Special event fundraising, ugh! But if you must . . .

A flood of emails urged members of a ministry’s Outreach Committee to round-up prizes for the spring bike/walk fundraiser. We’re talking a veritable fundraiser’s dream team — networked, talented, and unafraid to ask big — being “challenged” to chase after everything from free movie passes and ice cream coupons to a $5-$10 gift certificate.  “Or whatever the owner is willing to give.”

It’s a toss-up whether I cry or scream about the colossal waste of volunteer time and connections.

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As all who’ve worked with or listened to me know, I’m a long-time critic of fundraising by special event. Most events yield a meager profit for small to mid-size nonprofits. Add staff time to the expense column and the ROI is even more pathetic. Big money events are the exception, not the rule – at least that’s my observations.

But even as I write this, I know there are board members, ministry heads, and development staff hot on the trail of the latest, greatest fundraising event (e.g. the myriad variations on the Ice Bucket Challenge). Perhaps it’s you, dear reader. If so, please consider the following tips from fundraising consultant Craig Shelly on how to get the most from your event(s).

PLAN BEFORE YOU PLUNGE

Shelly lists “three things to focus on while planning your event that will help you realize returns afterward that are exponentially greater than the funds raised at the event itself.” His words are in regular face, mine in italics.

Differentiate

Think carefully about what will drive people to attend your event. We’ve all been to too many events and are busier than ever. Without a compelling reason, someone may donate but choose not to attend your event. The opportunity to engage that donor beyond the initial gift will be missed. Use differentiation to make your event stand out.

The challenge in this tip, of course, is out-doing last year’s differentiation with this year’s event. Chasing after a more interesting speaker, livelier entertainment, or glitzier venue becomes an all-consuming, excruciating annual game of one-upmanship.

What does it profit your organization if your event stands out from the pack, but exhausted staff and volunteers are no longer standing? Think about it.

Bring your mission to life

Everyone who attends the event needs to leave understanding what you do and why it matters. Everything about the event needs to be on-brand and communicate the message you want guests to remember when they leave. You don’t want people to leave talking about the food. You want them to leave talking about your mission. Ensure you build your program accordingly.

Sounds good, but with staff and volunteers laser focused on sizzle (differentiation), the “steak” (your organization’s mission) is easily lost in the shuffle. And even if you manage to get in a word or two about your good cause, folks there for other reasons may interpret the interruption as so much “bait and switch.”

Make a plan for each key donor in advance of the event

Research new donors and attendees as soon as you have their names. Prioritize who you want to draw in. Where will they sit? Who on your board will be prepped to interact with them and what will be the intended messaging? What happens the week after the event? The month after? Sit with key board members and solicitors in advance to co-create a plan for their guests and donors and then again after the event to learn what their guests had to say. Have them help you make a plan and engage them in it.

Do all this and you won’t hear me slam special event fundraising ever again. You have my promise, although I don’t expect I’ll need to keep it any time soon. In more than 20 years on the consulting circuit, I’ve yet to see a fundraising team mount this level of intentionality when engaged in event fundraising. That Mr. Shelly included advanced planning for follow through in his tip list, suggests he hasn’t either.

I come to the end of today’s article no more a fan of special event fundraising than when I began, but I’m open to having my mind changed. So surprise me with your advance planning. Dazzle me with your follow-through. Convince me that the end achieved justifies the effort expended. The next Generous Matters blog on this topic could be about you and your organization.

For more tips, these straight from a successful fundraiser’s mouth, check out this Movie Mondays feature, “3 Strategies for Maximizing the ROI of your Special Event.” 

What's your take on this topic?

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