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.


Recapturing donors who fade with the moment

Author's note: This blog was originally posted in Jan. 2014. The topic is especially relevant at this time of year.

A really good question came up this week during our webinar on recapturing lost donors. It was about how to re-engage donors who stop (or scale back) giving once the urgency of the moment has passed. Here are five suggestions for tackling this all-too-common problem:

1. Analyze data on your lapsed donors

Look for common characteristics among these donors: location, age, giving level, join date, giving method, online donors v. mail. Are they clustered in one state? Did they all join in response to a particular campaign? Are they online donors or did they come in through a special event? If you can group these lapsed donors into specific segments, it will help narrow your focus and point to possible solutions.

2. Gather feedback

Try a survey or focus group to dig a little deeper into their concerns. You may have a good handle on some of their issues or concerns, but a survey could reveal a little more about their priorities, and a series of open-ended conversations in focus groups could help generate three to five new messages that you could then test via email to see how well they resonate with a larger audience.

3. Launch a targeted reinstatement effort using custom campaign materials

Develop materials that address the priorities identified in the survey and focus groups. If there is someone associated with a high-profile issue or legal case, ask that person to be part of the campaign, to sign a letter for you, have their story told in emails, even make a few calls. In your materials, make sure to include the threats still posed by the opposition, specific efforts by your foes to roll-back progress, and the need for vigilance in protecting hard-won gains.

4. Donor engagement activities

Are there other ways for donors to be engaged? Is it possible to hold small-scale donor events in key locations or an evening program featuring an inspirational speaker? On the advocacy level, if your organization has petitions or lobbying efforts it needs help with, appeal to the lapsed donors for help. It’s not a substitute for financial support, but it might at least keep them in the fold.

5. Plan for the ebb and flow

Be prepared in the future to leverage high-profile moments into multi-year giving commitments; this will make your organization less vulnerable to the ebbs in donor attention. The urgent moment, whenever it comes, reminds everyone of the importance of your mission. It also typically puts your organization’s leaders front and center in the media and gives you an opportunity to reach out to everyone from former board members and major donors to foundation officers and long-time members. On the fundraising front, it is an opportunity to secure multi-year pledges and lock-in giving for future years. When the heat of the moment has faded, your donors will still be paying those pledges.