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Should Your Nonprofit Do an Event?

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Great Fundraising Events: From Experience to Transformation.

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Nonprofit special events are traditions.

Comfortable old shoes.

Sacred cows.

They’ve either been around so long no one can imagine doing away with them, or they’re the beloved brainchild of an important donor, board committee or executive director to whom no one can say no.

All too often, they’re simply “done,” with little thought given as to why and even less thought given as to whether the ‘why’ (the ends) justifies the ‘what’ (the means/event).

Why an Event May Be the Wrong Option

Always begin by asking “What ends does this event serve?”  

Brainstorm this on your own or, even better, with a group.

Look at the ends you’ve brainstormed, and ask: “As laudable as these ends are, do they match our current and foreseeable priorities?

Hmmn… Think about this carefully; now take the time to rank order your top priorities. For example, what do you most need to do right now based on your history, current supporter base (or lack thereof), and where you want to be this year, next year and three years from now?

For example, you may want to prioritize one or more of the following:

  • Building awareness
  • Raising $XXXXX
  • Acquiring new donors
  • Retaining current donors
  • Upgrading ongoing donors
  • Recapturing lapsed donors
  • Developing monthly donors
  • Recruiting business sponsors
  • Developing and cultivating major donors
  • Developing and cultivating legacy donors
  • Launching or completing a capital/endowment campaign
  • Finding new volunteers
  • Keeping our volunteers happy
  • Building a sustainable supporter community/family

Does this Event Successfully Achieve Your Goals?

Next, take a look at how the ends served by the event you’re envisioning meet your priorities. Do they achieve them swimmingly, well, satisfactorily, fairly, poorly or not at all?

What you’re endeavoring to determine is whether the event you have in mind effectively reaches your top goals. Given limited resources, you also want to consider whether there are other strategies that do so more effectively and yield a bigger bang for your buck.

Evaluate different strategies against each other by using some sort of a framework (like the example below). Results, of course, will differ depending on your organization’s priorities and how you rate the ability of different strategies to accomplish each goal.

For WeDoGood Charity below, they’re considering whether to hold a Gala Dinner event. They reviewed all of their donor acquisition, retention and upgrade goals and subjectively rated how they thought the Gala, and other potential fundraising strategies, might support these goals.  

Take a minute to review and consider thoughtfully.

nonprofit special events

You can see, in this case, the Gala is not the highest ranking strategy they might choose to accomplish their goals. In fact, out of seven strategies they considered, it comes in at a tie for number four. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s good to set realistic expectations.

Ponder the Trade-Offs

Some events simply should not be done at all. You need to honestly evaluate why you’re doing one, and what you’re getting as a return on your investment. Even though it doesn’t rank the highest on your list, there still may be high sentiment within your organization that you should do the event. People can get very passionate about events!

If that’s the case, consider carefully what you might be giving up – and whether you can afford to do so (both short and long-term).

There’s a difference between simply implementing the event in a pro forma way and seeing whether there are ways your event might help you achieve multiple goals. The former is simply a transaction you’ll check off your list when done. The latter is something more transformational that, done properly, will propel you forward.

Here’s another way to think about this difference, from Seth Godin’s Where are you headed?

“What’s required here?” is the question we were taught to ask. This is the loyal employee and the reliable cog, meeting spec.

“What is the opportunity here?” is a totally different question. It’s about contribution and forward motion, not simply compliance.

Where Lies Your Best Opportunity?

How can you use an event to move your organization forward? If the event is going to become more of a resource suck than anything else, you may want to rethink.

Begin by asking yourself:

  • Do we have the resources in place to implement this event without having other important strategies suffer?
  • If not, can we get them?
  • Do one or more other strategies look like they will yield higher results?
  • If so, what would it take to go down those roads instead?
  • Could we do the event and the other more highly ranked strategies; if so, what would that take, and might more be worth more?
  • Rather than go broad, could we go deep by doing this event as part of a seamless sequence of strategies that will achieve multiple objectives? (e.g., promote on social media to create awareness and bring in a new demographic; assign staff and volunteers to cultivate major donor prospects at the event; create a video we can use subsequently on our website and for other purposes; add in fun community-building elements that draw folks closer to the organization; follow up with gratitude and cultivation strategies targeted to different attendee segments, etc.).

An Event, and/or Something Else?

Keep in mind events are both expensive and labor intensive. To make your investment worthwhile the event should be a multi-tasker. Don’t just do it to raise money. If you really do the math, it’s likely to cost you more than a pretty penny.

Events are about the least effective fundraising strategy out there, save direct mail acquisition. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out this graph from James Greenfield, the preeminent guru on calculating cost of fundraising. You’ll see it costs you 50 cents to raise a dollar, and that takes into account only direct costs and not staff time. You know how much staff time goes into events, don’t you? Were you to calculate the portion of different staffer’s salaries that go into event production, you’d find you made almost no money at all. You might even lose money.

nonprofit special events

Doing events as stand-alones is rarely worth the effort. Events are worthwhile when you design them to accomplish multiple objectives. Maybe you don’t raise a lot of money at the event per se, but the donor cultivation you accomplish before, during and after serves to deepen the commitment of existing donors and leads them to make more sizable annual gifts in the future. Or the awareness you develop about your mission leads attendees to become new donors, invite their friends to become donors and generally to become mission advocates.

Event Criteria: Go or No Go?

Volunteers tend to suggest events at the drop of a hat. They are a natural ‘go to,’ and something for which I recommend you prepare yourself. Why volunteers do this is a subject unto itself, but let’s just stipulate that it happens (I call it the Let’s put on a show” syndrome). It’s what volunteers know. It seems easier to them than actually asking someone face-to-face for a gift. And it sounds like fun (especially if the lion’s share of the burden falls on the staff).  

The best way I’ve found to evaluate whether the event is a go/no go is to have an agreed-upon set of criteria. Use this with staff and volunteers alike. That way you can say “Great idea!  Let’s run it through our criteria rubric and see how it comes out.” I know one local hospital that would never do an event unless it (1) netted a minimum of $10,000 and (2) was 90% volunteer run.

I’ve tended to use the following as go/no go criteria, but feel free to develop your own:

  • One or more of the organization’s priority goals is effectively addressed.
  • Is mission relevant, incorporating elements enabling attendees to deepen their knowledge of what the organization accomplishes.
  • Demonstrates impact so participants leave with a richer understanding of how their support makes a difference.
  • Is cost-effective so costs don’t exceed the event’s value to the organization (this is why you might limit the percentage of staff time you’re willing to allocate, or why you might insist the venue be donated or that at a house party the refreshments be provided by the volunteer host).
  • Can attract sponsors so success is not dependent on ticket sales alone.
  • Will translate into action that moves our mission forward (e.g., the ability to presently, or at a future time, donate, advocate, or volunteer is incorporated into the plan).
  • Offers opportunities for participants to feel good and connect with like-minded supporters so they emerge feeling connected to the organization and desirous of joining/remaining as ‘members of the family.’ (e.g., there is opportunity for schmoozing at a reception; guests are seated at tables with others with whom they may feel a bond; guests have an opportunity to connect with beneficiaries of philanthropy; ice-breakers or fun activities are incorporated to help folks get to know each other, etc.)
  • A follow up plan can, and will, be put in place so the event does not stand alone as a one-time transaction.

If you’re just going to run a golf tournament to collect fees, you’ll attract golfers; not likely long-term donor-prospects. Unless your mission has something to do with golfing, this is a disconnect. Participants will likely leave feeling they had a great time, and not even remember the name of the organization that ran the tournament.

If you’re just going to run a rummage sale, you’re going to attract bargain hunters; not likely long-term donor-prospects. Unless you incorporate one or more ‘mission moments’ where participants can see/touch/feel your mission in action, you’ll leave folks uneducated and unmoved.  

If you’re just going to sell tickets, and not add in other fundraising strategies such as business sponsorships, raffles, auctions and so forth, you’re unlikely to generate a healthy amount of revenue.

If you’re not going to follow up with attendees to remind them who you are, what they accomplished and how they can connect with you in the future, you’re unlikely to make the event worth its while.


Don’t simply ‘do’ an event.

Be thoughtful about WHY you’re doing the event, and whether it will help you get there.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

— Lewis Carroll

Know where you want to go.

Begin by evaluating any potential events against a framework of agreed-upon criteria so everyone gets on the same page and ill will is not created.

If the event will meet your objectives, think about what other things the event can help you accomplish. Events are expensive, so you want to make them worth the investment!

If the event won’t meet your objectives, think about alternative opportunities.  

Don’t give up.

Redirect, and go forward with confidence and purpose.

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