The one word that can bring shivers to any development professional’s spine.
Followed by the statement that we have all heard and universally dread hearing in a board meeting from a board chair: “I think we need to do another fundraising event.”
I can hear your chuckles now, as I do not believe I have met a nonprofit fundraiser, even an event manager, who does not share a love/hate relationship with fundraising and stewardship events. Events are the necessary evil of our world – just about every nonprofit has one, if not multiple, annual events. From golf tournaments to galas, luncheons to walk-a-thons, they come in a million forms – and bring a million tasks along with them.
We sigh and wish we could just use the time spent planning an event on donor meetings. And yes, we can all agree that major donor visits and meetings with prospects are a much better return on investment for our time.
But as much as you hate events, I think it’s about time that we all hold hands, take a deep breath, and realize that for the time being, events aren’t going away. And maybe, instead of wasting time whining about them, we need to embrace fundraising events for the value they can add.
Yes, I just said embrace events.
Now, let’s qualify that statement.
I recommend – always – that any development shop (of one to 151 employees) audit their activities and really examine how much time, energy, and resources are employed for every event held. This can be a painfully illuminating exercise. By resources, I mean staff time spent along with financial expenses. Hours, days, time picking up auction items, chasing vendors, corralling chairs, multiple trips to Michael’s for frames, centerpieces, and any other last-minute errand. It can be really eye-opening to quantify that time in money form – as in how many staff hours and staff dollars you spend producing an event.
But I also recommend that you audit your events not just in terms of net revenue, but in value added.
Yes, not just in terms of net revenue. Do you stop and ask how an event adds value to your donors? How does it deepen relationships and understanding of your organization’s mission? Does it create a sense of community? Does it highlight and celebrate your work?
Events, by their nature, are time-consuming. That will never really change. But what we can change is how effective and meaningful our events are. Instead of focusing on linens and mulligans, perhaps we should step back even more so and analyze how we can ensure our events are worth the time and energy we spend:
- Consider spending more time planning your program during the event – how can you creatively and powerfully communicate your mission and impact?
- Remember that many of your event participants go to multiple functions a year. How can your event make an impression? Think about guest experience and how you want your donors to feel when they walk away from your event.
- If you have entertainment or a speaker, make sure they connect back to your mission during their portion of the program. Big names can be a big draw, but ensure it makes sense for your organization and budget.
- Don’t be afraid to change the format of an event from year to year, but also don’t be afraid to “brand” your event if the theme/premise is one that fits well. It can become a signature event for your organization.
- Think about how you can prevent donor fatigue at your events – are you asking too much? Too little? Is there too much going on at your events that the message is muddled?
- Auctions take a lot of time, but can be fruitful. Is your audience into the auction process, or should you try a different way to engage them at your event?
- Keep auctions short – please. I know it is tempting to pile on the items because they can make money, but guests get very restless when an auction goes longer than 10-15 minutes. Every event is different of course, but keep the timeframe of your guests’ experience in mind.
- Treat your guests well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if your event is fun, with high-quality service and guest engagement, it can truly be a fantastic experience for your organization.
- Don’t treat your guests like ATMs. Too often, we obsess over how much money we can make in an evening while we have guests “captive.” Let’s change that mindset and think about what will make a guest not only give during an event, but also feel thanked for being there.
- Thank, and thank again after an event – and then give them guests information about what the event accomplished. Events exhaust staff time so often that stewardship is minimalized to just tax letters and auction item delivery. But if we do not steward guests well beyond an event, there is no point.
Make those hours count, folks. And give them an event that will truly transform relationships and move the ball forward for your team.
Stop worrying and fussing over the details and focus on the end results. Your donors, and your organization, will love you all the more for it.