The Aleph Group, Inc
 
 

Interview With Michael Meyerstein, CFRE

Note: The following is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Meyerstein, CFRE, and President of The Aleph Group, Inc. It is excerpted with permission from The Concert Book: The Fund Raiser's Detailed Guide For Arranging Special Events, edited by James F. Hollan, CFRE, published by Bonus Books, Inc., pp. 136- 140. At the time of publication, Mr. Meyerstein had served for many years as Director of Development and Communications for Beth Tfiloh Community School, Baltimore, Maryland. This interview is part of a chapter, "Talking To The Experts," in which Meyerstein offers insights about the fundraising profession and special event fundraising.

P. Michael Meyerstein is a Certified Fund Raising Executive, a member of that small community of fund-raising professionals who have established their credentials by years of experience as well as years of specialized education in all aspects of fund raising. Michael has his own consulting firm, the Aleph Group, Inc. In addition to running traditional campaigns...his expertise is evidenced by his ability to put his own unique spin on the standard concert event we have just described. Michael has obtained extraordinary results by adjusting a few key principles and I believe he perfectly illustrates that success comes not from rigid imitation but from the ability to apply basic principles to your unique needs, adjusting when appropriate. I'm going to ask him to talk about his annual event at Beth Tfiloh and you should quickly see how he has adjusted some basics so that his event now has a unique life of its own.


JH:

To this point in my book I've discussed traditional concerts that charge standard ticket prices which fundamentally over the costs of the concert. Profits are made on a growing base of sponsor dollars. I also suggest that big names come with big venues. You bring big names to a small venue, have a hefty ticket price and, your event is extraordinarily successful year after year. Would you describe your event for our readers, touching in particular on the size of your venue and your ticket pricing?

MM:

Our venue is approximately 1,500 seats and we fill it. This past June, when we brought in Bill Cosby, we actually put in another 150 chairs and set up a live video feed to another part of the building. Our tickets are $175, $100 and $75. The reason we charge what we do is that our market allows it. Bringing in a high-caliber performer does allow you to charge more. I quickly point out to my clients in my consulting business, however, that people give to people more than they give to causes. The reason "someone is willing to spend $175 per ticket to see Cosby or Art Garfunkel or Itzhak Perlman is because someone has asked them to come with them or asked them to buy the ticket. Yes, we get people who get the invitation and order a ticket, but I would say that our higher-end tickets are sold because someone has asked the ticket buyer to buy.

JH:

What kind of dollars are you generating in a venue that size?

MM:

To give a little history to this, when I started with the organization in 1992, they were netting approximately $50,000 and were filling about a 1,000 seats. In June, 2000, our net from the event was nearly $400,000 on a gross of approximately $500,000.

JH:

Holy Cow! That's amazing, Michael. That's an extraordinary income for a venue that small. What a success.

MM:

Thank you for the accolades, but we raise the bar after every success, and right now I'm chewing my fingernails. This year's event is six months away and I'm four months behind in getting a chairman! Prospective chair people are turning us down because the event has become too successful and too daunting and, I think, too intimidating. People are reluctant to step to the plate because they don't want to fail. We are suddenly becoming victims of our own success.

JH:

Tell me a bit about your corporate sponsorships.

MM:

That is a key to our financial success over the years. When I started there were six businesses that gave us money over and above the ticket prices, and that was because two board members approached their vendors to give a few thousand dollars. At that time the revenue was all of $35,000. This coming June, we expect to hit about $400,000 coming from 200 businesses. It has grown substantially, and I would say that we still have plenty of room for growth. It just takes a lot of perseverance and determination to get your committee members to open up their Rolodexes and contact their prospects.

JH:

Do you look at this event primarily for the money raised or do you look beyond that?

MM:

Obviously it's done for the dollars, but equally important, we see this as a friend-raiser. It's a school-sponsored event and we pull into the audience people who represent a cross section of the community. For the past few years we've begun the event with a six or seven-minute video that profiles lots of smiling faces of children and activities. In a way it's not just PR, but also an admissions recruitment vehicle. This year we had one of the children present Bill Cosby with a special award and it was a very effective moment. All 1,800 program books had a hand-written 4x6 card by one of our students. Depending on their ability to write, the child might write a note that says "Dear Guest, Thank you for coming tonight. We appreciate your support and we thank you for thinking of us." For our younger grades, it might be some chicken scratch with a picture. Still, it is very effective and it adds a personal touch.

JH:

I know that you had a special reception with kids and Bill Cosby. Would you tell me a little about that?

MM:

In order for a child to be able to attend, a ticket had to be purchased for that child. By virtue of that purchase the child was eligible to come to the pre-event meeting with Cosby. We had well over 100 kids present of all ages. When we structured the reception with Cosby's people, it was left very fluid. He would allow children to come up and ask him questions and he would give his very clever answers. I must say that it worked beautifully and it lasted approximately 45 minutes.

JH:

Wow, that's a lovely variation. Do you use any other VIP reception or meet and greet at your event?

MM:

Oh yes. Cosby did not want to do an after-show event because he wanted to catch a plane. So we created a special cocktail reception before the concert to which we invited only our major corporate sponsors. They had a chance to have their photo taken with Cosby. We always have special receptions at our events.

JH:

Off the top of your head, Michael, could you share some advice for someone thinking of a start-up event like yours?

MM:

I'll tell you what I tell my clients. If an organization is starting out with a celebrity event, I urge conservatism. Because it's a first time effort, I tell them to exaggerate the expenses, underestimate the income, and go for a level of talent below which they ideally would like, so that they are not subject to a lot of risk and exposure. In order for them to determine how much talent they can afford, I tell them to back into that number. Essentially they should create a budget. Plug into that budget anticipated income, anticipated expenses as well as what the minimum dollar amount is that they need to net from the event. After they subtract out expenses from income they will know how much money is left for the performer. They can then go shopping for a performer based on that number. That is a very conservative way of doing it, but I get to sleep better at night and so does the client. Once they have a data base of satisfied customers for next year, they can raise the prices a little, secure a couple more corporate sponsors, to them a little more latitude to attract a bigger name. Everyone must walk before they can run.



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