Special events: the four essentials

I am a natural skeptic when it comes to special event fundraising. An awful lot of time and money gets spent on activities that often fall short of desired, or promised, results. That being said, I have also seen fundraising events that work really well, events that elevate an organization’s profile, educate the community about important issues, and broaden a group’s reach.

But the big tell with fundraising events is whether they raise enough money to fund program work that fulfills the organization’s mission. How much is really left at the end of the day for program priorities?

At some point in my career, I realized that all of the true fundraisers I had ever staffed or managed -- events that generated at least two-thirds of their revenue for program -- all shared four things in common. They all had a money person, a draw, a base of support, and a logistics person.   

1. The first and most important element is the money person(s).

Why? Because you make your money in fundraising events with corporate sponsorships, high-dollar table buys, and other mechanisms that encourage people to pay 10 times the regular admission price. This money-person can be the event chair who leverages business relationships to bring in corporate sponsorships, a wealthy patron with deep pockets and lots of friends, or a mover and shaker willing to open her Rolodex. It could even be a committee. The important thing is this person or persons understands his or her role. They are essential. Recognize that your regular ticket sales will only cover your costs no matter how many tickets you sell. The base ticket price, whether it’s $75, $250, or $1,000, is designed to get people to come to the event, not to make money. As a rule of thumb, your sponsorship total will be your profit.

2. The draw. A celebrity, elected official, an accomplished artist or performer are all possibilities.

In the case of advocacy groups, it could even be Noam Chomsky. Whoever it is, this person should be interesting enough to generate some buzz. But it is very important not to confuse this person with your money person. They are two completely different roles. Believe it or not, your draw will not make money for you (no matter how big the name) without the other three elements in place. In fact, your draw is often counting on you to deliver an audience. This is a little counter intuitive, but remember the best draw in the world is only one element of your success.  

3. Base of supporters.

You need a group of people who will purchase tickets and show up for the event. They are your regulars, and you will need them to encourage family, friends and colleagues to attend and generally help you fill the room. The events that are successful are often well-established, signature events that have built up a following over the years, so don’t expect a new event to draw a lot of people who have no association with your organization. Make sure you have enough supporters you can count on.

4. A logistics person.

Generally you need a paid staff person to hold a successful event. I have seen some fantastic volunteer groups handle this under certain circumstances, but it was a very well-organized group with lots of experience running events. Promotions, recruitment, program development and execution are all functions for the staff person.

If you are missing any one of these elements, I’m guessing you will find it difficult to net enough money to call your event a fundraiser. You may still value the opportunity to get your organization’s name out there, build partnerships, or network (read: face-time) with your supporters. But if you’re counting on your event to be a source of revenue, make sure you have the four essentials in place.