Five Things to Keep in Mind When Planning a Special Event
Special events are a great opportunity for a nonprofit organization to raise money for its cause, engage the community and increase awareness of the good work it does. But they often require a lot of work and a good deal of resources, and they can be tricky to pull off the first few times out.
In his “Guide to Special Events Fundraising,” CFRE Ken Wyman helps nonprofit fundraisers navigate the rough terrain of special events, discussing everything from ethics, getting as much as you can donated, the benefits of challenge grants, the ins and outs of auctions, and getting enough volunteers.
Wyman is a fundraising consultant and professor of fundraising who teaches a post-graduate course in fundraising for charities at The Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto.
Another topic he touches on in the book is how to guarantee income before you sell the first ticket for your special event, mainly through sponsorship.
“One of the most important and rapidly emerging areas is sponsorship, particularly corporate sponsorship,” Wyman says. “More and more, businesses want to have an involvement with special events, particularly in the areas of sports and arts and culture, because it’s an excellent way for them to build brand, reach an audience, sample products, drive traffic into retailers and achieve a variety of other goals. They’re often willing to pay very substantial rights fees for this, so we can have all the costs of our events covered long before we start thinking about attendance.”
Wyman says the first thing an organization needs to do when gearing up to get sponsors for an event is figure out what makes the event attractive to sponsors, which can require some calculations and some research. Sponsors naturally are more interested in events that are well attended or broadcast to a wide audience, but Wyman says it’s not always a question of sheer numbers.
“In some cases, it’s quality or, as one sponsor put it, ‘It’s not about how many, but who many,’” he says.
Consider the demographics of the audience the event will attract. What are the age group, gender, income bracket, psychographics and buying habits of most potential participants? To get this information, survey attendees after the event each year. Find out things like the types of cars they like, whether they drink alcohol — if so, do they prefer wine, beer or liquor and what are their favorite brands — the magazines and newspapers they read, TV stations they watch, what type of sports are they interested in, etc.
“All of that helps us begin to pull together a package that will be attractive to a sponsor to establish fees,” Wyman says.
Following are Wyman’s top five things to know to help you pull-off a successful special event:
1. Remember that the only thing that matters is getting people to attend the event -- more important than the decor, the entertainment and anything else that happens during the event. Wyman says that because selling tickets is one of the least glamorous, least fun aspects of organizing a special event, it often is neglected. “I’d rather have an event that was well attended but simple than events that were gorgeous, had amazing food and wonderful entertainment, but a very light crowd,” Wyman adds.
2. Except in very rare cases, publicity doesn’t sell tickets. Unless you have some super-duper, A-list act coming to the event, tickets will predominantly be sold by volunteers to their friends, family and other networks. Because of that, organizations must have a large network of ticket sellers. Wyman says that, on average, most volunteer ticket sellers will sell about five tickets each.
3. There should be more than one admission price. Wyman recommends testing your market by offering a few special tickets that cost a little more but carry with them some added benefit.
“Call them gold tickets, if you will, and have those priced typically 50 percent to 100 percent more than the regular priced ticket,” he says. “The good news is if it turns out that nobody wants to buy any of those tickets, nothing’s lost. Just go ahead and sell the regular-priced tickets anyway. But much more often the charities involved are amazed to discover how many people are willing to buy the higher-priced tickets.”
If more than 10 percent of the people attending your event one year bought the highest-priced ticket, Wyman says you should add another level of higher-priced tickets the next year.
4. There are more creative, productive ways to raise additional income at an event than by having a cash bar. Wyman says one of the most effective is to have a live auction.
“Now, I have to note that it can be difficult to organize an auction. Getting the right prizes is extra work,” he says. “But when you get the right audience, the bidding frenzy can increase the revenue very substantially.”
An auction can include as few as three items or as many as a couple dozen.
5. View your event as a long-term commitment. Focus on organizing an event that you can repeat at least once a year, maybe more often. Invest in reporting and analysis tools that will help you improve the event year after year.
“We have to recognize that the first time anybody launches into an event, there are going to be mistakes, and that’s OK if it’s a learning experience and the organization comes away with a new and improved product,” Wyman says.
Ken Wyman’s book, “Guide to Special Events Fundraising,” can be downloaded for free at www.greenability.org, and he offers free fundraising tips via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org