Fundraising Events: Ensuring Exponential Results
I cut my professional teeth as an event fundraiser nearly 20 years ago. There was no better way to learn how to fundraise. I was forced to ask for money, form relationships quickly and articulate a case for support over and over again. Plus, I got to eat a lot of free food, which in my early 20s was a significant financial benefit! It laid a tremendous foundation for the fundraising career that followed, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is an exhausting, but certainly rewarding way to raise funds. In a well-rounded fundraising program, special events can play a key role.
Fundraising events, when done right, are the single most effective way to acquire donors at a significant level of investment, generate cashflow quickly and share your story with new people in an effective manner. Done incorrectly, fundraising events can be a bottomless sinkhole for staff time and resources.
For a successful event, I recommend focusing your efforts and attention in three key areas: generating revenue, building your brand and developing relationships with future major donors and corporate partners. If you are effective in these three areas, your fundraising efforts will yield exponential results.
A fundraising event is not a cultivation event. The two are often confused. A purpose of fundraising events can be cultivation, but it is should not be the only purpose. By definition, fundraising events should bring in money above and beyond your direct costs and after allocating indirect costs such as staff time. It seems self-evident, but I am asked it so often that it bears repeating.
Ensuring that your event contributes positively to your organization’s budget depends greatly on the event leadership. Leaders need to have a mindset that making money is a key objective. They need to set and manage the expectation that while the event experience is important, it should not rise above the goal of raising funds for your cause. Event leadership should set a high bar on quality, but not so high that it consumes all of the revenue generated!
Another key function of event leaders is to understand and have the capacity to fulfill their fundraising responsibilities. They should be able and willing to lead by example by making a large gift. It helps if they are on the “buy” side of their profession (i.e. someone who hires vendors, as opposed to being a vendor themselves).
When recruiting event leaders, I am always very clear about the specific “give-and-get” requirement. I put it in writing and discuss the requirement at length. If your prospective event chair or honoree is unwilling to meet these expectations, you should think long and hard about whether they are the right person for the job.
Build Your Brand
I spent the early part of my career working for the Boy Scouts of America in a community where special event fundraising was not just a part of our well-rounded fundraising program, but rather almost the entirety of our fundraising program.
I oversaw a team that, at one point, conducted 35 special events a year and, I’ll confess, things could become a bit routine at times. We were not always as focused on the event messaging or the organization’s brand as we should have been. Sadly, on more than one occasion I had a guest tell me as they left the event that, “I’m a big fan of the Boys & Girls Club. Keep up the good work.” You can imagine my horror that after two or more hours at an event, some guests didn’t even know the name of the organization being celebrated.
My advice is to have a clear message about your organization and ensure it is communicated throughout the event, repeatedly. The communications package, from the stage, the décor and the printed materials to the entertainment program, should all be on message and connected to your brand. You want guests to leave talking about your work and your organization—not the food or, as was my unfortunate experience, another charity. It is also important that the overall event experience matches your audience and brand. A pot luck event is entirely appropriate for the local volunteer firehouse. It is not appropriate for a private university’s annual gala. The experience and quality of the event in terms of the location, the food, the entertainment, even the master of ceremonies should be in keeping with your organization’s culture and the price-point at which you are seeking philanthropic investment. Plan and budget accordingly.
Leverage Your Event as a Pipeline for Major Donors and Corporate Partners
The right leadership, as described above, will bring lots of potential new donors to your fundraising event. If the event is executed correctly, they will feel good about and inspired by your mission and organization by the end of the event. If that’s all that happens, you’ve failed. The event donors and attendees are your best prospects to become major donors and corporate partners. Converting them to an ongoing donor starts well before you get to the event.
You should review attendees and guest lists with your key event leaders and board members in advance of the event. Their insights on who they solicited and the guests they invited are priceless. Good preparation means knowing who is in the room, what their interests are and why they are attending. You can prepare for these conversations by doing some basic research and wealth screening. I suggest singling out your top prospects and assigning a key volunteer or professional leader to chat with them at the event. This will allow you to learn more about them, help them to feel “special” to your organization and warm them up for future cultivation conversations.
Hold a debrief with your volunteers and professional leaders, preferably within 24 to 48 hours. Find out who was nodding along while the program beneficiary made remarks. Who asked the right questions? Whose spouse had a personal story that connected to your mission?
Follow up with all participants via mass communication and add them to your mailing list, but for a select few (20 percent of your new donors/guests at the event is a good target to set), plan personal outreach and specific next steps. This is how you’ll increase their giving to future events and, more importantly, convert some to larger on-going donors, board members and truly invested supporters.
Fundraising Events Are Worth the Effort
Fundraising events that make money, enhance your brand and feed your major gift and corporate partnership pipeline are central to a comprehensive and well-rounded fundraising program. Hopefully the suggestions made here will allow you to add some new tools to your event fundraising toolbox!
Craig Shelley (@craigshelley) is a managing director at Orr Group, which provides nonprofits with strategy, fundraising, leadership and management solutions and has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Craig brings an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising, nonprofit management and strategy. Prior to joining Orr Group, Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and the editorial advisory board for Nonprofit PRO, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).