I’ve helped to manage my fair share of events: from small intimate dinner parties to galas that raise $200K. For the effort that goes into planning and executing any event, a nonprofit needs to be very pointed about what they are looking to achieve. My favorite ones are those that allow the mission to shine and put the focus on the impact the people in the room can make (not on the amount of money they can raise that night).
Fundraisers can be great. You can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in one evening. But raising that much isn’t the same as netting those dollars to your mission. A typical fundraising event takes months to plan. You have to secure large sponsorships, often ones that need 6 months to a year of stewardship. You need to empower your donors and excite them to give more. You need to ensure your best donors are there that day — and bring folks with high capacity with them to the event. Fundraisers are for people who have already bought into your mission and are there to celebrate it (and themselves a little) for all their hard work. They are generally not the best place to bring new donors who you want to keep as part of your giving base for years to come. Just check out any research on the types of donors that lapse the most. Event donors are usually the #1 or #2 worst offenders.
So you spend your staffs’ time building a large silent auction. You spend lavishly on food and the fancy space where you hold the event. You raise a significant amount of money, but the effort you’ve put into that event is equal to or usually less than what you could raise if you spent your time focused on relationship and major gift fundraising. People give, but too many times don’t create meaningful connections to the impact you make.
Friendraising events are different. Their design is to enable you to reach a new audience. You ask your key constituents to bring people to the event who they feel would be interested in learning more about the impact (not just people with deep pockets). The key here is an explanation of mission and your organization without the expectation of high dollar donations. You can raise money at these events, but that is not the important purpose. If you can find a few key sponsors you’re likely to break even or even have a small net gain. They do still require a heavy lift from your staff, but it can be used more effectively. Use the friendraiser as a kick off event. From those who attend, ask for opt-ins to your email list and send specifically targeted stories that tie back to the event/mission of your org over the following months. Bring them into tours of your organization – tours they should be able to sign up for at the event (not just being asked for donations).
Logistically friendraisers are usually done closer to where the mission takes place. Maybe the warehouse where you keep all the food for the pantry or a school gym where your summer program takes place. Food and beverages are important, but people are less concerned about the quality of the meal and amount of free booze then they are about the mission and stories being told.
By building a mission-focused and donor-focused communication plan you’ll be ready to steward these donors into retained donors for a longer time. Their initial net gain might be smaller than the donations that roll in from a large gala type event, but you will be more likely to retain and thereby grow your friendraiser attendees for over longer periods of time. You also are more likely to find volunteers this way. People who can’t give, but can make important connections for the organization are more likely to stick around long-term.
So as you get ready to plan your big event, ask yourself: are you trying to raise more money immediately, or are you trying to make your organization more sustainable in the future?