If you have never heard this at a Board or Committee meeting, you haven’t been in fundraising very long.
I started my fundraising career in an organization that earned 100% of its private sector revenue from fundraising events. The fact that I was hired as Director of Marketing and Public Relations, and not Director of Development, didn’t seem to faze the Fundraising Committee, though. On my first day on the job, they handed me a file marked, “Tribute Dinner, October 25”. Today was July 9th and even though I did not consider myself to be a wiz at math, I was able to quite quickly calculate how little time there was till the curtain was scheduled to rise.
“Who is being honored at this event?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet for sure,” a Committee member responded, “but we’re hoping that Fenella Davidson will say yes. We’re working through her aide.”
Fenella Davidson was a politician who had ascended the ranks into a very influential position. She was also universally disliked.
I continued. “Where is this tribute dinner being held?”
“At the Hilton, main ballroom. It holds eight hundred comfortably but we can push it to one thousand if necessary.”
As casually and carefully as possible, I asked: “What are your current projections on attendance?”
Committee members looked at each other to see who would answer. No one did.
Not wanting them to feel awkward, I inquired, “What is your breakeven point?” [Another prolonged silence — definitely awkward. Great first impression, Penelope.]
Moving on, I probed, “How many tickets have been sold to date?”
Responding with an air of exasperation, the Chair of the Fundraising Committee walked me through the main points — no tickets had been sold because no tickets had been printed, and no tickets had been printed because the guest of honor had yet to be confirmed.
“But, the bottom line is that we’re moving forward. The hotel insisted on a 30% deposit so there’s no way we can walk away now. Besides, we’re already in the hole from last year’s Bowl-a-thon.”
That was twenty-eight years ago and, obviously, I survived. But I wish I knew then what I know now about what fundraising events can and cannot achieve for not-for-profit organizations. In case you are struggling with something similar at the moment, here are my criteria that make a fundraising event worth doing. As you will see, they have very little to do with the event itself and very much to do with everything else that happens in your organization to raise money.
What to take into account when considering a new fundraising event:
- It has the potential to attract a different demographic from the donors currently typical of your organization’s supporters. For example, it is very appealing to young donors whereas your current donor profile is considerably older.
- It does not add yet another obligation to donors who already give to you in multiple ways, avoiding the risk of over-solicitation, which can make them stop giving entirely.
- It does not run the risk of “downgrading” gifts from current donors. For example, if a donor attends your event for a ticket price of $100, will he say he’s already given when you approach him later in the year for a $5000 gift which prospect research tells you he is capable of giving?
- It genuinely affords volunteers an opportunity to be involved in a rewarding fundraising experience. By rewarding, I mean that it helps gel the group or builds their confidence which, in turn, makes them willing to get involved in more demanding ways, like opening doors with new donors or closing major gifts.
- Whatever staff support is required to plan and run the event can be contracted out on a fee-for-service basis. (I assume you’ll like this one; the worst downside of events is that they co-opt the time of professional fundraisers, which should be devoted to more lucrative relationship building and major gifts asks.)
- The event has the potential for long-term sustainability. No event remains popular forever, but an event done once and never again is a waste of time, resources and volunteer goodwill.
- The event is not weather-dependent or extraordinarily high risk in some other way. If it is weather-dependent, there is a Plan B that is not and which can be quickly moved into place.
- The not-for-profit is not dependent upon the profit from this event the first time it is run. This requires a very strategic Board to take this into account. Usually the reason why an untried event is on the table for discussion is because there is an anticipated shortfall. A first-time event should have a budget and the Board should be willing to lose money in order to test the concept for its appeal and future ability to earn ever-increasing NET revenue.
To that list I have recently added something else which extends from research we conducted earlier this year. We have found that sponsors of participants in athletic-type events like run-a-thons have a greater interest in the mission of the not-for-profit than one might think. And, a good proportion of them would be willing to give philanthropically (i.e. directly to the organization) if they were asked, and especially if the runner endorsed it. At the same time, donor acquisition through direct marketing appeals is becoming more and more difficult, so a fundraising event that has the potential to convert event attendees or supporters to direct donors is also worth doing.
I look back on my first years in fundraising events now as a very useful experience because I now see that events can be truly valuable, though seldom for the superficial reasons that drive people to put them on. I do experience one or two long-term side effects, though. I shake uncontrollably whenever I am within two hundred yards of a bowling alley.