Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2015, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
YOU’RE IN A MEETING WITH SEVERAL OTHER PEOPLE from your organization trying to brainstorm a grassroots fundraising activity to do as a team. Someone proposes calling your current donors to ask them to give larger gift—an idea that goes over like a lead balloon, met with nervous squirms and shaking heads. Someone else suggests doing an online fundraising drive, using email and social media to raise money for your cause on a high visibility day. That idea gets a warmer reception, but still doesn’t generate a ton of interest. But when somebody says, “Let’s do an event!” and then talks excitedly about the splashy gala they recently attended, the energy in the room changes. People perk up, their eyebrows lift and they start to smile and chat happily about their ideas for fundraising events.
Before you know it, half a dozen different event ideas are up on the wall. But when someone asks, “Who’s going to take the lead on one of these?” Everyone looks at each other, and the lead balloon feeling returns. Then, the person who came up with the idea of the big splashy gala that will probably cost several thousand dollars pipes up and says, “I’ll do it!” Soon a committee is formed and a date is being discussed for an event that you’re not even sure will be profitable. That lead balloon is starting to settle on your chest, and you get a sinking feeling that despite the excitement in the room, this event may not be the best thing for your organization.
Or maybe your group has been doing events to raise money for a long time because they’re the only kind of fundraising activity your team is interested in or familiar with—but the events never seem to turn a profit, despite the amount of work you all put into organizing them. Now your team is getting frustrated and wants to give up this whole grassroots fundraising thing altogether. And who could blame them?
These are common situations that I see in my fundraising consulting work with social justice nonprofits. Learning how to use events judiciously is an important skill to develop if you want your organization to have a strong fundraising program, but the key word here is judicious—meaning “having, showing or done with good judgment or sense.” Unfortunately, when it comes to events and fundraising, common sense and good judgment sometimes get left behind in the excitement of putting on a fabulous party for a hundred of our best friends. Because who doesn’t love a party? Yet, experienced fundraisers know that events can easily be money-losers instead of moneymakers.
So how can you channel and not squash the excitement that board, staff and volunteers often feel about events—because let’s be honest, their excitement about anything fundraising-related is something to be celebrated—while still making sure that you actually raise (rather than lose) money? Three key ways that you can do this are to:
1) train your team on fundraising concepts and practices;
2) expose them to other types of fundraising activities besides events; and
3) create criteria for fundraising events for your organization to ensure that events are done in a way that makes sense (and money).
Plenty of great articles in the Journal have already addressed the first two steps. This article will focus on the third tool: creating a set of criteria for fundraising events.
Organization-wide criteria for fundraising events can help focus your team on the primary goal of these events—making money— without making a response like, “No, we can’t do a golf tournament!” feel like a personal insult to the person who proposed it. Criteria can be especially useful when working with volunteers, board members, or anyone who hasn’t done a lot of fundraising. They are an important tool early on in the process of building your team’s fundraising skills. Without them, you run the risk of learning the hard way how much of a time- and money-drain special events can be on your team and your organization.
“The excitement of an event can be like a tsunami, it becomes unstoppable,” says fundraising consultant Holly Fincke, who works mostly with social justice nonprofits. “You just have to be prepared for the tsunami. You get ready the best you can.”
One way to avoid the dangers of this tsunami- or runaway train-like event excitement is to be proactive, by engaging your team in creating criteria for these events during a “neutral” time— as in, not when they are caught up in the excitement, but at a time when they can be more reflective and thoughtful. This can happen during an evaluation of a fundraising event, during annual planning, or at a fundraising training for your team.
“When you talk about grassroots fundraising with groups, introduce on the front end the criteria and the concept that events don’t always make money for organizations,” says Fincke. “Then you’re not squashing someone’s idea once they raise it, because 90 percent of their ideas will be events. Say something like ‘One thing many of us in this room are good at is putting on events, but the science of fundraising says this, so let’s look at these criteria.’”
Well-meaning nonprofit boards, staff members and volunteers usually turn to events as a go-to fundraising idea because they might not know of any other way to fundraise—or at least, they don’t think they do. That’s why having a big-picture-thinking team member, staffer or other leader in your group can help educate everyone about the wide variety of fundraising activities—of which events are just one—available to them. Criteria can be a great way to institutionalize this educational process because repeating the same information over and over—instead of just at a one-time training, for example—can help your team truly understand and embody good fundraising practices.
So what should your criteria look like? Here is a list of criteria categories that you can use to create your own, which should be more specific to your organization’s needs. They can be framed as questions (not requirements) that your team should answer as they brainstorm events and should be taken into account whenever you are planning a fundraising event. Essentially, these building blocks of a good event should shape your criteria. Most successful fundraising events have:
- Clear goals, including at least one fundraising goal.
The event can have other goals that are not fundraising related—such as helping to raise the visibility of a particular program at your organization. But for a fundraising event to be successful, it must raise a certain amount of money over and above costs.
- A clear strategy for raising funds. This is where many organizations lose their way. Any fundraising event that does not have a clear strategy and system for how money will be raised will likely fail, not to mention frustrate both your team and the donors who want to support your group. So making sure that this strategy matches up with the fundraising goal and your organization’s capacity is crucial.
- Alignment with your nonprofit’s mission and values.
The most memorable events are the ones that really help your organization shine—they highlight instead of trying to hide your organizational culture, celebrate your work, and reflect who you really are.
- People power. A successful fundraising event plan must include clear roles about who is doing what—planning, getting food and drink, securing in-kind donations, logistics, etc. Does your organization have enough people to pull off the event that is being proposed? Would a different kind of event that doesn’t require as much people power but could still meet your fundraising goal work, even if it’s not as flashy or exciting? Most nonprofits don’t have staff people waiting around for more work to do, so this question is especially important. You want your team to answer the eternal question: “So, who’s going to do all this stuff”
One of the most common mistakes I see organizations make when it comes to events is not having a concrete fundraising goal. Often, having a fun event seems to take precedence over having an event that actually raises money. So it’s important for your team to have clear fundraising goals—which can include the dollar amount you want to raise, as well as questions like how many new donors you want to bring in or whether you want to use it as more of a thank you event for current donors. Having a clear money-raising goal also can help reality-check whether an event is a good idea or not. “I always start with the money conversation,” says Jessica de Jesus, a Bay Area-based event planner and former development director for social justice nonprofits. “I find that’s where people get their reality check. I have had clients who have wanted to do an event for a while—but it’s more of a feeling rather than being grounded in real numbers or a real budget. So we’ll build a budget together—what kind of event do you want? How many people? Sit down dinner, beer and wine, open bar?”
It is a good practice to create budgets for any kind of fundraising event that you do. Make sure that your budget is realistic as far as what is going to be spent and what is going to be raised. You could also include in your criteria that all fundraising events must break even, or earn at least 25 percent profit, for example. This will help you plan your fundraising events long before they are even a glimmer in a board member’s eye, and can keep your team focused on what is usually the primary goal of such events: to raise money for your organization.
Of course, your events can and should have goals that are about more than raising money. You may want to raise visibility about your cause or issue, build a sense of community amongst your members, or get a specific message out to your supporters. For example, one of my consulting clients, the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS)—a national movement-building organization working to harness the power of story for social change—recently held a fundraising event that was also a public announcement of their executive leadership transition. So the program focused on celebrating the founding executive director’s work and legacy as well as highlighting the incoming director’s excitement and vision for CSS’s future. But another key goal was to raise money for the organization.
“We wanted to increase our individual donations, create more connections with our supporters, and make the leadership transition announcement,” says Megan Swoboda, CSS’s special projects associate, who was the main organizer for the event. “We wanted to…leave a lasting impression about what this new chapter of CSS is going to look like…to inspire people to want to come back to the next [event] or to give later.”
CSS also wanted the event to be profitable. Through the work of the staff, board, and the event host committee (see below for more details), they raised more than $16,000 the night of the event, while only spending about $2,000.
But what if you don’t know how much you might be able to raise? Before you decide to do a big event—such as an anniversary gala dinner—it’s a good idea to test the waters and see if the sponsorship prospects you have will really be able to pitch in.
“For sponsorships, you can run up the flagpole of a couple sponsors and see if they are enthusiastic,” says Fincke. “If your money is coming from sponsorships, you should have relationships [with potential sponsors] where you can have that kind of discussion with them. With events tickets, do a quick assessment: Do you have a history of selling, for example, $100 tickets if you want to sell tickets at that price?”
Fincke and de Jesus both recommend using a gif range chart to help create realistic fundraising goals based on donors’ and sponsors’ past giving and other information you have about them. A gif range chart (learn more and view a sample gif range chart at bit.ly/1gnqKGu) can really help your team reality-check whether their fundraising goal is realistic in a fairly scientific way.
A couple of examples of criteria for event goals are:
- The event needs a concrete, numerical fundraising goal.
- Our fundraising events should make a profit of at least 20 percent over and above costs, including staff costs.
How Are We Going to Reach Our Goals? Having clear event goals is important, but having a clear plan for how to reach those goals is equally important. This is another area where groups can fall prey to magical thinking. Making sure that your team is setting itself up for success by creating a solid fundraising strategy and plan is crucial.
For example, if your organization wants to raise $10,000 through house parties, break this goal down into smaller tasks and numbers in the form of a rough work plan that more accurately outlines what it will really take to reach that goal. Having even a rough plan in place will help avoid frustration for your team later on.
Making sure that the fundraising strategy is realistic is also important. For example, I have worked with nonprofits who want to raise money by selling raffle tickets or food at an event without charging much for tickets or getting sponsorships. If raff tickets are very inexpensive—for example, less than $5 each—having a fundraising goal of say, $500 (selling 100 tickets) is more in line with a raff strategy than a goal of $5,000 (selling 1,000 tickets). If the event venue only holds 100 people, there is no way the group will come even close to meeting a fundraising goal of $5,000 by selling raffle tickets alone. Th time the event team would have to spend finding raff prizes would probably be better spent either selling higher priced tickets ($25 or higher) or securing sponsorships for the event (anywhere from $250 up depending on your potential sponsors and the size of your event). So make sure that your criteria include requiring events to have clear fundraising
strategies that line up with fundraising goals.
Turnout goals also require a plan for getting people to your event. Do a quick evaluation of what has worked for your organization in the past: What works with your community when trying to get them to turn out to an action or meeting? Does email alone work, or do people respond better to phone calls? If the latter, then make sure that your outreach plan for your event includes making phone calls to invite people to attend. A plan that does not take into account your organization’s unique needs and culture is more likely to fail.
Lastly, don’t assume that doing “less” as far as fundraising events go means you will raise less money. Low-maintenance events like house parties, informal cocktail parties, or even “open house” type gatherings held at your offices can raise a fair amount of money with minimal cost. The Center for Story-based Strategy event, for example, was a fairly low-key after-work affair, with minimal seating to promote maximum mingling, a short 30-minute program, and a strong fundraising pitch by a board member at the end. That pitch, combined with several soft fundraising asks via Facebook and through email outreach by staff and the host committee, helped them not just reach but exceed their fundraising goal.
“You can raise more money doing less with the program than a lot of people tend to think,” says Swoboda.
A couple of examples of criteria you could have for creating a plan include:
- The event must have a clear fundraising strategy to reach its
- The event must have a clear and doable plan for meeting
Let’s face it, most of our groups are not the American Red Cross or the Boys and Girls Club—we are much smaller, often have informal organizational cultures, and have unique values. So think about whether your criteria should include something about making sure events are welcoming to the people that you work with, or at least feel in line with your organization’s mission and vision. Often, groups find themselves in a bind because they want their events to be welcoming to their members, but they also want to raise a lot of money.
“There’s always that tension between wanting to raise money and making the event inclusive of their community, who can’t often pay for the $150 ticket to an event,” says de Jesus.
If you find that this comes up within your organization, it may mean that your fundraising goals need to be revised, or that you need to take a closer look at your fundraising strategy to make sure you have prospects who can help you reach your goals. But an event does not have to be exclusive to wealthy people in order to be a successful fundraiser. It’s important for an event to reflect your organizational culture and who you are, because that is what will make donors and sponsors more likely to support you.
For example, when I was the development director at Californians for Justice (CFJ), we had a big, year-long 10th anniversary campaign, which included events in all four of the regions where we did organizing. But as a youth organizing group, we deliberately did not want to make these events feel too fancy or buttoned-up. After some collective brainstorming, our events ended up featuring a fashion show in which our youth members modeled T-shirts from all of our campaigns from the previous 10 years. The fashion show was a lot of fun for both our youth and adult supporters, it highlighted CFJ’s history, and it was in line with our values and culture. Don’t be afraid to be creative and encourage your team to think outside the box for what will work for your organization (you can also check out my article, “Not Your Cookie-Cutter Gala: Integrating Culture & Community into Special Events” in the Journal archive).
Your team may also hear about a fundraising event offered by a local company—eat at such-and-such restaurant on a certain night and a portion of the proceeds will go to your group. I often discourage my clients from doing those types of fundraisers. They can be a lot more work than you think (see next section). And even if you are able to get your supporters to attend those kinds of fundraisers, it may hurt your overall fundraising program because they might see their dinner out as their donation, in lieu of making a direct gift to your organization when you do an appeal.
“You should think about it in the self-determination and controlling your message frame,” says Fincke of these types of events. “When you are hooking onto someone else’s thing, unless you have a lot of donors, you are losing your shot with people. For example, if you’re selling tickets for a local theater, unless the play has a tight connection to your mission, it won’t help you, because you’re not conveying much about yourselves. Or you’re getting donors who are not replicable donors, and you won’t hear from those people again.”
However, these types of events can make sense when there is a close connection to your mission and programs. Fincke shares an example from her previous work as the development director at the California Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (CCIRR).
“When Anna Deveare Smith was doing her show Twilight Los Angeles, it was worthwhile for us because it hooked in with CCIRR’s mission—it was about the connections between Black, white and immigrant communities. We made money off it, and it wasn’t that much work,” she says.
A couple of examples of criteria for having your events be mission-oriented include:
- The event must match up with our organization’s values and culture.
- The event must be something we think our members, volunteers, staff and board members will get excited about attending.
Your event criteria should encourage your team to think through who will be able to make the event happen. This is probably the most important part of organizing events. Events tend to take a lot of work, so some careful thinking before your team gets carried away with a fun idea can prevent you from having a bad event experience down the road. Write your criteria in a way that encourages your team to think of different ways to engage volunteers—not just staff in getting work done for your event. Often, staff are seen as the fallback/Plan B if volunteers are not able to follow through. But this is not really fair to staff who usually have more than enough work to do already.
Thinking back to the example of the local restaurant fundraiser above, this event may seem like an easy one to pull off, but in reality, these types of events often don’t raise a lot of money even if you put a lot of work into them. Ask your team questions about such events: “Who will publicize and turn people out to the fundraiser?” If it’s the restaurant—which it rarely is—then that’s great. But if your team has to do it, help them think through whether that is a great use of their time.
In order to ensure the best use of our time and resources, Good Folks for Justice has created these criteria for
our fundraising events. All events should:
- Have a clear and realistic numerical fundraising goal;
- Make a profit of at least 20 percent over and above costs, including staff costs;
- Provide space for deepening relationships and building community;
- Align with our organization’s social justice values and culture;
- Be accessible and relevant to the communities with whom we organize:
- Wheelchair accessible
- Accessible by public transit
- Spanish-language translation and interpretation
- Family friendly and/or childcare available;
- Be something we think our members, volunteers, staff and board members will get excited about attending;
- Have a team of at least three people who are willing to plan and carry it out successfully; and
- Have clearly defined roles for staff board, members and volunteers that are in line with the size and scope of the event.
“Most people don’t track their time against actual event cost,” says de Jesus. “[For example,] a lot of organizations want to get things donated, and a lot of groups like to get [food] donations piecemeal. Coordinating that becomes a huge logistical nightmare.”
“Investigate the best way to manage your costs, and see time as part of your costs,” says Fincke, who was also the former development director at Mission Housing in San Francisco. “At Mission Housing, we hired an event planner, which was great because it allowed me to do the fundraising. I still had to coordinate sponsorship asks, but event coordinators know all the best deals, how to deal with plates, etc. It may seem like a lot of money to spend but do you really want staff ordering plates [for your event]?”
“When you do your assessment, don’t be shy about spending money to save time,” says Fincke. Taking the example of house party fundraisers, she says, “You may want to hire a young person who can coordinate the hosts, and then you as the fundraising staff person can focus on other things, and not so much on the logistics. In that case, you’re actually doing some fundraising leadership development too.”
A couple of examples of criteria for ensuring adequate people power for your event include:
- The event must have a team of at least three people who are willing to plan and carry it out successfully.
- We should have a clear list of roles for staff board and volunteers/members that is in line with the size and work needed to put on a successful fundraising event.
So how do you go about creating criteria for your event? The first thing to keep in mind is that this should be a collective process. Involve as many people in your organization as possible so that you have buy-in from the very beginning. This means that the process may not happen within a two-hou