Make the Most of the Special Events for Your Nonprofit

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A widely cited study by Charity Navigator in 2007 suggested that special events are not good sources of funds. In fact, according to the study, the average charity spends $1.33 to raise $1 in special event contributions. But most development directors know that special events can serve many purposes, and perhaps actual fundraising is the least of these.

Broaden the Goals of Your Event

Stephanie Roth, the editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, writes that since special events don't raise a lot of fast money but do take a lot of people-power and time, it's crucial that fundraisers plan to accomplish other important tasks through their events. Roth suggests that special events create other fundraising possibilities through "ancillary" methods of raising funds. Among these methods are:

  • In-kind contributions such as donations of food, the venue, or entertainment. Why is this useful? Contributions in kind are easier to get from a business without a prior relationship. But, it might be a foot in the door to other contributions.
  • Sponsorships are commonly used to increase the income from events. Sponsors pay for various benefits such as publicity through the event, an ad in the program or a company logo displayed prominently.
  • Silent auctions allow you to charge for an event that many people can afford but then bring in more funds through the auction.
  • Ad books can be given to event guests. The ad book is made up of paid advertisements and also includes information about the nonprofit. Prospects for ad buyers include local businesses, vendors, entrepreneurs and even donors who want to advertise a service.
  • Special events can also build relationships, helping potential donors to feel a connection with your cause. An event provides significant "face time" with your supporters, sometimes setting the stage for major gifts.
  • Events are an opportunity to bring in new donors and introduce them to your organization. To do this, plan an event that will have broad community appeal and charge reasonable entrance fees or make it free.
  • Special events can also generate a lot of publicity. Your PR staff will find lots of ways to get the word out, from fliers to interviews with local media to social media. Building visibility in the community is crucial to successful fundraising.
  • Use special events as a way to provide fundraising experience to your volunteers, Have them contact donors, follow up with them, and interact with them during events. This is especially useful for board members who are reluctant to ask donors for money. They can get experience in this less stressful way.

Details Do Matter

There are as many kinds of special events as types of nonprofits and causes but plan for success by finding out what has worked for other organizations. Don't hesitate to ask peers in other nonprofits to share their tips for success. Remember that success is in the details. Some of the tips provided by special events experts include:

  • Take pictures of each guest at the event and later send the photo with a thank-you note, or share it on social media. 
  • Inquire if guests have special needs such as dietary requirements before the event.
  • Put official greeters at the doorway to the event (e.g., if the event is being put on by a school, have students be greeters).
  • Provide efficient event check-in.
  • Give each guest a card stating, “You are seated at Table # ___.”
  • Provide a diagram of table locations.
  • Give table favors that reflect your mission.
  • Provide individually printed menus listing each course that will be served.
  • In your written program, highlight your mission and the purpose of the event.
  • Include a special thank you from someone who will benefit from the event such as the people you serve. 
  • When planning your event, write out your plan, create a timeline, and recruit capable volunteers.

If You Sell Tickets

  • No matter how elegant or fun your event, if you don't get people to attend, your efforts are wasted. Attendance is not spurred so much by publicity as by selling tickets. You need a lot of boots on the ground selling tickets. Although this is the least glamorous task, it is essential. Recruit a lot of volunteers since, on average, most volunteer ticket sellers will sell about five tickets each.
  • Try out different price points for your tickets. Have the majority of tickets priced for everyone, but offer higher-priced tickets that provide an extra benefit.
  • Think of your event as a long-term commitment, but invest in reporting and analysis tools that will provide the feedback you need to improve the event each time or to ditch it if it is not productive.

Special events are not a way to raise a lot of money immediately, but they can be a part of your donor cultivation strategy, and to promote your work. Just plan to use them sparingly and then make them truly "special."