There are some very basic precepts when it comes to nonprofit special event fundraising. The two outlined here have been proven multiple times.
1. Special event fundraising is not the most cost-effective method for a nonprofit organization to raise money.
The most cost-effective methods include major gifts, foundation grants, corporate sponsorship, annual giving, and individual giving. One of the downsides of special event fundraising is the expense involved with almost any fundraising event. So why do so many nonprofits conduct walks, golf tournaments, galas, auctions, and other popular fundraisers? Because it is often an initial introduction to the organization, especially for those newly connected to the mission.
Often, one of the first things a person and/or family do after receiving the news of unexpected, sometimes life-changing circumstances is to turn to the Internet for more information. There they will find for example, the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club of America, the American Cancer Society, or others relevant to their situation, all of whom are working to help solve these problems. They may find a local nonprofit agency addressing their specific issue or they may find a local chapter of a national organization. The organizations may fund research, produce educational materials, hold support group meetings, conduct annual conferences, publish newsletters or organize get-togethers. There are countless ways to provide support and help for newly affected by unexpected events.
All of these organizations want to increase awareness of their mission and the incredible work they are doing. It isn’t unusual for people new to a disease, or a significant change in life circumstances to attend an organization’s walk, auction, BBQ, or other fundraising event to “check it out” to see if this is an organization they may want to get involved with. There they’ll meet others (parents, patients, and family members) who are, or have been, in the same situation. Many nonprofits volunteer Board members, major and/or annual donors often began supporting the agency by first attending a fundraising event.
2. The best fundraising events have great volunteer committees!
In some organizations paid staff coordinate most of the fundraising event(s). In others, volunteers take charge and handle it all. And some are a hybrid of the two. Even if the event is being primarily coordinated by paid staff, a great volunteer committee is still strongly encouraged or necessary. Volunteer committee members increase the number of community connections for potential participants, sponsors, or in-kind donors. Some aspects of an event may be best done by paid staff – securing major sponsorship(s) (in conjunction with a well-connected volunteer!), coordinating and negotiating with the venue, handling the budget (both revenue and expenses), and collateral design and printing. Logistics may be staff-or volunteer-coordinated, given the event and the committee.
Golf: Without a great committee, it’s hard to sell out the field of an 18-hole golf tournament. Golf outings need a committee comprised of golfers (who know other golfers); who are willing to recruit their friends to participate; and who are willing to ask their employers if the company would consider sponsorship of the event. Their advice is also invaluable on the structure of the event – shotgun start, handicaps, a hole-in-one prize and other on-course games or competitions. Without a great committee, it’s difficult to sell 36 Tee and Green signs for the event. A raffle and auction held after the tournament won’t be nearly as successful without members of an engaged committee good-naturedly twisting arms to secure donations of auction items.
Gala: A great Gala committee will help sell almost all available tables to sponsors, for prices ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, depending upon the location and other factors. The committee also helps ensure the “right” people (e.g., with large checkbooks) attend the event. Without the committee, the items for auction (both live and silent) can be limited. Most staff don’t have the connections to secure donations of artwork, high-end weekend trips, exquisite jewelry, and “experiences” – those one-of-a-kind items people just can’t go out and buy. However, the right committee members do!
Community Service Award: A good committee is incredibly important to the success of a testimonial luncheon to present an organization’s “Community Service Award.” The committee develops a list of characteristics for prospective award candidates and finalizes the list of candidates. One important characteristic of award prospects is ensuring the person receiving the award has enough stature in the community to fill a room (there may be few things more embarrassing than to be given an award with no one there). The committee also ensures the event’s success by selling corporate sponsorship(s), reviewing the invitation list (many on the invitation list may not have a connection to the cause, but have a connection to the award recipient or a committee member), and following up. They are integral to the event’s success.
A great committee can also help with in-kind donations (printing, beverages, and underwriting some event expenses).
How do you find a good (or great) committee? Great committees don’t grow overnight – they usually build over time. The first place to start is with the organization’s Board members. Most of them either have a connection with the mission or are very passionate about the cause.
Who do they know? Get them thinking beyond the “usual” people – ask them to think about members of any club or social service organization(s) to which they belong (suggest they pull out their club’s directory). Ask them to think about members of their church. Ask them about their neighbors, and anyone they do business with (personally or professionally). Once two or three good leaders are recruited, ask them who they know that may be able to persuade to serve on the committee. When recruiting committee members, make sure you have a “job description” of what the committee member is expected to do and the amount of time you estimate their role will take (be honest about that!). Try to hold at least one committee meeting in person and make it fun – drinks after work or any activity that will help them bond. After that, you can use Zoom or Teams, if that’s more convenient. However, that first meeting usually finds people taking on responsibilities for various aspects of the event.
Be sure to thank them, publicly and often! Their names should be on the invitation and in the event program (if one is published). Recognize their contribution. Public recognition is one of the most important methods available for keeping volunteers on the committee and engaged with the cause!
Obviously, there are a lot of ideas for fundraising events. When considering a prospective event, the first question to ask is “how does it raise money?” And how much money are you hoping to raise? There are a lot of interesting event ideas which can’t answer this question. If your organization is thinking about starting a fundraising event, please feel free to contact me – there probably isn’t an event I haven’t coordinated at one time or another (successfully or not) – giving me a grasp of the potential pitfalls and the best practices for success. Good luck! I look forward to talking with you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Randi Corey, Manager of Special Events and Partnership Development at 501(c) Services, has served as Executive Director of multiple nonprofit organizations. She has coordinated nearly 100 fundraising events raising a total of almost $29 million. She’s also supervised more than 750 staff and/or volunteer-coordinated events raising an additional $41 million. Randi has experience coordinating walks, galas, golf tournaments, sports challenges, stair climbs, celebrity waiters, 5K runs, and more.