Successful nonprofit events — fundraising events, galas, friendraisers, 2-for-1 kitten adoption meetups — can be great ways to boost awareness of a nonprofit’s mission, recruit new members/donors/directors, and supplement direct fundraising efforts. But they can also be expensive, time-consuming, and more cost than benefit if attendance and engagement are poor.
Putting on successful nonprofit events can be tough for any organization, but nonprofits face a particular challenge in a general lack of robust marketing and advertising resources. Instead of splashing extra cash on ad buys and media marketing, nonprofits have to rely on lower-cost, more organic means of promoting their events. Lucky for them, the nonprofit model has some valuable (if currently untapped) sources of promotion. The following tips can be useful for organizations of all shapes and sizes.
1. Rely on Members and Donors for Ideas
Nonprofits with a membership or individual donors model have a built-in sounding board for ideas. Even before launching into planning, nonprofits can poll their members/donors to determine the most attractive and, by extension, most likely to succeed events. A poll can be as simple as an online survey with ranked choice of possible events and a general solicitation for ideas and feedback. Asking members/donors accomplishes three goals of: (1) previewing event types and beginning to promote them even before they’re planned; (2) increasing the likelihood of success because the events align with members’ interests; and (3) bringing members along on the mission and upping donor engagement.
2. Engage Champions to Put on Events
The first tip involved reaching out to the general membership of an organization. The second narrows the appeal to one or more “champions” for the nonprofit. These champions can be members of the board, key donors, longtime volunteers, or anybody who is willing to dedicate time and other resources to putting on a great event. For highly engaged champions, that might mean offering the donor’s house for (and maybe even underwriting) a breakfast fundraiser or cocktail hour, or a local CEO putting together a roundtable focused on the nonprofit and its mission for other executives. The possibilities are vast, but the unifying factor of this approach is a natural alignment between the nonprofit’s mission, the type of event, and the champion’s specific philanthropic passions.
3. Amplify the Message with Corporate Partners
Not all nonprofits are lucky enough to participate in workplace campaigns or rely on big infusions of money from companies. And the level of support varies greatly for organizations that do have corporate partners, from discounted t-shirts printed by a local shop, to multimillion dollar annual giving from Fortune 500 companies. But the common factor for any corporate partner is some degree of signal boost. Smaller companies may be willing to post flyers for the nonprofit’s event. Larger partners may go as far as to help plan and underwrite the event, and provide an ample supply of gently encouraged employees to lend a hand. Other events may be ripe for one or more sponsors, especially if the nonprofit has built a relationship with companies as their go-to philanthropic targets for volunteerism, activism, and donation, or if the sponsors’ missions align closely with the nonprofit’s service. As with individuals, purposeful and organic mission fit between nonprofits and corporations can help grow the overall relationship, well beyond just the event.
4. Be Specific in the Event Description
Events don’t have to be tailored so narrowly that they lack a broad appeal to donors and community members. But they should also not exist without at least some specificity as to: (1) the “What” – whether the event is a fundraiser, information session, donor appreciation celebration, etc.; (2) the “How” – some indication of the underlying purpose of the event, whether to raise money to build the new barn, or to collect and assemble laundry supplies for people in need; and (3) the “Who” – the target audience, and why the event will appeal to their sense of the “What” and “How” through the lens of the nonprofit’s mission. Major donors arriving with open checkbooks to a blood drive without any development staff in attendance represents a big potential fundraising miss. Asking $20 annual members to buy $100 gala tickets with a surprise $5,000+ ask is equally problematic. Both situations, and any in which there is a fundamental mismatch between What-How-Who, risk alienating donors and damaging the organization’s credibility (and future event success).
Big or small, nonprofit events are only as potentially successful as how well the organization can attract the right people, provide a clear message to attendees as to the purpose and presentation of the event, and deepen the connection between attendees and the nonprofit’s mission (whether that connection is financial, philosophical, or, ideally, both). The above tips may seem obvious, and they all point back to the importance of donor-centric operations and authentic relationship building. But they can be easy to overlook, especially when organizers’ primary focus is on event planning and execution, rather than targeted outreach, engagement, and relationships.