Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jul/Aug 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Why should your organization host a special event? It seems that everywhere you turn you hear about them – a milestone Celebration, a Gala Dinner, an Awards Luncheon, a Walk-a-thon, a Telethon, an elegant House & Garden Tour. You might wonder, “Why not us?” Or, maybe your organization has been hosting an annual event of some kind for years and it has become flat (or worse) in the value it brings to your organization. Whatever stage you are at, you need to consider the purpose of an event for your organization and what steps you might take to rejuvenate an annual event that has developed declining attendance and income, or to develop a new event that will not be a drain on your financial and human resources.
For more than thirteen years, I have worked with many organizations at different stages of experience with event production. I have helped envision and execute plans for first annual events, or special one-time-only events, or for an Nth Year annual event. No matter the goal or the size and scope of the event, all events require a certain gestation and work period and the same attention to detail to produce one that is fresh and worthy of your time and energy. In this article, I will provide you with the tools and steps you can take to ensure that your special event meets your goals to deliver your message to a wider audience, help cultivate new leaders and donors, strengthen relationships with current and past leaders and donors, meet your financial expectations, and play an important role in your overall development plan.
Here are some questions to ask before embarking on organizing a special event:
- Where does such an event fit into your current development plan? What are your goals for the event?
- Do you have the people power to put on such an event? How do you recruit a strong team?
- What does a reasonable timeline look like to create such an event?
- How do you create a budget with realistic income projections to ensure you raise the money you need?
- How do you get people to attend your event?
- How can you track your income in a concise way as you move from beginning to end?
This article addresses each of these questions to help you plan the most successful event possible for your organization.
Setting Goals for Your Event within Your Overall Fundraising Plan
Whether your organization is based in a large or small community, many of your stakeholders will be delighted to attend an event that brings people together in support of your organization. With enough time and careful planning your event will attract enough supporters (past, current, and future) to provide the synergy needed for a successful event. They will come for many reasons, among them, to support you, to be seen, and to network.
Think about how the event will best fit into your current development plan. Think about how it can enhance and support other initiatives you are working on by considering the timing of your appeal letters, major donor drive, and how sponsorship solicitations for an event might affect your annual fundraising goals.
Another part of goal-setting includes choosing an event that allows you to stay true to your organization’s mission and core values. For example, an animal rights organization would not have a “Ranch BBQ.” Likewise, a breast cancer organization would most likely not have an event where makeovers are provided by make-up companies producing toxin-filled products. Events are more than parties – they are an access point for current, past, and future donors and leaders to learn more about you and to meet key stakeholders. Therefore, you want your event to reflect your organization’s mission and values.
Here are the types of goals you want to clarify for your event:
Net Income? Is a net income a requirement for this event to be successful, or are outreach and cultivation the benchmarks you would like to achieve?
Publicity for your organization?
Getting more people involved in your organization?
Cultivating new leaders? For example, an event can provide an opportunity to engage with potential new board members.
Donor Cultivation and/or Acquisition?
Your Event Team
Some organizations maintain full-time event staff. Others hire a consultant to lead the team. In still other organizations, events are organized by an all-volunteers team and/or your development department of one—the person who is also responsible for everything else that brings in funds to the organization. Whatever your internal make-up, you should have buy-in from your board of directors, development team (volunteer and staff), volunteers, and anyone else who has expressed an interest in supporting an event for your organization. It’s important that the event be an expression of the organization and not just of any one individual, so be sure to screen your volunteers for being good team players who can keep their eye on the prize: an event by and for your organization.
A team structure may look like the following:
Team Chair or Co-Chairs – An individual or individuals who will take the lead in seeing that other committee members get their work done and follow the task timeline. Ideally, they are volunteers, including board members, who work closely with staff and/or the consultant to oversee the event planning process, and take a lead in the fundraising efforts. They are committed to the goals of the event and will be wonderful cheerleaders and workers.
Logistics – work with the venue; entertainers; parking needs; event flow; menu; and so on
Fundraising –solicit sponsorships, sell tribute ads, sell tickets, solicit auction items, and whatever other income streams you establish for the event
Outreach/Publicity – engage other organizations, produce press releases and PSAs, identify lists to send invitations, email blasts and other calendar and publicity opportunities
Volunteers – help with specific tasks in implementing the plan as well as day-of tasks
There also may be an Honorary Chair or Honorary Host Committee that can add a wow-factor to an event. Whether long-time or new, supporters are often impressed by the recognized names of elected, business, and community leaders’ added to these lists. But there is time involved in soliciting these people to add their names and you need to determine whether it adds sufficient value to your particular event.
For example, if you are trying to reach out to the business community and there is a well-known leader who has her own circles of influence that she may be willing to invite to the event and that will be a draw to potential donors—then, yes, it is worth the effort of asking and doing necessary follow-up to secure this Honorary Chair. If, however, you and your team are going to spend a lot of time trying to confirm members of an Honorary Host Committee who benefit by associating themselves with you and your mission but will not be doing much for you, then your time might be better spent soliciting sponsorships, tribute ads, ticket sales, and in-kind donations so that you achieve your goals.
What kind of time do you need to achieve your goals and produce a successful event? A six-month timeline is generally sufficient to carry out all tasks related to an event and not burn out volunteers and others involved. One tool was presented by event planner Ali Vogt in her November/December 2002 Grassroots Fundraising Journal article, “The Details of a Special Events: How to be an Event Jedi.” There, she details the development and production of the event brochure, program, and communications, as well as when to send out sponsorship packets, invitations, and so on. The more detailed your plan, the easier it is for things not to fall through any cracks.
The following timeline organizes the tasks by the planning subcommittees described above. Of course you need to plug in actual, agreed-upon deadlines in the date column for your event.
As you develop your team, you may add in the names of the individuals responsible for taking on each task. Further, should you add an event coordinator to the mix, some of the tasks will certainly be assigned to that person, allowing you and your team to focus more time and energy on your fundraising and outreach.
Creating a Budget for Your Event
It is important to try to account for all possible hard-cost expenses in the budget to keep it accurate. Here is a sample budget and goals for a recent fundraising event in the San Francisco Bay Area that was seeking a positive net dollar goal:
In producing your budget, you want to account for every conceivable expense. Then, take a moment to consider which of your regular vendors – i.e., your mail house, designer or printer – may be willing to provide in-kind services as a one-time contribution to your event. You may also be able to get volunteers or talented students to provide design expertise for graphics or website updates or mailing services. These can be creative means of offsetting the fixed expense and of meeting your net income goals.
Tools to Track Budget, Income, and Attendance
If your organization does not have the budget to purchase specially designed event software, please do not fear. Excel spreadsheets are terrific tools for your budget/goals and task timeline. They allow you to filter or sort as needed for various sets of tasks, such as calling up all the tasks for the logistics team so they know what their timeline looks like, or for the printing schedule, etc. Spreadsheets are a great way to keep track of the various components of your event, such as items for your auction, guest list, etc.
The following items are helpful in a Master List (that you will produce as a spreadsheet) where you can track your solicitations, commitments, attendance, and income. Tailor what’s here to meet your specific needs:
Date Updated – You always want to be sure that you are updating your records
NameSource – This is very important for tracking and future solicitation purposes; if the contact is an organizational vendor or a friend of your board president, or the like, that will be noted here and you can best determine who should do follow-up, etc.
FirstName – It’s critical to keep the name components (FirstName, LastName, CompanyName) as separate fields. This will enable you to sort as needed by the respective fields and be more time-efficient in creating reports, nametags, registration lists, etc.
Specific Ask (i.e., Sponsor Level, Ad Size, Invitee)
Date Letter sent?
Commit – The columns to the right of Commit, which has the dollar amount committed by any particular donor, Sponsor$, Tkt$, Ad$, and Donation$ should all add up to equal the Commit total. This is a good way to check that you have properly accounted for your donors’ commitments and can honor whatever benefits are offered to them at the various levels for each category.
Getting People to Attend Your Event
Now that you have set your goals, put your plan together for a great event, and identified potential participants, you need to get the people there. Although a well-put-together event is bound to attract attendees, don’t sit back and overlook opportunities to ensure that the people you want to be there will be. Here are some tools I encourage my clients to use:
Save the Date Announcements. These can be part of a quarterly or monthly newsletter as a banner ad, or you can send postcards – regular-sized full-color cards are very inexpensive to produce these days—or a letter. These all can work well in communicating with your stakeholders and in providing a tool for your board members, staff, and others to distribute as they are out.
Invitations. Do you need to go to the expense of a graphic designer? Extravagant papers, inks, and die-cuts? Oversized format requiring additional postage? You must stay true to your budget. So, while your invitation does set the tone for the event, you do not need spend a lot of money to create a beautiful invite. You may ask a designer who knows your organization well to design the invitation pro bono. You can also look for in-kind donations or reduced rates for printing.
If you’re sending more than 250 invitations and want to use bulk mail rates, I recommend sending them “first class presort” with a “live stamp.” A good mail house can spare you the work of getting the mailing done in a timely fashion, and the live stamp takes away the look of something that should be tossed into the “read it later pile” by the recipient, or worse—straight into recycling.
One of my clients recently determined that they will not go to the expense of printing and mailing invitations for their next fundraising event. They found that through regular emails and minimal phone follow-up to their key stakeholders they yielded the sponsorship commitments they were seeking. But to get the number of attendees they wanted at the event they needed to make a lot of calls and send several emails.
Think about your out-going emails – does your email signature include details about the event and a tagline or teaser about the event? By having each staff member add a sentence or two to their out-going email signature, you can create a great and free way to communicate with everyone to whom you send an email about your event!
Follow-up. Remember that people are busy – and, though they want to support you and your organization, without (several) reminder calls they may just simply forget. Follow-up calls and donor contact also provide a key opportunity to deliver your message. Consider carefully what you or your callers will speak with your donors about and produce scripts for everyone. The event and its details are clearly important, but you now also have a contact point to let your donors learn more about what is happening with the organization, i.e., why you are having the event, who you are honoring, and how it fits into a celebration of past successes and your specific plans for the future. Messaging is key –your communications team should be prepared to weave the event into your overall development plan through this donor contact.
You will also want to follow up with your sponsors to get the names of their guests, and if they’re not using all of the tickets they were allotted for their sponsorship level, ask if they want to donate their tickets for someone else to use. Then make sure you have their guests’ names so you can put it on your registration list.
Other simple tools to get people to your event include sending out calendar announcements to local press outlets and online events sites. You may find a media sponsor who will give you placement ad space in their publication. Ask to have the placement ads both before and after the event—to remind people before and as a means of thanking sponsors, volunteers, and donors after.
Work the Event
An event is a perfect time to put your board and staff to work. This is an opportunity for them to get close to your other supporters. Through their conversations with guests, they will have a chance to see if people are ready to step up and join your board and/or subcommittees, and whether they may be ready to make a greater commitment to the organization, such as hosting a house party to engage their own circle of influence in your work. You will need to spend time with everyone prior to the event to see that they are on point regarding the message developed for this event. The time spent in advance to prepare your team will help with success on the day of and after your event.
Events are a time-honored tradition that can bring a lot of value to your organization and meet the goals of your development plan. Although they require careful planning and the involvement of many people, they provide the kind of opportunity for engagement, participation and important face-time with the many stakeholders of your organization that is not possible with other fundraising strategies. With good food, drink, venue, entertainment, and speakers, you can create an experience for your guests that encourages their steadfast (and increased) commitment to your organization.
Laurie Earp’s firm Earp Events & Fundraising is based in Oakland, California and has been serving and working with great nonprofit organizations across the country for the last thirteen years.