Banquets, Bakesales and Block Parties: Public Events Can Raise Program Funds and Visibility

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Our fundraising committee was kicking around ideas on new strategies for raising money when someone suggested putting on an event. “You want us to hold an event?” I repeated in disbelief—”You’re not serious?” I went into tedious detail explaining the amount of thought, group effort and commitment required for a successful fundraising event. My committee members (bless them) smiled patiently and nodded politely as I ticked off each point. As I took a well-overdue breath, one committee member—obviously still unconvinced—asked again, “So, why not?”

Thinking like a true development officer, I suggested we begin by asking ourselves a couple of questions:

  • How much money do we want to raise? Let’s think big. If we are going to spend time and energy on an event, we should make it pay.
  • Is it just about money? If the problem is cash flow, an event is not necessarily the easiest or most cost effective way to resolve it.
  • Besides raising funds, what is the purpose of the event? Are we looking for greater exposure for our organization or for the issue? Are we recruiting new members or donors? Are we trying to get to know our donors better, maybe increasing their financial commitment? Do we just want to strut our stuff and have a little fun?
  • Who will come to this event? A successful event takes detailed planning, extensive publicity and people who will purchase tickets and attend. No one stays at a party that’s not really happening, and they won’t come back next year.
  • Who will do the work? Most events are time and labor intensive: can we rely mostly on volunteers, or will we have to involve staff—and how much more can we reasonably expect from our talented, but already over-tasked, program and administrative staff?

As we grappled with these questions, committee members shared ideas of what was special about other fundraisers they had attended. We realized that every city and town holds at least one signature event: the gala that people anticipate for months; the one everyone considers the place to be and be seen; the one we’ll spend our last dime getting dolled up for, paying top dollar for a ticket. We have our share in Boston.

We knew that for our event to be a success, we would have to generate the same level of energy, anticipation, and excitement. As first-timers, this meant inviting everyone we knew, completing all assigned tasks and promising to attend as many committee meetings as possible. To drive the point home, I had everyone swear, hands raised:

Who will be the main players? A good event has a working committee of dedicated people, who will plan the event, solicit donors, buy tickets or sponsorships, and attend the event themselves. They can be a mixture of board members, volunteers, constituents, donors, and vendors, so I told them we should think broadly about whom to include. The kind of event determines how large the committee of volunteers needs to be. There should be enough people to do the work. Committees should include players at all levels of commitment. One might sell $10 tickets, another $5,000 sponsorships, and another could secure an in-kind donation of printing or food or space.

I then asked committee members to put their names at the top of a sheet of paper and write down the names of 10 friends who would be willing to help.

We decided to include people with name recognition in our community, allowing for committee members who would never attend a meeting but would allow their names to be used, give money, and offer up their address books. Whether stuffing envelopes, selling tickets or sponsorships, or securing the guest speaker, there are always a variety of jobs that need to be done. Volunteers want to feel helpful and useful—using their talents and energy wisely requires thoughtful consideration of tasking, pacing and individual capacities. It’s a good idea to fit job assignments to the individual interests and personalities of your volunteers. (A volunteer who always shows up late, for example, is probably not the best choice to pick up the guest speaker.)

What kind of event will best reflect the mood and feel of our organization? Over time, all organizations will develop a discernable public identity and culture—an event should model that brand identity as closely as possible. It should emphasize the best aspects of the organization’s program and should be appropriate for its constituents and donors. An organization that serves children might choose to run a carnival. A multi-ethnic organization might show off the food, music, and crafts of their constituents. It may be better to plan a modest, intimate event that fits the image of the organization than to throw a showy, expensive event that has nothing in common with the organization’s mission and values.

Suggestions for our event included: a silent auction, a live auction, a dinner and dance, a dinner with speaker, a dance party… The list of possibilities grew quickly as everyone threw out a contribution. The ideas we were generating and our growing enthusiasm convinced me that we could pull off a successful event—in spite of our modest size.

Our small group finally decided that we would have a dinner. We wanted to get dressed up and honor the accomplishments of our organization.

What tasks need to be accomplished, and who will do them? When? The committee jumped into high gear. Using a backward calendar, we noted all the things that needed to happen before our event, identified the individual or team responsible for each task, and established a firm deadline. Ideally, you want to allow yourself adequate lead-time for planning and preparation; a planning period of six to eight months, or more, is not unheard of. For example, building toward a Fourth of July celebration will generally commence in January. (It could be planned and carried out in a few weeks, but why put yourself through all the stress?)

We agreed that each of us would be responsible for one area of the event. We broke into small groups and promised to accomplish tasks on our own, to cut down the frequency of committee meetings.

We wanted to sell at least 300 tickets. I remembered reading somewhere that the average person knows roughly 250 people. We thought about the people we knew. With a committee of ten, each of us would tap 25 people for the price of a ticket—a mere 10 percent of our personal networks. We also had 250 major donors on our database and with a little prospecting, we were sure that we could quickly come up with 500 to 750 prospects for ticket sales.

Everyone resolved to explore every possible source of revenue. We knew that we did not want to end up like so many organizations that go into a special event hoping to raise needed cash and end up spending more money than they make or merely breaking even. While we did not anticipate making bundles of money, we wanted to generate some visibility and hoped avoid the embarrassment of “lighting a dollar to find a dime.”

At this point, I began keeping a daily journal on the committee’s decisions and actions leading up to the event. Afterward, this documentation would facilitate a more thorough evaluation of our efforts.

How much will the event cost? How much can we raise, including in-kind donations? Decide what you want the event to look like and what it will cost. Include everything. Then decide how much you want to make. Add your goal to the cost and that is the amount you have to raise.

We were committed to budgeting realistically. As the committee put the budget together, we factored in every little detail: did we want fresh flowers or silk flowers on each table; did we want to have a sit-down meal or buffet? We started thinking of ways to make our guests feel at home. Janie, who owned a dress shop, offered big discounts for our members and thought that one of her colleagues would be able to donate the flowers. We tried to remember all the nice touches from other events and added them to our bottom line projections.

Who can we enlist as major supporters? Underwriters, sponsors, and high-priced ticket buyers can make an event a financial success. We knew that we would need a couple of corporate sponsors to pull of the event. Martha, a lawyer for a prestigious local law firm, felt her firm would be inclined to participate in another worthy endeavor.

She created a sponsorship plan that included an ad in the program book and prominent billing in our publicity. We would offer different perks at different prices. We decided to thank sponsors in the program book, on a banner, on the invitation (if they signed up early), in the press release, and on poster board at the sign-up table. We asked what other organizations in our community got for sponsorships, and decided to do the same. We asked how they priced the greetings in the program book, and did the same, charging as much as the market would bear.

What makes a perfect event? From experience, I have learned that the only perfect event is the one where the guests had no idea that anything went wrong. At this point, the single most important thing to consider in planning the evening’s program is time. We decided to keep it short. Why, after all the hard work raising money and getting people to attend, would we want to torture our guests with a long program of speeches and award presentations? If we bored our audience, they would not come back next year. So, we planned for fun and kept the program under 20 minutes.

After all the planning and preparation, the day finally arrived. We agreed to arrive early to make sure everything was in place. I was confident that our event would run smoothly because we had planned so well. Nevertheless, from experience I knew that something is bound to go wrong: the band is late, the chicken is undercooked, the program book arrives at the end of the evening, your keynote speaker misses her connecting flight.

We wanted to leave a lasting impression and took the time to greet all of our guests, schmooze, and highlight our organization’s program. Despite our jitters, we understood the need to exude confidence that the night would be unforgettable. Meticulous planning and a motivated working committee can save you from most major mistakes—but there is still no substitute for good luck.

The day after our event, we sat down to discuss, in detail what went well what could have gone better. We underscored the positive, while also acknowledging the places that needed more detailed attention next time.

Our event was such a great success we decided to repeat it annually; we had a terrific time, our guests enjoyed themselves, we made some money and learned many new skills.

Looking back, the biggest piece of advice I wanted to pass on to anyone planning a special event is to remember to say Thank You! Committee members thanked all the people who worked on the event, holding a small celebratory dinner in their honor. All donors received thank you notes within two weeks of the event; we also sent out programs to people who donated but did not attend  and to people who purchased ads for the program books. Thank you goes a long way.

Based on our post-event evaluation and the notes in the special event journal, we made corrections and additions to the planning calendar. Next year’s event will be even better because we left a solid outline for ourselves to follow.

Sandra Elaine Scott is development director at Boston-based Peace Games, a national nonprofit organization empowering students to create their own safe classrooms and communities. Scott serves as board vice-president of the St. Vincent Pallotti Center in Boston and sits on the fundraising committee of the Chelsea Human Services Collaborative.