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[ASK AN EXPERT] How to Communicate a Fundraising Event Cancellation

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who isn’t sure how to have that hard conversation with ticket buyers when a fundraising event has to be canceled.

Dear Charity Clairity,

What’s the best way to communicate with sponsors and ticket buyers in this time that will result in saved donations? I would like to call each one to explain why we can’t reschedule the event this year, but others feel a well- worded email should be successful enough. We need these people to participate in our virtual silent auction that will go forward.

Need To Save

Dear Need To Save,

Your instinct to call people and talk to them individually is a good one. All good fundraising is about building relationships, and the fact we’re in a crisis does not change this fundamental truth. People are starved for social interaction right now, and those who in the past might never have picked up the phone may just do so right now. If you don’t reach them, you can leave a warm message that leads with:

  • I’m calling, first, to check in and see how you’re doing.”

Then follow with: 

  • I know you were looking forward to our event this year, yet sadly…  This is a huge disappointment for all of us. I’m going to send you an email explaining the situation, and would love your feedback on the best way you can participate given these changed circumstances.  Here’s my phone number should you want to call me back. I’d love to chat with you in person! Thank you so much for your ongoing support. It truly means more than words can express.”

This is no time for doing what’s expedient in lieu of what’s effective. While other organizations are sending emails, you will stand out for showing caring and concern. So if you have the bandwidth to make the calls, definitely do so.

Whether you end up having the conversation via phone or online, you’re right your message must be ‘well-worded.’ In other words, it must be empathic, authentic and specific.  If you’re transparent, and centered on your donor, you will be surprised at how generous donors can be. Everyone is giving each other a little added grace right now.

Try giving donors some participation options, being clear about the need and how they can be the most helpful. And, again, lead with something donor-centered.  Here’s a sample outline for a conversation or email:

Dear [first name],

Thank you for committing to be part of our annual event. We’re so sad the event we were all looking forward to must be re-imagined – mostly because it’s such a fun opportunity to see and thank you in person! But… the show will go on in a re-invented capacity. As you may be aware, it’s our largest fundraiser of the year and we were counting on raising $XXX, XXX this year for [state purpose].”

We’re hopeful you’ll still be able to help us meet that goal, and even exceed it, to respond to increased service demands/make up for other budget shortfalls during these extraordinary times.

The fact you purchased tickets/signed on as a sponsor/donated a silent auction item demonstrates your commitment to our vital mission. Your continued support now will make a huge difference to those who rely on us (okay to describe more specifically; even okay if those most depending on you now are staff who need salaries and benefits, and who you want to assure stick with you so you come out strong on the other side).


[Option 1] Would you kindly consider converting your ticket into a tax-deductible donation to continue supporting our vulnerable community in these hard times?

[Option 2] Of course, if you’re experiencing financial hardship right now, we understand. Please let us know if you need a refund or partial refund.

[Option 3] Wondering if there are other ways you can help? You bet! We invite you to… [donate an item for our silent auction [link], which we’ll be holding online… receive recognition as a silent auction sponsor [link]… donate in-kind items [link]… sign up for a volunteer shift [link].


We’re excited to let you know about how we’re offering added value to our sponsors!  Since we’re taking parts of the event online, we’ll be able to reach a broader audience than previously. Plus we’ve decided to offer you year-round recognition on our website and… [Get creative! You may even be able to add new underwriting opportunities you’d not previously considered, such as exclusive sponsor of online bidding technology; exclusive online raffle sponsor; lead sponsor of ‘fund-a-need,’ etc. For sponsors who don’t want to underwrite your virtual event, consider offering other opportunities such as underwriting of your e-newsletter, blog or a specific program. Find out what type of recognition they’d like, and work with them to meet their needs.]


We’re excited to let you know we’re taking our silent auction virtual, and your support will mean even more than before! Because it’s online, we’ll be able to let many more people participate. You’ll reach a broader audience, bids will likely go up, and your generosity will be amplified.

Thank you so much for the gift you’ve already committed. If you’re in the position of being able to provide an additional item, please let us know. We have unlimited ‘space’ online, and your generosity will help us meet needs we hadn’t anticipated.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me [or other contact name] directly at [phone number/email] if you have any questions or suggestions.

Again, thank you for your generous heart and kind understanding. We’ll stay in touch and keep you regularly updated.

Stay safe, until we can meet again,

If you take this approach you’ll save your donor relationships and raise needed funds, today and tomorrow. In fact, by assuming the best of people, you stand a great chancing of raising more money than ever before.  Just make sure to let donors know how much they mean to you. And that you’re there for them, just as they’ve always been there for you.

Most donors still want to be your saving grace.

Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?

Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Need To Save” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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