Haute Couture Fundraising

The phrase, “haute couture” refers to the creation of exclusive, custom-fitting clothing.  This clothing is made from high-quality, expensive fabric, sewn expertly by the most experienced of seamstresses, and form-fitted for a particular client.  Haute couture emerged in the mid 1800s in France.  You know the names of many of the official haute couture firms – Chanel, Christian Dior, Armani, to name a few.

On the other hand, the term, “pret-a-porter,” is used to describe factory-made, or standardized clothing sold in finished form.  It’s the “off the rack” clothing that is available to the masses.

Here’s the interesting thing.  Because haute couture is extremely expensive to make and because pret-a-porter collections deliver higher revenues, every haute couture house also has pret-a-porter collections.  In fact, some fashion firms quietly have abandoned their haute couture divisions to focus exclusively on their more profitable pret-a-porter collections.

But think about the reaction of most consumers when shopping for clothes.  When shopping in a local store, we are buying pret-a-porter.   But the brand (whose perception developed primarily from the house’s haute couture offerings) suggests that what we are buying is similar to haute couture.  “It’s an Armani!” we tell ourselves.  So, while we are buying pret-a-porter, we are influenced by the haute couture.  It’s a halo effect.

In the development world, special, customized treatment of major donors during cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship is commonplace.  This is the fundraising equivalence to the haute couture fashion lines.  It costs more to segment and treat these donors personally and differently.  But, unlike haute couture fashion, customized donor strategies provide a huge ROI.  In fact, you simply will not achieve high gift totals without “haute couture fundraising.”

But, institutions don’t regularly leverage the halo effect well.  In other words, most of our other donors don’t perceive a similar haute couture response when giving to our institutions.  There are two ways for us to change this.

First, institutions should increase the application of the Law of Exclusivity, which I recently wrote about.  Our second and third-level major donors need to feel as if they are being stewarded like leadership-level donors.  This means more creativity and energy invested in expanded stewardship programs (it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend more money though!).

Second, development professionals must provide leadership to the crafting and implementation of institution-wide integrated marketing plans.  Our marketing plans should articulate compelling reasons why donors of all levels will want to be part of our institution.  These plans should help separate – in meaningful ways – our institutions from others in the minds of prospective donors.  They should position our institutions as a philanthropic leaders -a haute couture institution.  And they should provide all donors with an “It’s an Armani!” feeling when giving to us.

The power of haute couture is more than quality, it’s branding.


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