Planning Your Next Event: Don’t Spend More to Make More

By susanlienau | January 19, 2016 | Featured News, Major Gifts, Philanthropy Operations

Special events get a bad reputation:  too labor intensive, too expensive, not enough return on investment, declining attendance.  Has this been part of your discussion regarding special events?  Your organization is smart to weigh all of these factors before plunging forward into something of significant magnitude.  And yet, events – done well – can also be a critical component of a comprehensive fundraising program, especially when incorporated into a strategic major gifts program.

Bearing this in mind, here are six tips for maximizing the results from your next special event.

1. The old mantra “Spend money to make money” does not apply to special events.  It’s a myth that events need to be expensive in order to be successful.  Toning down events after the 2008 financial crisis did not dampen their effectiveness at all. Not-for-profits that cancelled events during the economic tumult probably should not have done so. Donors and volunteers enjoy getting together to hear from leaders about the organization’s financial health and needs. It can also be very challenging to ramp up a gala or reception after it’s been suspended or cancelled. Taking this into account, you don’t need to break the bank to organize an enjoyable and results-oriented event. 

Instead of emphasizing the caterer and floral arrangements, focus instead on providing a mission-centric experience for your prospects, donors, and friends.  That way, they can see first-hand the impact of the programs of your organization.  Serve children?  Have them serve as greeters at the beginning of the event.  Serve adults?  Include them as part of the program with a testimonial.  Have a music component of the program?  Utilize participants to perform at the beginning of the event.  If the impact of the programs is the focus, guests won’t care whether they’ve been served $100 filet mignon at a black tie event or $15 chicken breast at a business casual event.

Most importantly, focus on the fundraising first and foremost.  If the planning for the event is done well (Read:  Sponsorships are secured early and at the right level), invitations are strategic, and a follow-up plan created and implemented, events can provide a worthwhile return on investment.  It’s possible to be much more efficient than spending $.50 to raise $1.00.

2. Create goals based on reality – not “pie in the sky”.  Don’t pull a number out of thin air that you “want” to raise for an event.  Use past fundraising results as a starting point and be realistic – especially if the event is new or being re-introduced.

It’s important to set reasonable goals based on information that you’ve gained from previous events and current exceptions and budget for the event you’re planning.

Let’s say you’re hosting a golf tournament. You need to make sure you have a fool-proof plan and having a detailed budget. If you set your goal too low, you run the risk of loosing out on a solid ROI and the effort you put into organizing the event will be for nothing. However, setting your fundraising goal too high could set you up for failure even before you start raising money.

Look for that perfect balance between challenging (as well as worth the effort) and reasonably attainable.

Surpassing the goal is critical to future success. When setting the goals, start small and build on momentum with each year.

3. Put names into the gift table for each request level.  Treat the event like a mini-campaign by creating a gift table and identify the number of gifts (sponsorships) needed at each level to surpass the goal.  Add prospects to each gift level and assign request amounts.  Put at least twice the number of prospects than gifts needed to create opportunities for oversubscribing the target.

4. Events are worthless without follow-up.  It happens 90% of the time – an organization hosts a great event and then all the people that attended are put on the invitation list for next year’s event.  End of story.  The value of events is providing an “easy” way for someone to experience the impact of the not-for-profit’s work.  Capitalizing on that experience means taking the next step to build on the event attendee’s interest in the organization.  This requires personal follow-up after the event.  This is the only way to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the event and use the activity successfully to feed your major gift prospect pipeline.  If you don’t spend time prior to the event planning the follow-up with the attendee and making assignments as to who will take the next step – just cancel the event, it’s not worth the effort.

5. Be daring – Events are about introduction to programmatic impact not the “chicken.”  Don’t default to having a fancy sit down dinner.  There are many organizations for which a gala is the best fundraising vehicle – but it’s not the only vehicle.  Events are an opportunity to be creative in what kind of experience you provide to attendees.  If every person does not “feel” or “touch” the impact of your work during the event – you’ve failed.  The food, drinks, and entertainment are all enhancements to the event, not the reason to host one.

6. Strong volunteers can have an impact. Volunteers love to be involved in the organization and have an impact.  A strong event committee can play a crucial role in keeping the time required from development professionals in check.  There are certain roles that are better suited to volunteers – so be careful about making assignments.  But be specific in assigning tasks and activities and provide a timeline, and volunteers will gladly get things accomplished and enjoy the experience.  Volunteers are also a key source of introductions to new sponsorship prospects and potential event attendees.  If they have a great experience, they will invite their friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues.  Their gift of time will help to keep costs down and make the event much more productive.

By utilizing the above tips and proper planning, your next event can provide a worthwhile return on investment, build a community that supports your mission, and continually feed your major gift prospect pipeline.

– Susan Lienau, Assistant Vice President for Philanthropic Operations

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