Fundraising Best Practice Series: Volume 6, Special Events

Nonprofit special events are not my favorite thing, by far.  But the certainly have their place in the tool kit. Successful events rely on a number of moving parts, a lot of effort on the part of staff and volunteers, and attention to detail. Here are some tips and tricks to help you achieve success in future events:

Details matter. Events are about the experience. You can pull off a masterful event with hundreds or even thousands of people, but if even a few details are off, you risk major problems. These can be as simple as not having a vegetarian meal option, seating an ex-husband and ex-wife (and their new SO’s) incorrectly at the same table, spelling a donor or sponsor’s name wrong in your program, etc.

Audience, Offer, Experience. Events are different from other fundraising channels, but core principles remain the same.  If you get the right people in the room, focused on your strongest fundraising offer and provide an engaging and exciting experience, you should do well.

Set goals.Don’t just host an event because all the other nonprofits in town are doing them.  In fact, I’d recommend you only do events if they advance your efforts (fundraising, awareness, community engagement, etc.).  And even then, you need to set and track your progress to goal so you know whether or not your effort is a success. If it isn’t, don’t do it again next year!

Count the costs – all of them. Many well meaning staff and board members will calculate an event’s fundraising effectiveness based on total dollars raised minus total hard costs spent on an event. That’s a mistake. If you leave out the cost of staff time create, execute and follow up on the event, you’re just lying to yourself.  If you want to know whether or not your event really made money (and to what extent), you’ve got to include staff time in the equation.

Test your equipment. Before your event night, test your A/V equipment, computers, credit card processing terminals, etc. Nothing is more embarrassing than introducing a wonderful video or slide presentation to your audience only to have it fail 90 seconds in.  And nothing is more frustrating to donors than telling them you accept all major credit cards but then asking them to fill out carbon sheets in triplicate because your credit card terminals aren’t working. These are more of those small things that could have a big impact if you get them wrong.

Diversify your income streams. Don’t just rely on ticket sales or auction purchases for your event revenue. Explore other options like corporate sponsorships, advertising, auctions, games, etc. There are plenty of ways to increase event revenue with a little extra time and creativity.

Provide exclusive opportunities. This is another great way to generate more revenue (both short and long-term) for your organization. When I worked in political fundraising we hosted special pre-event and post-event cocktail parties and mixers for major donors, key prospects, event sponsors and other important individuals.  These work especially well if you have a well known speaker or VIP attending your event.

Big ticket items sell well. If you’ve planned an auction, make sure you have some big ticket items on the list.  The majority of your items will be in the $30 – $150 range (for most organizations), but to draw people in you should offer great items like jewelry, artwork, hotel getaways, vacations, spa/resort packages and even vehicles.  If you can get these kinds of items donated, that’s great!  If not, you should consider partnering with a company that specializes in high ticket charity auction items. The more reputable firms will work with you so you only pay for an item if you receive a bid that covers the minimum cost of the item (i.e., you’ll never owe more than you generate on the item).

Program items sell well too. Everyone loves to bid on vacations, cars and luxury spa treatments. But these days a lot of donors also enjoy bidding on program items as well.  If your nonrpofit works with inner city youth, you might auction off a month of mentoring or two hours a week of after school tutoring support for a full year.  If your work is in international relief and development, consider auctioning off a new well or vaccines for an entire village, etc. These are big ticket items that donors will be interested in because they can see immediately what kind of impact they’ll make.

Capitalize on every opportunity. A few years back a good friend of mine ran an art auction for a local children’s hospital. The hospital hosted several dozen major donors and major donor prospects for a cocktail hour and viewing of art created by kids who were hospital patients. One painting in particular garnered a ton of attention. A bidding war ensued, and as my friend watched it play out he hatched an idea that helped them generate even more revenue. After the final bidder one the auction, my friend went back to everyone else who had bid on the piece and asked if they’d commit to donating the amount of their final bid in order to receive a custom piece from that same little artist.  In five minutes this idea generated another $3,000 for his hospital. The moral of the story here is, don’t let an opportunity go to waste!

Vary your price points. Unless your event is strictly focused on major donors (which some are), you’ll want to have a variety of price points that appeal to people at every financial level. You’ll be better off getting a little something from everyone than only big gifts from a very few people.

Survey guests. Very quickly after the event, survey attendees to find out what you could have done better. You’ll get valuable information for your next event, and by asking for advice you’ll deepen the relationship with these donors and friends of your organization.

Be strategic. If you’re having a plated dinner event, be smart about seating. Put your strongest donor advocates at tables with some of your best prospects and a gift officer. Your gift officer’s role is to make introductions and facilitate conversation between your donors and potential donors – not to dominate the conversations.

It’s ok not to do an event. If you’ve evaluated past events and found they aren’t generating acceptable revenue (or advancing major donor relationships), then by all means stop doing them! This can be a difficult decision because certain events might be board or staff favorites – but if they aren’t advancing your mission, it is your responsibility to stop wasting time and money on them.

Buy insurance. You never know when something will go wrong. Be prepared by purchasing an insurance policy to protect your organization. I’m not an insurance expert, but I’d suggest you talk with your insurance provider or legal counsel about the best way to protect your organization during your special events.

Leverage the excitement of the moment. Event donors value the experience. Be prepared to follow up with them immediately after the event. In fact, do all you can to make thank you calls and send thank you letters out the very next day, or at least within 48 hours. Post photos to your website and social media sites, thanking your donors for a great event. The immediate post-event time period is also critical for cultivating attendees. This is when you should be reaching out to make qualification calls and setting appointments to discuss their interest in further supporting your organization.

Not all donors are created equal. Event donors are unique. Time and again we see that they give high average gifts (typically tied to ticket purchase prices and auction items), but have VERY low cross-channel conversion rates. Don’t expect to be able to dump these donors into your direct mail or e-mail program and have them perform at the same level as direct mail acquired donors or e-mail acquired donors. It won’t happen. Many organizations find that the “win” with these donors is getting them to attend a second event in the year instead of making regular contributions through other channels. However, these are also likely to be good major donor prospects – so spend the time and effort to get to know them. Personal relationships will be key to engaging this audience.

It’s about the audience. Want your event to suck? Want everyone to talk about how they won’t show up again next year? Want overall giving from this group to decline for the year? If so, just spend the whole night talking about how great your organization is and how much you’re accomplishing.  HOWEVER, if you want people to rave about your event and tell everyone they know to mark their calendars for next year’s event, focus on them instead. Make them the center of the universe during the event – show them how THEY make an impact, how THEY change lives, and how you couldn’t do one bit of good in the world without THEM. Do this and you’ll reap huge rewards.

Bigger isn’t always better. A lot of people think you need to have 250 – 500 attendees at an event for it to be a success. Sometimes that’s true. It just depends on how the math works out, and what your goals are. BUT, I’ve hosted much smaller events that have raised just as much – and sometimes more – than big gala events. This is especially true with major donors. You need to know your donors well enough to tell what their preferences are, but many times I’ve found that major donors prefer smaller, more intimate gatherings in the homes of an organization’s CEO, Board Chair or even another well known donor. These smaller events help you deepen relationships more quickly, and their “exclusive” nature shows donors and prospects just how special and important they are to your organization.

Engage volunteers. I’m not just talking about people who can help you decorate tables and fill gift bags. I’m talking about high-level, strategic volunteers who can essentially run your event. It will take you some time upfront to identify and train these people, but the time and costs they’ll save you on the back end are huge.  You can also use events like these as a proving ground for identifying volunteers who have what it takes to co-chair future campaigns, and potentially even fill a seat on your board.

Technology is your friend. I was shocked recently when I attended a charity auction and saw that all bids and purchases were being tracked on carbon sheets. I could only pay by cash or check, or by handwriting my credit card number. Um. Hello. This is nearly 2012! Portable credit card machines are not that expensive. And FYI, when people have the option to easily pay by credit card, they tend to spend more. You’ll also spend less time re-entering data into multiple systems (i.e., your database, your accounting software, etc.). Also be aware that depending on your process, if you are capturing credit card numbers on paper you may be violating PCI (payment card issuer) compliance regulations. The fines for these violations are huge – so do yourself a favor and make sure you’re in compliance.

Raise more by unveiling a matching challenge. If you want to generate more revenue at your event, use a matching challenge. You’ll generate more in outright gifts, higher auction income, and even more in multi-year pledges if people know their contributions will be matched. Remember, donors love leverage. This is especially true of the type of donors who attend special events.

Bring your best closer. The closer is the person who makes your official ask at the end of your event. This doesn’t necessarily have to be your Director of Development or your CEO. It needs to be a passionate believer in your organization, and someone who can clearly and succinctly deliver an ask.

Ask, then shut up. Don’t shut the doors on your event without asking. Once you’ve primed the pump with great stories and testimonials, use the final minutes of your event to make an ask. You want gifts and pledges made that night. Not mailed in after the event or taken as people walk out the door. You want people sitting at their tables making decisions after an impassioned plea from your closer. And once the ask is made from the stage, it’s time to shut up. There is something powerful about the silence following a big ask. Just let it hang in the air as people finalize their giving decisions.

For more special event ideas and tips, go here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply to Heather Newell Cancel reply

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

4 thoughts on “Fundraising Best Practice Series: Volume 6, Special Events