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How to make the most of your special events
Joanne Fritz
June 04, 2007

A recent study by Charity Navigator suggested that special events are not good sources of funds. In fact, according to the study, the average charity spends $1.33 to raise $1 in special events contributions.

But most development directors know that special events can serve a number of purposes, and perhaps actual fundraising is the least of these.

Stephanie Roth, editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, writes that since special events don't raise a lot of immediate money, but do take a lot of people-power and time, it's crucial that fundraisers plan to accomplish other important tasks through their events. Roth suggests that special events might prove helpful in the following ways:

  • Special events create other fundraising possibilities through "ancillary" methods of raising funds. Among these methods are:

    1. In-kind contributions such as donations of food, the venue, or entertainment. Why is this useful? In-kind contributions are easier to get from a business without a prior relationship. But, it might be a foot in the door to other contributions.

    2. Sponsorships are commonly used to increase the income from events. Sponsors pay for various benefits such as publicity through the event, an ad in the program or a company logo displayed prominently.

    3. Silent auctions allow you to charge for an event that many people can afford but then bring in more funds through the auction.

    4. Ad books can be given to event guests. The ad book is made up of paid advertisements and also includes information about the nonprofit. Prospects for ad buyers include local businesses, vendors, entrepreneurs and even donors who want to advertise a service.

  • Special events can also build relationships, helping potential donors to feel a connection with your cause. An event provides great "face time" with your supporters, sometimes setting the stage for large gifts.
  • Events are an opportunity to bring in new donors and introduce them to your organization. To do this, plan an event that will have broad community appeal and charge reasonable entrance fees.
  • Special events can also generate a lot of publicity. Your PR staff will find a myriad of methods for getting the word out, from fliers to interviews with local media. Building visibility in the community is crucial to successful fundraising.
  • Use special events as a way to provide fundraising experience to your volunteers, including your board members. Selling tickets to an event is less anxiety producing than making a personal call on a donor. Help volunteers build confidence through your event activities.

In addition, volunteer leaders can be developed through serving on event committees and engaging in the planning that is required. Your volunteers should lead the way when it comes to planning the event...not staff.

When planning a really large event, consider establishing several committees with specific tasks. Each committee should be led by a volunteer, and most of the committee members should be volunteers. A couple of staff people can be assigned to each committee to serve as consultants and to accomplish logistical tasks as needed.

Details Do Matter

There are as many kinds of special events as types of nonprofits and causes, but plan for success by finding out what has worked for other organizations. Don't hesitate to ask peers in other nonprofits to share their tips for success. Remember that success is in the details. Betsy Clardy in her book Making the Most of Your Special Event, provides a few hints for doing an event right:

  • Take pictures of each guest at the event and later send the picture with a thank-you note. This serves as a special reminder of the event.
  • Inquire if guests have special needs such as dietary requirements prior to the event.
  • Position official greeters at the doorway to the event (e.g., if the event is being put on by a school, have students be greeters).
  • Provide efficient event check-in.
  • Give each guest a card stating, "You are seated at Table # ___."
  • Provide a diagram of table locations.
  • Give table favors that are tied to your mission.
  • Provide individual printed menus listing each course that will be served.
  • In your printed program, communicate your mission and the purpose for the event.
  • Your program should include a special thank you from someone that will benefit from the event such as the people you serve.
  • When planning your event, write an event plan, create a time line, and recruit capable volunteers.

Sell the Tickets!

In his Guide to Special Events Fundraising, CFRE Ken Wyman cautions that:

  • No matter how elegant or fun your event is, if you don't get people to attend, your efforts are wasted. Attendance is not spurred so much by publicity as by selling tickets. You need a lot of boots on the ground selling tickets. Although this is the least glamorous task, it is essential. Recruit a lot of volunteers since, on average, most volunteer ticket sellers will sell about five tickets each.
  • Try out different price points for your tickets. Have the majority of tickets priced for everyone, but offer higher priced tickets that provide an extra benefit.
  • Think of your event as a long-term commitment. Organize one that you can repeat at least once a year and perhaps more. Also, invest in reporting and analysis tools that will provide the feedback you need to improve the event each time.

Special events are not a way to raise a lot of money immediately, but they can be a part of your strategic plan to cultivate future donations, and to boost your profile in the community. Use them wisely and well.

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