Fundraising Event Mistakes You Must Avoid

Enthusiastic female runners in tutus nearing finish line at charity run
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Fundraising events of all kinds, from black-tie galas to sweaty marathons to boisterous auctions, have been a significant part of the fundraising mix for most charities for decades. 

Why has this form of fundraising been so popular? For some charities, special events bring in quite a lot of money. For others, fundraising events accomplish goals such as relationship building, bringing in new supporters, or creating more publicity in their communities.

Although fundraising events the world over were either postponed or canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, many charities learned how to keep them going by switching to virtual events or inventing new types of events that fit a digital world. Those events included virtual concerts, virtual gaming, and even virtual athletics. 

But special events take a lot of planning and, perhaps most importantly, require avoiding common mistakes, like spending more for the event than it brings in, thinking an event can be pulled off quickly, and poor follow-up. Here are several mistakes to avoid.

Event Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Waiting Too Long to Start Planning

It's easy to think that we can throw an event together last minute, but that can be a costly mistake. The bigger the event, the more time you should devote to planning. 

First, determine your fundraising goals. If you aim to raise thousands of dollars, you'll need to devote months to get ready.

Don't have a goal? Determine one before you go any farther. Is collecting a lot of money your goal, or is relationship building, or is it publicity? Your goal may include all of these, but decide which will take priority, then plan accordingly. 

Your monetary goal and purpose will determine how far in advance you should start planning, especially if this is a new event. For instance, a silent auction or a gala may take plenty of time to plan and strategize. Neon, an event software provider, suggests you allow two months of planning for every 100 guests.

An athletic event such as a walk-a-thon may initially require a year or more simply because there are many moving parts to such an event, from setting up online registration, forming a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign, to landing lucrative sponsorships for the event.

Of course, smaller events can be set up fairly quickly, depending on your goal and the number of participants you're aiming for.

However, approach a special event realistically. It will likely take longer than you initially think, especially if it is a brand new event. Repeat events naturally take less time. But 6-12 months is an ideal timeframe to plan your first one.

Creating an Unrealistic Budget

Two things to consider with budgets is whether the event will make money or spend money. If your event is small and your goal is relationship building, not making money may be fine. But planning a large event without crunching the numbers can be a mistake. 

Consider the return on investment (ROI) of your event. If your goal is to raise more than you spend, make sure you can accomplish that. When building a budget for an event, include all aspects from the venue's cost to entertainment to the time your staff will spend on it. 

Also, consider whether you have the volunteer power to pull the event off. These costs should be quantified as much as possible and included in your budget.

Before repeating an event, take a hard look at its past performance and whether it will continue to be a moneymaker. Look at the event's data over several years to determine if donations have waned and if volunteers are harder to come by.

Determine if the proceeds from the event are keeping up with inflation. Are donations going up or decreasing? Don't be afraid to drop a fundraising event if it starts to sputter. Sometimes a new idea generates new energy and interest.

Not Choosing a Theme

A theme is simply a unifying idea. It brings all of your efforts together under the same umbrella. Themes can be fun, inspiring, or purpose-driven. Cast a wide net when thinking about a theme. Try to go beyond the obvious like "Casino Night" or "Dance with the Stars."  

Consider all the design possibilities for your theme. Will it work well for marketing and publicity? How will it look on the program you print, on the signage you create in press releases and other publicity? 

The best themes are both exciting and thought-provoking. Remember, the theme you choose sends a subconscious message to your attendees, so choose wisely.

Here are a few actual themes to spark your imagination:

  • Unmasking the Future: The Saint Francis Foundation’s 26th annual Hob Nob Gala fundraiser raised more than $300,000 that went toward its community grant program and other hospital services. This was a virtual event incorporating an auction and professional entertainment.
  • Walk a Mile in Her Shoes: This innovative walk-a-thon invited men to walk a mile in women's high-heeled shoes to raise funds to combat domestic abuse. The event took place nationwide with many small, local organizations taking part.
  • Starve a Vampire. Donate Blood: This was a blood drive event started several years ago by the American Red Cross, but schools, universities, and even companies still use the idea and theme at Halloween.

Weak Sponsorship Solicitation 

Not all fundraising events have sponsors, but larger ones usually do. Sponsorship is especially notable for large athletic events, but it may be appropriate as well for galas, museum exhibitions, or a multi-state event or fundraising drive. Sponsors can help provide publicity, finance a venue, and provide sophisticated technical help.

Sponsorships are partnerships. Companies gain a tremendous amount of goodwill by sponsoring nonprofit events. In today's world, consumers place the ethics of companies above competence, according to The Edelman Trust Barometer 2020. Charities should take advantage of this need for businesses to show just how socially responsible they are.

There are several steps you can take to find sponsorships, which are outlined below:

  • Check out what connections you might have with businesses already. Consider businesses you already use, such as your vendors. Ask your board members what connections they have. Look around the associations you might have, such as the Chamber of Commerce or business clubs like the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.
  • Make a list of companies nearby that might be interested in your event. These can be local only businesses or branches of national businesses. Reach out to those businesses through their marketing or philanthropic offices.
  • Once you find a contact at a business, research its goals, audiences, and marketing plans. Is there a match to your mission, your audience, your activities?
  • When you find a business with goals and an audience that matches yours, prepare a sponsorship proposal. Think about a partnership from a business point of view and model your proposal on that business's interests.

Not Segmenting Your Database

You may be accustomed to using prospect research for your major fundraising campaigns, but it works as well with fundraising events—especially if the event is high-stake.

Research your list of attendees or invitation list to see who might be more likely to give a larger gift before or after the event. If you do prospect research continually, this won't be a problem. If not, start now by evaluating your donors regarding their net worth and their engagement with your charity. 

Your own staff can do prospect research, or you can hire a prospect research consultant or company. Net worth, remember, is only part of what causes a donor to give. Their prior connections with your cause and engagement probably count for more.

What you find can help you develop a wiser seating chart or influence how you reach out to particular attendees. Beyond just sending an invitation, a member of your board might make a phone call to encourage that prospect to attend.

Mistakes to Avoid During an Event 

Making the Event Too Long

Making events last longer than necessary is another mistake that many nonprofits make when setting up a fundraising event.

It is better to send guests home a bit earlier than ask them to sit through a long program or set of activities.

Fundraising event attendees do not want to be held captive forever. They have lives and kids and jobs, and they do not want to spend six hours at your event, no matter how wonderful it is.

One way to keep an event under control is to take a cue from the theater. Consider scripting the entire affair. If you have speakers, tell them how much time they have and even offer to write some remarks for them.

Script every detail of the event from the time a segment starts to the time it ends. Give the script to every staff member working the event and each volunteer. Emphasize the importance of adhering as closely as possible to the time frame. 

Keep your fundraising events short, sweet, and to-the-point. You always want to leave your guests wanting more.

Failing to Ask for a Donation From Attendees

If you never ask your supporters for donations, and are never specific about your needs, how can you expect them to come through for you?

The best way to remedy this discrepancy is to jump right in. Tell your attendees all about your lofty goals and aspirations. Let them in on the planning of your upcoming initiatives.

They are likely curious about the projects you plan to tackle. Moreover, they want to know how they can help and get in on the ground floor of the good work you are pursuing.

Ask donors for their help. Tell them that their donations matter and that every dollar counts toward achieving your nonprofit’s dreams.

It may feel unnatural at first to ask for money outright, but your donors would rather know the truth than remain unaware of how they could be of real help to your cause.

Make direct asks of your event attendees. You may be surprised by how positive their responses are.

Not Coordinating Across All Platforms

Everything in fundraising is now multi-channel, even in-person events. You may sell tickets online, run your auction online, have online giving opportunities during an event, or operate a complex system of peer-to-peer fundraising.

Your organization may handle a small event with a couple of digital components, but a larger event may require outside help.

Many nonprofits use event planning services to help them stage and market their events, especially when there are many moving parts. Many services are operating in this space. 

A couple of firms worth looking at are Dirigo Design and Development and Sir Isaac. Also, numerous crowdfunding platforms can help with the digital components of any special fundraising event, such as CauseVox, Classy, and Eventbrite.

Post-Event Mistakes to Avoid

Not Thanking Your Donors Immediately

One of the biggest mistakes many fundraisers make is failing to thank their event attendees and donors. Or if they do, they may not thank their donors in the right way. For instance, if a donor gives $10 after a fundraising event, it is perfectly acceptable to send them a thank-you email.

However, if a major donor gives your nonprofit $5,000, an email is not enough. A well-thought-out thank-you letter is in order. Moreover, a formal phone call from a board member to acknowledge their generous contribution would be best of all.

To provide the best stewardship experience possible, it is important to consider each of your donors as individuals. It is also important to recognize that acknowledging your donors is what keeps them coming back to your organization. In a research study, Donor Voice found that thanking a donor quickly and effectively was one of the seven key drivers of donor commitment.

The best practice for thanking your event attendees is to send out your acknowledgments within the first 48 hours following the fundraiser.

Practically speaking, this means that you should probably send out general thanks via email first and then move on to more personalized ways such as phone calls and mailed thank you letters.

Be sure to thank your donors early, often, and in a manner that suits their involvement with your organization.

Not Asking for Feedback

Asking for feedback is just a sound part of fostering customer relations. We get surveys from everywhere we shop or do business or even when we ask for help with a service online. So none of your event attendees will mind getting a survey from you asking how they liked the event and if they have any suggestions for making it better next time. 

An email survey is the best option. Even your older attendees will likely be able to participate. There are survey apps that work well, and they are easy and inexpensive. SurveyMonkey is the best known. But if you use an event vendor for your operation, there will likely be a built-in survey system. In either case, tabulating and making sense of the responses should be easy.

Send the survey quickly, within 24 hours if possible, and consider providing an incentive for completing it. Make the survey short too. Eventbrite suggests no more than 10 multiple-choice questions.

The Bottom Line

Though there may be quite a few blunders that a nonprofit could easily make with a fundraising event, there are also just as many quick fixes. Use these solutions, and you can host a fundraising event with the confidence that you will accomplish your goals for the event, from raising money to elevating goodwill.