5 min read

If you haven’t canceled a fundraising event yet, you probably will soon. Here are guidelines for thinking through making that decision properly.

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has caused life-altering changes throughout the entire world, and our donors and nonprofits are not exempt. It has been challenging navigating a fundraising strategy during this ever-changing environment—and it has impacted events more than anything else. As new guidance comes out daily from the CDC and health officials, organizations everywhere are struggling to make decisions on their spring and summer events.

Here are some guidelines on how to evaluate your fundraising-event strategy, explore new outreach opportunities, and keep donors connected. In a follow-up piece, I will have recommendations for taking your events virtual.

1. Make the tough decision

Many organizations are struggling with the decision to cancel or postpone their events. As the environment continues to change quickly, it is important that organizations begin gathering the appropriate information they need to make an educated decision.

Don’t be afraid to make decisions on a rolling basis while looking 3 months out.

You’ll want to ask yourself when weighing the options:

  • Does your event fall within the window or right outside the window of social distancing guidelines?
  • Is this event critical to fundraising efforts for the year, or can the activity be replaced with a virtual opportunity?
  • Do you have other events planned for later in the fall that you could leverage for fundraising purposes instead?
  • Is the location of your event in a critical zone or epicenter for the virus?
  • To what degree is your target audience being affected and what do you think their circumstances will be by the time the event takes place?

The easiest choice, but not always the best option for an organization due to the uncertainty of the current times, would be to postpone your event and ask the venue to work with you on moving it to another date later in the year. This ensures a fundraising opportunity for you before the end of the year, as well as bringing business to the venue and vendors that are struggling during this time. This also keeps you from paying any cancellation fees.

Of course, many events are being rescheduled for the fall so venue and vendor availability will be tight and competition in attracting your audience will be much steeper. With that in mind, you might want to begin contacting venues sooner rather than later so that you can get the dates you want and be ahead of the curve with sharing the new dates with your audience. Just as important, be sure to set realistic expectations with your board, supervisors, and internal stakeholders. Don’t be defeatist when you still have options—but be clear-headed about the impact on your revenue, even for a rescheduled event.

2. Assess contractual agreements for cancellation

Before making the decision to cancel your event, spend time reviewing your contractual agreements, assessing the financial risk and determining the decision timeline based on the terms of your agreement. Lean on your legal counsel to navigate what terms may be most helpful to support your argument and don’t forget to compare that information to the current guidance from federal, state, and local health authorities.

The first thing to look for is a strong force majeure clause. Several organizations have been able to cancel during this time without incurring cancellation fees by leveraging the impossibility of performance citing the (1) inability to host the event, or (2) the inability to market their event due to the gathering restrictions and audience fear of committing to attend.

If your assessment shows that you are in a strong position to cancel your event without financial penalties, it is critical that you approach negotiations as a true partner. Put yourself in the venue’s shoes as you think through your requests. Be transparent with the venue as the plan evolves and ask venues to work with you to find the best solution.

3. Decisive communication is key

With so much uncertainty, communicating early and often is vital. While debating how to move forward with your event, it is imperative to determine when final decisions will be made or updates will be given. If you are planning to postpone or cancel your event, provide very clear guidance for what people need to do. Try to remove as much uncertainty from the situation—your guests and donors will notice this and appreciate it.

Give donors enough time and don’t make a last-minute decision. You don’t want donors to incur additional costs by booking travel.

Create FAQs to post on the event website. Be sure to share internally so staff can be on message and support your team in communicating next steps.

When considering what to do with registration fees, give donors and sponsors the option to either request a refund, apply their registration to the rescheduled event date, or donate their registration fee to the organization.

Hold off relaunching marketing efforts for a postponed event until the restrictions around large gatherings begins to die down.

Prioritize personal outreach to your donors during this time. Look for opportunities to repurpose available resources to make personal phone calls to your donors keeping your tone optimistic and hopeful. This will go a long way in determining how donors may be affected by this crisis while also keeping donors connected to how the organization is handling the situation. If an event is canceled, that means personal engagement is canceled. The next best thing is to get on the phone with major donors.

4. Support your partners

This is an incredibly difficult time for our event partners. Many major hotel corporations have furloughed an unprecedented number of employees. Many of your vendors have invested resources into your event. Some of those partners may not be contractually committed to the event yet. Make sure to over-communicate to them that you are monitoring the situation, that you will be giving them updates regularly, and be transparent about the options on the table.

Remain patient and gracious as everyone is learning how to navigate this uncharted territory. Talk about options to continue the relationship if the event is postponed and end the relationship on good terms if cancelation becomes a reality. The goal is to find a solution that balances the needs of the organization while showing respect to your event partners’. Once you have finalized the negotiations, sending a thank-you note or small gift can go a long way for these relationships.

5. Conduct an after-action

Critical to managing any major incident is conducting an after-action to evaluate the decisions made. Spend some time gathering feedback internally and with your donors. Work with legal counsel to determine how best to strengthen future contract terms to protect you from situations beyond your control. Evaluate the decision-making process and document areas for improvement for the future.


Most importantly, don’t despair over your canceled events. Make sober, reasoned judgments about what changes to make. Stay in touch with your donors and be creative about recovering revenue.

Check back tomorrow for some ideas about how to pivot and take your event digital.

For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

And please join us on Thursday afternoons at 2:00 eastern time for a webinar on “Fundraising During Uncertain Times.” American Philanthropic leadership and Philanthropy Daily authors are hosting a weekly webinar to discuss the impact of the pandemic on fundraising and to answer your questions. Sign up here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *