17 Jan 14 Ideas to Improve Your Fundraising Events (and 7 Reasons Not to Do Them)
17 January 2023
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
I’m not a huge fan of fundraising events. So I’m going to give you a bunch of ideas about how to get the most from them, but I’m going to preface the tips by enumerating my list of reasons NOT to do them. And NOW is a good time reconsider the role events play in your fundraising calendar, because many events have been canceled in recent years.
So first, let’s define fundraising events.
Fundraising events are events that are designed to raise money directly at the event. Examples of fundraising events include gala dinners, physical activities (like runs, walks, hikes, bikes, and triathlons), music festivals, golf tournaments, and so on. The money comes from sponsorships, ticket sales, raffles and auctions, paddle raises, and merchandise.
So what’s your problem, David?
(Thank you for asking.)
First and perhaps most importantly, fundraising events don’t NET enough money. If your fundraising event nets less than $50,000, try dividing the actual net by the number of human hours involved. What’s your Return on Investment (ROI)? Fifty cents an hour? Now make the same calculation taking all Board giving OUT. Presumably, they would have given anyway. Imagine redeploying all those human hours into major gift fundraising instead. You’ll get the picture.
Here are some other reasons NOT to do events:
Fundraising events are difficult to scale. Need to raise twice as much money? It’s hard to Net twice as much, even given several years to crank it up, and nearly impossible to add another event that nets as much as the first.
Competition. Donors who attend fundraising events are often choosing between events they want to attend, instead of choosing between organizations they want to support. The more galas or runs they have to choose from, the less likely they are to consistently choose yours. The more successful fundraising events are those that have developed a reputation over time for being the most fun – not an easy task.
Inherently transactional. Fundraising events are attended by people who are buying something. Not by people who are necessarily giving to a cause. Many golf tournament participants don’t remember a month later the organization they supported. Same with music festivals. People come for the music and the beer, and not necessarily because they love the organization.
Tend to stagnate over time. For all of the reasons above, most fundraising events will tend to “run their course.” Tracking annual net returns over a number of years will help you see the point where growth begins to flatline. Without constant injections of new energy, that flatlined experience will tend to curve in the other direction.
Organizational distraction. Fundraising events tend to command an enormous amount of organizational attention and energy. There is a very real and very urgent deadline. And failure to pull it off is very public – not a good thing. As a result, activities that are perhaps less urgent yet more important tend to get ignored or at best delayed. Activities such as building relationships with major gift donors, getting thank you letters out on a timely basis, crafting proposals, or even fundraising training.
Donors feel like they have “contributed.” Even loyal donors tend to leave fundraising events feeling good about having contributed to the organization. Coming back several weeks or even several months later with a renewal notice or an appeal will often see diminished results even when added to the event results. Same donors. But the giving is stimulated by a different part of the brain. Instead of encouraging larger and larger giving, events tend to establish a “price point” for the experience.
Not convinced? Or possibly your organization has too much energy and momentum invested to stop now?
The following list of ideas are honed from years of being critical of events. Here’s how you can get more value from yours.
- Set dates and venues 12-18 months in advance. This will allow you to announce the next year’s event as you thank people for coming to this one.
- Use a Host Committee – again chosen and announced 12-18 months in advance. You will want the host committee to have already started working by the time this year’s event is complete.
- Use mailed invitations and save-the-date postcards. Don’t put all your eggs in any one marketing basket. People get information all the time and from multiple directions.
- Make some of your invitations personal. Have a list of people you want to involve personally and reach out to the in very personal ways. For example, invite them to sit at your table.
- Solicit all your next-year sponsors immediately following this year’s event. “Thank you so much for sponsoring. It was a fantastic event. I hope we can count on your sponsorship again next year.” “We were sorry you couldn’t sponsor this year. It was a fantastic event. I hope we can count on your sponsorship next year.”
- Ask individuals to sponsor as well as companies. Bayou Land Conservancy asks individuals to be “two-seat” or “four-seat” sponsors by paying twice or four-times the two-person ticket price. Individual sponsors are recognized along with companies in all event publicity.
- Print name tags for all participants. Make sure the print is large enough to be easily read from a short distance away. Color code the name tags (or use ribbons) for specific designations (eg. Host Committee members, Board members, Giving Circle members, and so on).
- Hire, or at least designate, an event photographer. Ask the photographer to help make sure the name tags can be read in the photos.
- Don’t skimp on food and wine quality. If event patrons have choices between events, food and wine are often decision helpers. And beware of using donated food/wine. It sounds good but bad wine is still bad if it’s donated.
- Think through keepsakes that event patrons can take home. Table centerpieces, small books, etched wine glasses or champaign flutes – something perishable or something collectible.
- ALL Board members should expect to attend all fundraising events. In my opinion, Board members should not be required to pay for their attendance, though some may prefer to do so. But rather they should attend with the expectation that they are there to work. And that implies that their work for the event is organized.
- Calculate the gross and net receipts from the event having first removed all Board members. Presumably your Board members would have given that same money anyway (and not because of the event). You will see the event growth, flatline, and declines sooner if your Board giving is not masking the results.
- Follow-up with everyone. Send thank-you notes and make some of them personal to the extent you can. Include a photo of them if you can. Use the opportunity to remind them of next year’s date and venue, express the hope that you will see them again, and provide one more shout-out to the sponsors.
- Consider that the entire process could be managed by a third party. If you are netting $50,000 now, could your organization live with paying someone else $20,000 to manage it for you and redeploy that same organizational energy into activities with a larger ROI?
Cheers, and Have a great week.
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
Photo by ZenAga, courtesy pixabay.com
Patrick KoepelePosted at 12:15h, 17 January
Thanks for this post! I totally agree and came to many of the same conclusions several years ago. We’ve focused on direct fundraising with major donors since and have had great success with that. Our problem now is that our well of major donor prospects is running low. Any suggestions on how to expand our list of prospects (and our general membership while we’re on the topic)? Thanks!
Danielle HirschPosted at 10:33h, 17 January
This is such valuable information- thank you, David!
David LillardPosted at 09:25h, 17 January
This post is one I can share with board every time someone comes up with the idea for a fundraising event. Thanks!
We have found one event idea that takes no staff time and makes a little money: volunteer-hosted house parties. Hosts pay for food and beverages, and are up front in the invitation about the nature of the party. A QR code to donate is prominently displayed near the buffet and bar. A thousand transactional dollars are raised; maybe one of the givers becomes an actual donor. The event is really not about our land trust, though. It’s about guests supporting a cause the host cares about — while eating well and enjoying libations.
Annie MaloneyPosted at 08:58h, 17 January
Thanks David – you are on point as usual! I appreciate these periodic reminders to swap out fundraisers (in favor of donor appreciation/cultivation events). So many folks hold fast to the fundraiser mindset, and you do a great job of outlining point by point why we are justified in moving away from that. #11 on your list of suggestions is great – definitely going to try that out for our next Annual Dinner!
David AllenPosted at 09:27h, 17 January
Thank you so much for writing, Annie. Fundraising events seem like such a good idea, and they serve to focus Board and staff attention with clear activities, deadlines, and so on. They just aren’t the best way to raise money in the long run.