Too frequently nonprofit organizations rush—enthusiastically and blindly—into a fundraising event after fundraising event. Avoid wasted time and funds by reflecting on their value and, if you do host one, preparing adequately.
Events are the nonprofit fundraising equivalent of Twitter: We all use it, we all complain about it, and then we all get right back to using it again.
The cycle is probably familiar to you at this point: Organization holds brainstorming session about new revenue sources; someone pitches the idea of an event and everyone loves it; organization proceeds to spend next four months in a black hole of event preparation; organization struggles to garner enough interest for event, inciting a last-minute, all-hands-on-deck push to get bodies in the room; organization hosts event, which is a success but doesn’t quite net the revenue expected … fast forward two months to another brainstorming session, where someone pitches the idea of an event. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s an overly cynical picture, and events can be used effectively as part of an organization’s overall fundraising efforts. But far too often, organizations fail to consider why they’re hosting an event, which affects how they host the event, which in turn hinders the effectiveness of the event.
For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’m going to limit myself to talking about events from a fundraising perspective. There are other benefits—for instance, raising your organization’s public profile, celebrating an organizational milestone, or conveying that you are a certain caliber of organization (i.e., a successful one that hosts serious, flagship events). Of course, in any of these cases, the event is still part of your overall fundraising strategy, but fundraising isn’t the primary or only purpose for such events.
At American Philanthropic, we believe that fundraising boils down to two essential elements: bringing in new donors and upgrading the donors you already have. Events can help an organization accomplish both of these ends, provided you carefully determine which one you are pursuing with your event. The distinction is not neat and tidy, but you need to have a clear vision for the balance you seek to strike between these two objectives in order, then, to establish expectations, goals, and the event’s program accordingly.
IDENTIFY THE GOALS OF THE EVENT
If your organization would like to emphasize identifying new donors, then you need to cast a wide net in your outreach, set lower revenue goals, and tailor the evening’s program around introducing attendees to your organization. High-level sponsorships will be few, and you might end the event in the red—but you’ll also have established a strong connection with 100 or more qualified donor prospects that you otherwise might not have found. The event, in other words, is a long-term investment, not an immediate revenue-producer. (Importantly, this raises the question as to whether an event is the best way to acquire new donors. For some organizations—especially those for whom direct-mail acquisition is not feasible—the answer may be yes.)
To cut down on the revenue lost at a donor-acquisition event, keep a laser focus on upgrading donors who could be giving more. Leverage the excitement of the event—as well as the opportunity for public recognition—to offer them ambitious but achievable sponsorship levels. This means that your key donor targets are the topmost donors. Celebrate their accomplishments in growing the organization and make it clear that you are grateful for their generosity. In addition to bringing in sponsorship money, you’ll engender warm and fuzzy feelings among your current donors, so that they stay at their new giving level or, even better, continue to raise it. More importantly, you will signal to your newly acquired donors or prospects that you appreciate, honor, and respect your donors—not a bad welcome to a new organization.
If your event, on the other hand, is focused on upgrading your current donors, then the same principles about celebrating and recognizing your donors obtain, but your preparation should look different. Begin planning far enough in advance so that the president and major gifts officers have time to meet with donors, announce the event, and prepare their donors for upgraded asks—and make sure everyone involved in fundraising is coached on how to pitch event sponsorships at upgraded levels. Discipline yourselves to avoid the temptation to give away seats to prospects who have not made a gift to the organization. This does not mean to avoid inviting prospects to the event, but to make sure that your priorities are straight: donors first and prospects second.
Establishing the goal of your event will also help you determine whether or not you will have a direct solicitation at your event. If you view your event primarily as a tool for donor acquisition, the event itself will probably be your most promising opportunity to pitch these prospective donors. If your event is geared more toward upgrading or thanking current donors, you might want to omit a hard ask.
THE LYNCHPIN: EVENT FOLLOW-UP
Clearly the distinction between a prospect-focused event a donor-focused event is not absolute. Every event is a blend of new donor engagement and current donor cultivation (as well as, of course, the non-fundraising benefits). And as I’ve hinted, the real benefit of an event comes not before or during the event, but afterward.
This becomes apparent as you begin to calculate the costs. The gross revenue number may sound impressive, but after taking into account renting the venue space, the caterer, production of the commemorative video, the party favors, and so on—and don’t forget staff time and the associated opportunity costs—the outlook starts to look much less rosy.
However, if you have planned well and began with a realistic perspective, you will have already laid out your plan for follow-up: contact info was captured, the thank-you notes are already printed, and you’re ready to capitalize on all the positive feelings your event engendered in your guests.
You’re ready, in other words, to get back to the bread and butter of your fundraising efforts: thanking donors, calling donors, meeting with donors—and making asks. The true payoff for most events doesn’t come until the follow-up: the calls, meetings, and direct asks after the event.
An event serves as an effective mechanism for both bringing in new donors and upgrading existing ones. But it is critical to view your event as just that: one mechanism out of many. A fundraising event, no matter how successful, will never fund your annual operations, nor can it replace regular fundraising efforts. This calculation must occur in that first brainstorming session when someone suggests the idea of a lavish fundraising event that will take up months of precious staff time. The answer doesn’t have to be no, but it ought not be a naïve “yes.” A savvy approach to events sets clear goals and expectations, a disciplined strategy, and prepares rigorous follow-up plans—all while bearing in mind the hard costs and opportunity costs associated with an event.
With this in mind, you’ll be prepared to transcend the Twitter cycle of events—and to say “no” more frequently and “yes” more intelligently.