and what’s going on in the industry right now. Although the organization has been around for almost 30 years, the past four years have really been a big change for us. We’ve implemented a couple of new programs. Cool Companies was started three or four years ago. Then we also launched another program where we do the match-making, where we bring venture capitalists from out of town, who are looking to write a check, and we introduce them to companies and hold one-on-one meetings.

And then also our Venture Summit, the big conference, we’ve been evolving the program as the years go on. We used to have one or two, now we have nine speakers. And then we also showcase new technologies at the conference. I think it’s just a matter of constantly evolving and really paying attention to what people want. They want to network. They want to see companies. So you really have to make all those different things work. 

“Give things a try” and “listen to what people liked and what they didn’t like.”

How do you determine what your members are looking for? Is it about offering a spectacular event with great speakers and effective marketing?

I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, there is some trial and error, you know. Our board of directors or our president will have a new idea that goes with our mission. So we give it a try and see the feedback we get.

Or sometimes we will launch a program based on what people say, and we get those opinions in a couple different ways. Whether it’s through post-event surveys – anyone that registers for our events, we follow up with them with a simple Survey Monkey survey asking questions such as: Did you like the event? Was it what you expected, better than expected? Did you meet who you wanted to meet? What would you like to have seen differently? And we really do read those responses.

I think it’s important to listen to what people liked and didn’t like. You can really change a program based on that. So, a little bit of listening to people directly, whether they’re sending us emails, or calling us on the phone. 

Sponsorship key source of income

Are your events designed as a member benefit or are they also key sources of income for your organization?

No. Our source of income would be our sponsors. Our sponsorship levels go all the way up to $15,000 a year. So depending on the level of benefits you’re looking for, the level of engagement within the organization, and the different programs you’d like to be associated with would be a different level. We try and offer low-cost member networking events to support entrepreneurs and a lot of times they don’t have extra money. We try to be as flexible as possible, and we do lose money on our events. So we are supported through our sponsors, absolutely. 

Relationship-focused sponsor process

What procedures do you have in place to procure these sponsors? Is it purely the power of networking through your board, or is there a lot of outreach involved?

A little bit of both. When I joined the organization, almost four years ago, the number of sponsors that we had was nowhere near what it is right now. Like you were saying, a lot of organizations just aren’t putting a lot of effort into that as a fundraising source. So when we brought on our new president, we realized that this was an area we could improve on. So we created a sub-committee on our board of directors that is our sponsorship committee.

It’s a group of about six people and they are all sponsors and board members. We get together quarterly and talk about different targets. We’ll divide and conquer different tasks. You know, this person should reach out to this organization, or this company. And some of our sponsors participate because they get direct benefits by either the exposure, or inviting clients. Other people are sponsors because they want to benefit the community. I think it’s been really helpful to have this sub-committee and identify why people sponsor organizations like ours and not only what do we get out of it, but what do they get out of it, and how can we alter those benefits to really cater to different people’s needs?

Is sponsor outreach through email marketing, telephone, networking events, or direct mail? 

Well, we don’t do any direct mail advertising. The way that we recruit new sponsors is definitely relationship-focused. We will have an idea of someone we want to target because it makes sense that they would be involved in an organization like ours, or they sponsor other organizations with similar missions.

Once we target a company, then we usually start with a phone call or an email, and then we do a follow-up meeting in person. Sometimes there will be a face-to-face connection at a mutual networking event. We recently signed on a new sponsor for next year because our president and one of our board members was at an event with the marketing manager of this large company. So sometimes it's face-to-face, but it’s always relationship-driven.

Is there an information package that you send out; and what things do you highlight when you’re pitching the sponsorship?

We do have a package that we put together, and we don’t advertise that packet. We don’t like to send that out until we have learned more about the company. Really, we want [the sponsorship] to be beneficial for both sides. So usually we will start with either a conference call with some key people within both parties, or a simple email introduction. Then we’ll have a face-to-face meeting, and that’s when we would get more into the nitty-gritty. You know, “how can we cater this to meet your needs?” But we’re not just trying to sell. You know, we want it to be mutually beneficial.

Sponsor benefits 

What types of benefits do you provide to sponsors?

Something that we do, that not all organizations do, is we have annual sponsors and not just event sponsors. So we talk about that almost a year in advance – who’s interested, and what types of topics, and what is your target audience? The [sponsor] benefits would include the annual recognition on our website, on our banners, at all of our events. In addition, with the different levels of sponsorship, you get assigned to a particular event.

And the larger the program, the larger the sponsorship. For example, we have four different sponsors for our event next week, but only the lead sponsor gets to actually have stage time and welcome the audience and introduce the panel, although all of the [sponsors] will have information available at the event.

So depending on the level, [sponsors] have different exposure. And beyond those benefits, sponsors get an opportunity to be a board member. And then you get free tickets to all the events – to invite employees, or potential clients. So we love our sponsors, and they completely support us, so whatever they want, we will do our best to make happen.

Closing advice for small membership peers

If you were going to offer advice to the staff or volunteer leader of another small membership organization, what would be the one key thing that you'd say to help them out?

I would say two things. Prioritizing is really key because when you don't have a large staff, or you do have a small organization and there is so much that you want to do, you really just have to try and stick to your mission and figure out what is important right now. So I think time management and prioritizing is a really big deal.

And also, try new things. Don't be afraid to fail. If you don't try new things, maybe you aren't doing things as innovative as you could be doing. So, try and do new things, but also prioritize in introducing those new things.

More insight from Nicole – coming soon

There was so much terrific insight from our interview with Nicole that we’ve created a second blog post – Member Recruitment & Retention: It’s About Being flexible & Personal. So watch the Wild Apricot Blog for this post next week.

Please note: as we publish this post, Nicole Walters has relocated to Utah and left her position at SDVG. We wish her well in her new role

Image source:  Business-man-brainstorming - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 23 October 2014 at 8:30 AM
Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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