Special events can range from a bake sale to a gala dinner-dance for hundreds of your community’s social elites, from a neighborhood walkathon to a telethon broadcast on local radio or television. The scale of your event needs to match your nonprofit’s capacity for carrying it out.
A seated dinner with one or more honorees, a live auction, and corporate sponsors will likely be beyond the reach of new or small nonprofits. Even a barbeque and silent auction might require more organizational time and talent than you can muster. Seriously examine if you have the volunteer and staff resources to carry out a particular event.
You will also want to ask yourself if your existing donor base can support the event. Can they afford a high-priced ticket? Might the event attract new donors to your cause? You also want to determine if event ticket sales will be new income or simply shift your loyal annual fund donors to event ticket buyers. The latter will result in a net reduction of fundraising income due to the cost of the event.
- There are additional opportunities and challenges unique to raising donations through events you should consider.
- Special events must be financially successful. Create realistic income projections, allowing room to exceed the projection. Assign someone to maintain a tight grip on the expense budget, whether you’re paying for cupcake mix or renting the largest ballroom in your town.
- Motivating board members and volunteers is one of the major reasons to do a special event. Many board members quake at the thought of asking a friend to give $100 to the annual fund but have no problem asking that same friend to buy a $250 gala ticket. Selling tickets is just easier than asking for donations for many people.
- Really successful special events are volunteer (not staff) driven. It’s only by bringing in people from your volunteers’ and board members’ networks that you can reach the critical mass of participation needed to make an event financially successful. If you don’t have a dedicated core of volunteers to work on your event, don’t do it.
- Special events can be the black hole of staff time. Even the most well-intentioned volunteers can overwhelm staff with event details, obsessing over tablecloth colors and revising the seating chart for the millionth time. Don’t authorize a special event unless you know that your staff members can add it to their other duties and/or accept the fact that nothing else will get done during the two months leading up to your major event.
Hiring a special events consultant will provide valuable expertise and experience, but the consultant will require staff support that will still eat into time dedicated to other staff responsibilities.
- Allow sufficient planning time. A major fundraising dinner with one or more honorees will require advance planning of a year. Six months or more might be needed to gather high-quality items for an auction. Create a realistic timeline specific to your event, and stick with it.
- Games of chance might incur government regulations. If you’re planning a casino night or even a raffle, check with local and state regulations to make sure you stay on the right side of the law. For example, if you sell raffle tickets for a suggested donation, the buyers can count that as a tax deductible donation, but if the price of the ticket is not voluntary, it not only isn’t tax deductible, but might also need to be licensed by your state’s gambling authority.
- Programming must reflect your nonprofit’s mission and values. You want the special event to educate participants about what you do and create positive publicity, so choose your venue, performers, speakers, and honorees carefully. Is the most expensive hotel in town the right venue when you’re raising money for the homeless? Should an environmental charity honor a real estate developer with a less than sterling environmental record?
- Be clear with honorees about expectations for fundraising. It’s common to expect a corporate honoree to make a major contribution to the event. With individuals, it varies. You would likely expect a philanthropist you’re honoring to make a major contribution, but if the honoree is a practitioner in your nonprofit’s field the person might not have the means to provide major support. In any case, be clear about fundraising expectations and goals.
- Special event donors are different than regular donors. Face the fact that most special event donors will give only through special events. Set your expectations accordingly.
- Be innovative. Try to think beyond the events that every other charity does. For example, for a youth orchestra, try a “practice-a-thon” where the students ask friends and family to sponsor their practice time for a week. Prizes for the students would be the only expense, resulting in a high net profit.
You can raise a lot of money with special events, but do so with your eyes wide open to the difficulties as well as the potential.
Waddy Thompson is the author of “The Quick Wise Guide to Fundraising Readiness: How to Prepare Your Nonprofit to Raise Funds,” from which he developed this article. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org