Unless you’ve done your homework, the answer to that question will either be “I don’t know” or “maybe.”
Fundraising events are part of the revenue mix for virtually every nonprofit, no matter how large or small the budget. They are often one of the first strategies undertaken by a nonprofit, and the last to be relinquished. Why is this so? Because event fundraising is “easy” in many people’s minds: it doesn’t involve having to actually ask someone face-to-face for money; the work is accomplished by staff and a committee over several months and is therefore relatively invisible; and everyone enjoys the party. Bottom line: events are the epitome of transactional fundraising for most organizations, and they rarely rise above it even when they can.
First, how do you know if your event has earned the right to exist? By having goals beyond dollars raised or attendance. Who is your target constituency for the event? Are they showing up? Are they returning year after year? Are you trying to cultivate new leadership? New major donors? Build awareness? Thank your supporters? All or some of these can be and should be stated outcomes of your event. The point: events should be about more than the dollars raised. Events are simply too high cost to do them otherwise.
Second, have you created specific strategies to meet those goals? For example, if one goal of your auction is to cultivate specific major donors that night, what is your plan for doing so? Inviting them to the event is not enough; a set of actions needs to happen at the auction for it to advance a potential donor’s relationship with your organization. Do you prep the CEO with a short list of specific donors to meet that night—as well as topics to cover? Have you strategically placed the right people at tables with senior leadership or board members? Is this the night to introduce a potential benefactor to one of your program managers?
If the answer to some of these questions is yes, then what is your follow up strategy? What do you do after the CEO’s conversation with Major Prospect A? How do you capture the information gained from the conversation that your top physician had with the head of a major family foundation at the event? And what are the next steps for the relationship based on that conversation? The points: don’t assume that if people attend an event, you have strengthened their connection to your organization, and don’t forget to follow through once the event is over; otherwise you’re wasting all the good strategies you set in motion that night.
Third, events earn the right to exist if the return on investment meets an identified target. How much do your events cost you? Do you know what the true ROI is? Have you included the cost of staff and/or volunteer time needed to stage the event in your calculations? Could your staff time and the organization’s money be better spent on other strategies with better rates of return? Our clients are often astonished at how lousy a return on investment their events represent after staff—and even volunteer—time is factored in to the equation. One of your event goals should be to drive down ROI year over year until you achieve a number you and the board can live with. The point: only by knowing how much your events are truly costing your organization in time and money can you begin to realistically assess whether they are worth it.
There is a place for special events in the fundraising mix, as long as they help organizations grow in strategic ways. Take the time this year to think through and set non-fundraising goals for your events and they will begin to earn the right to your time and attention.
Have your events earned the right to exist? Do you have examples of non-fundraising event goals to share? What defines a successful event at your organization?
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About the Author
Kristin Barsness CFRE
With a researcher’s eye for the important details, Kristin understands the intricacies of building strong donor relationships to meet your fundraising goals.