Special Events As Part Of a Fundraising Plan: What’s Their True Purpose?

The true purpose of a special event is sometimes lost in the flurry of planning activity. When I recently attended the Triad Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) monthly meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this point was driven home. The meeting included a four-person panel discussion on “Special Events: To do or not to do.” The panelists emphasized that there are four main reasons to conduct a special event for your organization. They are:

  • As a fundraising effort;
  • As a cultivation effort;
  • As a stewardship effort (clarified as a thank-you and/or recognition to your “donors”); or
  • As a Public Relations/ Marketing effort.

The panelists were open in discussing their successes and suggestions as to conducting special events and they engaged the audience by inviting us to ask questions, give input, and provide our own examples.  Panelists gave examples of events for cultivation efforts, donor recognition efforts, and for purely public relations, but the discussion quickly focused on special events for fundraising purposes. Questions such as “How many events should an organization hold?” and “What type of software is best when utilizing online bid auctions?” inevitably were voiced.

As one of the panelists was discussing a recent and well-known golf tournament for her organization, I asked if she or any of the other panelists had their staff keep track of how much staff time was dedicated to special event preparation. Had they done a basic cost/benefit analysis of time spent on special event preparation, coordination and executing the event? Amazingly, not one member of the panel had tracked how much time they or their staff had spent on special event preparation. The panelist I originally posed the question to even admitted that “maybe she was addicted to the efforts of and the execution of special events for her organization.”

Tom Ralser, in his recently published book  Asking Rights: Why Some Nonprofits Get Funded (and some don’t), states that “These types of efforts seem to hone the skills of event planning rather than fundraising, which would be a far better skill set to develop to help make the organization more sustainable.” In the book, he gives us an example of how some special events are perceived by sharing the story of when, while attending a client’s special event, a major funder of the organization said to him “I am here for the social aspect, for fun. Come see me in my office if you want to talk seriously about money.”

As Convergent knows only too well, ROI (return on investment) is a key reason prospects are interested in investing with your organization; they want to know you are delivering valuable outcomes and providing measurable results. It is difficult to discuss the value of your organization’s outcomes while teeing off on a golf course, dancing the night away to music, or running a 5K.

One of Convergent’s clients, the Grant County Economic Development Council, ran a successful golf tournament for many years. The primary goal of the event was to raise funding for the organization, but it required the staff and volunteers to start preparing six months in advance. While the net funds were up and down over the years, time and effort to execute the event steadily increased, taking away precious time for other economic development activities. Some of these activities might have potentially yielded additional recruitment as well as more comprehensive small business planning and business retention efforts, which are key mission objectives for them.

Still about 60-90 days from the completion of their capital campaign, the Grant County Economic Development Council has already secured enough funding to forego conducting their annual golf tournament this year. Staff have observed there is a major difference in their work outcomes as well, with more time being put towards mission goals such as small business assistance and potential business expansion. Most importantly, they now have ample time to plan for quality Investor Relations meetings and strengthening their relationships with current investors.

Most nonprofits cite the need to raise revenue as the reason for holding special events, and the nonprofit’s ultimate mission might include a significant public awareness component. While Convergent does advocate that capital campaigns are a better vehicle to reach sustainable funding goals than special events, we also recognize the important role that events play in nonprofit development and fundraising. In Asking Rights, Tom Ralser defends the need for special events by stating that they “…may serve as signature events for the NPO to help build its brand awareness.”  A single, well-planned event can serve to market an organization, motivate its volunteers, provide networking opportunities for leadership, and obtain endorsements from prominent people, thereby adding legitimacy to your message and mission.

It is imperative that you think of special events as more than just a tool to bring in donations; deciding on the main goal of your event (i.e. increasing awareness, thanking supporters, celebrating recent successes, etc.) and then choosing the correct type of event to reach that goal is critical. For instance, we recommend our clients host a public campaign kickoff event after reaching at least 50% of their funding goal in order to recognize the commitment of early investors, bring community awareness to the campaign, and to generate excitement amongst those who have not yet committed to investing.  A one-size fits all approach to special events, auctions, and other fundraising efforts can prove to be detrimental to an organization, and selecting an event type based on what other NPOs similar to your own have executed will not necessarily garner the results you seek.

The type, size, and mission of any nonprofit needs to be considered when developing your overall fundraising plan and especially before dedicating precious staff and volunteer time to any special event. If these factors are considered, they can make execution of special events an invaluable component in your organization’s overall fundraising strategy, enabling you to attain your central mission.