Ever considered hosting a charitable event to raise money for your youth service organization? It sounds simple: Charge people $75 a head to come to a great party (even more for a fancy gala), or host a walkathon and ask participants to contribute to your cause. Wind up with a ton of cash, good word of mouth, new supporters, and a spot on the evenings news.
But veterans of events fundraising say it’s not as easy as it sounds. Special events, they say, take careful planning, attention to detail, months of staff and volunteer time, and, especially, an eye on the bottom line.
Add to that the fact that special events may not be the best way to raise a buck. In a 2007 study on events fundraising, charity watchdog Charity Navigator called events “an extremely inefficient way of raising contributions.”
Still, a number of the nonprofit groups studied by Charity Navigator have disputed the report’s methodology [subscription required], and the report’s authors themselves acknowledge the difficult-to-measure benefits of special events. These include boosting publicity, raising awareness of a cause, and gaining potential new donors. The fact remains that many nonprofits think the monetary and nonmonetary benefits of events are worth the hassle.
With the assistance of two FYSB grantees and a regional youth service network, we’ve compiled the following ten rules to help you make the most of your special event.
No. 1: Ask if your organization is really ready for events
Events fundraising is not a good fit for every organization. If you have a small staff and have not developed a strong corps of volunteers, it may be better to find other ways to raise money.
“It takes a lot of time to do event fundraising,” says Jim McWeeney, resources coordinator at Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, a Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee in Des Moines. “It takes less time to write grants or to raise funds from individuals.”
If you do choose to plan a charitable event, he says, make sure it fits into your overall fundraising strategy. His organization’s annual Reggie’s Sleepout fundraiser—in which participants spend the night outdoors to raise money for homeless youth programs—is an adjunct to an annual fund campaign and a United Way campaign.
“Some people look at events fundraising as a cash cow,” he says. “But if they don’t fit it into their overall fundraising context, that cash cow can be a big old black hole that drains time and money.”
No. 2: Set goals
When planning an event, says Rebecca Johnson, development manager at Family Support Services of the Bay Area, a Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program grantee in Oakland, California, “Ask yourself, ‘What are your goals?’ Then make the event meet those goals.”
For instance, in addition to deciding on the amount of money you want to raise, you might aim to have a certain number of people attend, to build relationships with specific corporate sponsors or community leaders, or to gain media coverage, she says.
Once you’ve set goals, it’s easier to know what tasks need to go into planning the event, Johnson explains. Each task should get you closer to your targets. If your main objective is to raise X number of dollars, but media coverage is not a priority this year, work hard to publicize the event to potential attendees, but don’t waste time sending out press releases.
In the case of an annual event, adjust your expectations gradually each year and make sure you choose achievable goals. For its annual sleepout, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers sets a target for the number of people who sign up for rather than attend the event. McWeeny figures it’s just as important for people to hear about and respond to the cause as to show up. Plus, he considers sign-ups a better measure of how well the event was marketed, because attendance can be affected by things out of an event planner’s control. (See rule No. 8.)
No. 3: Don’t lose sight of your mission and your message
McWeeny says his organization had experimented with different traditional fundraising events to varying degrees of success. But when his board heard about the sleep-out concept, they jumped at the idea.
“It inherently displays our mission,” McWeeny says. Even the vagaries of Iowa’s fall weather help the cause. When snow fell during the 2006 sleep-out, “It added to the message,” he says. “We were whining and complaining about one night—but boy am I glad I don’t have to do that every night.”
Johnson advises event planners to take pains to make sure the message they want to convey doesn’t get lost in the fun of the event. “Clarify your message so it gets repeated over the course of the evening: What’s in it for donors and what are they getting back by giving to the program?” she says. “You want to ensure that it doesn’t just turn into a big party with a lot of people talking without context.”
It’s more effective, she adds, to tell a story rather than give a rote recitation of your mission or a lengthy explanation of what your program does. For instance, at an afternoon concert that raised money for her organization’s mentoring children of prisoners program, one of the musicians wove into the songs a poem about his own experience of having an incarcerated parent. His story drew people in and made the event one to remember, Johnson says.
Reggie’s Sleepout 2008, Drake Stadium,
Des Moines, IA
Courtesy of Iowa Homeless Youth Centers
Another way to get a strong message across is to feature your organization’s leaders prominently. When supporters of the New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services jump into the frigid, winter waters of the Atlantic to raise money for homeless youth in the annual Polar Bear Plunge, the network’s swim suit-clad executive director is at their sides.
No. 4: Know your audience
Ask yourself who your main constituents are and whom you’re trying to reach. Are they people who’d enjoy an afternoon jazz concert or a formal evening dinner? Or are they crazy folks willing to plunge into the Atlantic in February or sleep out in a snow storm? Would they be willing to pay big bucks for a meal, or would they be more willing to raise money from friends and family?
Look back to your goals, too. Want to reach the media? A sleep out, polar bear plunge, or walkathon could get you publicity, but a standard dinner and auction likely won’t, unless you have a famous keynote speaker or entertainer. Want to appeal to corporate funders? Think about the kind of audience they would want to attract.
No. 5: Plan for efficiency
A successful event is all in the planning, Johnson and McWeeny say. With so many tasks to accomplish—from marketing to soliciting corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations, from securing a location to the logistics of the event itself, from designing invitations to writing thank you notes—events take a massive time commitment.
Badly planned events can hinder, rather than aid, the organization’s mission and fundraising. “If you don’t plan carefully, you’re taking people away from providing direct services, and that’s not acceptable,” McWeeny says. “And if you’re taking people away from more efficient ways of fundraising, that’s not acceptable either.”
To maximize the value of the time and money you spend—and to keep from overspending on things you don’t need—Johnson says to think about how you can run the event most efficiently. “Don’t include too many things,” she says. “Events always go longer than you think.” And little details that seem to matter when you plan them may go completely unnoticed by your guests.
But do pay attention to the things that will make the experience better for attendees. If your onsite registration goes smoothly, guests will come again next year. If they have to wait in line, they might not come back.
No. 6: Divide and conquer
Johnson estimates that she spends most of the 3 months leading up to her organization’s annual event, well, planning the event. “Which, if you think about it, is a quarter of the year,” she says.
Giving up that amount of staff time to event planning is unthinkable if you don’t have a dedicated fundraising staff. And even if you do, planning a major event can sidetrack them from their other fundraising duties, Johnson says.
Splitting duties up among staff, volunteers, and board members can make planning go a lot more smoothly, as long as there is regular communication among them. Johnson and McWeeny recommend having an event planning committee or tasking your board with planning the event. Select committee members who can contribute expertise, connections, or visibility: graphic or Web designers, people with past event planning experience, community leaders, local business people, or members of the media. You’ll also want a balance of people with good strategic ideas and those willing to roll up their sleeves and help as much as they can.
Beyond your committee, recruit volunteers to help with office work, stuffing envelopes, and making phone calls. On the day of the event, task volunteers with staffing your registration table, giving directions, and helping to set up and clean up.
No. 7: Don’t plan an event on Super Bowl Sunday
In 2007, the New England Network accidentally planned its Polar Bear Plunge on Super Bowl Sunday. The event’s earnings dropped $10,000 from the previous year’s high of $45,000, says Cindy Wilson, the network’s director of training.
Wilson advises checking your calendar for holidays, large local festivals or conferences, and other events that might clash with your own.
No. 8: Consider the weather
Yes, the weather is unpredictable. If you’re planning an outdoor event, have a rain or snow date. Even an indoor event can be affected by the weather. If it’s raining cats and dogs outside, people might decide not to come.
And good weather is something to be prepared for, too, because it can boost attendance past your expectations. Even with snowy conditions, the 2006 Reggie’s Sleepout had more than 100 walk-on participants.
No. 9: Rely on sponsors and in-kind donations
A good way to avoid the high costs of planning an event are to beg, borrow, and—well, don’t steal. But you can get a lot of things for free or at low cost: food, goody bags and door prizes, auction items, ad space, invitations and programs, speakers’ and entertainers’ fees, and venue costs. A committed corporate or individual sponsor might even be willing to cover all or most of your administrative costs for the event.
To solicit sponsorships and in-kind donations, Johnson says, “You can do the cold call approach. But it’s ideal to get your board or committee to figure out who they know.”
No. 10: Let sponsors, volunteers, and participants know how grateful you are
McWeeny admits that one of his missteps as a novice event planner was not paying enough attention to sponsors. “You really have to look after sponsors and you have to treat them special if you want them to remain involved after the event’s over,” he says.
He suggests involving sponsors in marketing design and logo placement and “acknowledging the heck out of them.” That means mentioning them prominently in invitations, programs, and announcements and giving them a moment on the stage, if possible.