Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

A Case for Fundraising Events?

If the title of this article is not provocative, you’ve probably not been to a Foraker class. We’ve spent the last eight years trying to convince nonprofits that event fundraising is not a good idea. So, you might ask, why am I now willing to write a paper on making the case for events?

The answer is that because we encouraged conservation in terms of holding fundraisers, many more organizations are now in a different place. Eight years ago it was hard to look in the paper and not see organizations looking for an “Events Coordinator.” The Association of Fundraising Professionals had a minority of professionals engaged in real fund development. Today, things are different. Newspaper ads indicate that most nonprofits are now looking for “Directors of Development.”

As a sector, we seem better able to understand event fundraising in a holistic way – when and how events should be used and what pitfalls to avoid. Eight years ago, the only fundraising done by most nonprofits in Alaska was through events. As you‘ve heard us say, events are not sustainable. They often produce staff and board burnout. Too often they raise less than they cost to conduct. They are weather dependent. They rarely connect people to mission. And they seem to have a finite life cycle. We haven’t changed any of our opinions on these basic beliefs.

It is for those reasons we encourage organizations to focus on more sustainable revenue streams. We believe you will receive more benefits from a mature annual giving campaign – or from generating earned revenue from mission-related services or products. We still encourage those strategies, but now we are willing to also accept that sometimes events can be a positive experience for your organization – especially if you ensure that the time used in planning and executing the event is in line with the fundraising results.

There are a number of valid reasons to hold an event. For example:

  • The organization would like to recognize annual donors – this is not really a fundraising event.
  • The organization may want to introduce a new program, a new executive director, senior staff member, a new board leader, or a new facility – this is not really a fundraising event.
  • The organization needs to raise funds for a specific purpose, like to purchase a van and one or two events could raise sufficient funds – this is a focused fundraising event.
  • The organization may want to provide a service, like a training conference, that would generate income – this is earned revenue, not a fundraising event.
  • The organization wants to develop relationships with potential friends and donors – this is friend-raising, not fundraising.

Any of these scenarios could be a good reason to hold an event. However, if you are planning to hold such an event, we would suggest a few important guidelines:

  1. Develop a business plan to guide the event planning:
    • Understand how your chosen event connects your audience to your mission and to the larger cause – how can you share this connection?

    • Conduct an environmental scan on similar events – what they cost, what they charge, and how many people attend, etc.

    • Understand who would be the potential audience and how to attract the right people to the event.

    • Create a timeline that includes specific responsibilities for people who will implement the plan.

    • Ensure adequate resources, such as people, up-front funding, location, event insurance, etc.

    • Develop a contingency plan, i.e., what if it rains and you planned to hold the event outside?

    • Clearly articulate how you will provide donor recognition.

    • Develop scenarios that lay out expected returns from time and other resources invested.

    • Determine the event’s duration – how often will you hold it?

      • One year
      • A few years
      • Ongoing
  2. Create a plan to capture the name and contact information for every person in attendance. Regardless of the type of event, every name should be mined as a potential prospect for future, more sustainable annual giving solicitations and of course, you should thank people for attending.

  3. Recruit adequate volunteers for the event, based on the business plan, then increase the number you think you need – you will likely need more than you could imagine.

  4. Assign the right staff to work with the volunteers.

  5. Plan, then plan, then you might think of planning again – not that you’ll follow any of the plans, but the process of planning may help you when the inevitable chaos breaks out somewhere during the process.

  6. Evaluate the event after the dust settles – look at the brutal facts. Did the event work as expected? Did the time in planning and implementation justify the result? Do we do it again, or learn from the experience and do something else?

A Reason for Events

A year or so ago, Laurie Wolf and I met with one our mentors and an ongoing cheerleader for The Foraker Group, Ed Schumacher. Ed has been a frequent guest for our ConocoPhillips Leadership series and was on the original faculty of our certificate program. He has been published many times and is recognized as one of our nation’s most respected leaders in fundraising. He helped to develop and then was on the original faculty of the Indiana School of Philanthropy. He knows this business.

I asked him what we could do to help steer people away from event fundraising. His remark was so shocking it begged us to reconsider our dogma about events. He said, “You know, some people really like to give through auctions or participating in a race. That’s the only way some people will ever give.”

Wow! The reason we love Ed is that he is so simple in his brilliance. He agrees that events can be distracting, are rarely sustainable for long periods, and that organizations need to focus their efforts on sustainable fund development – just what we’ve been teaching our Partners all these years. But, it was Ed that finally convinced us that maybe we could back-off our rigid non-acceptance of event fundraising, and accept that sometimes this may be OK.

The reason some events may be necessary is to provide an opportunity for people to give who might not do that in the more sustainable way, like an annual contribution. The challenge for us will be the historical one – how to do an event where the financial result is adequate to compensate for the time and resources spent.

The key is to stop thinking about events as events and start to think of them as earned revenue. If we could make that switch, we would stop looking for events to produce fast cash, which is how we’ve viewed them in the past. Instead we would develop business strategies to ensure the event’s success.

  • Would we enter a business without adequate capital to do it right?

  • Would we start a business if we did not know our potential customer?

  • Would we open a business with the exact same strategy as the competitor next door?

  • And most important, would we open a business where we would have to beg people to buy from us?

Of course the answer to all these questions is no. But how many of us asked those questions when we planned events in the past – not many.

Now that we have finally accepted that some events may be good, don’t go wild! If every nonprofit goes out tomorrow to start a new event, we’ll have saturation of the market again and no organization will succeed. Many corporations, who eight years ago would sponsor an event, refuse to do so today. So you may need to discover a new way of financing the costs. If you consider holding an event, please make sure that it is an integrated component of a complete fund development plan – a plan that prioritizes the use of resources that balances mission, annual appeal, and planned giving.

In Fairbanks, Happiness is Paying our Way – HIPOW – has become an event that is so well organized and executed that finding support and people who want to be there seems almost effortless. The Women of Achievement event for the Anchorage YWCA sells out because it is so well branded with its target community people trust that the experience will be meaningful. Examples of other well-executed events exist around the state. But the message is – if we are to do events, let’s do them the right way.

Alaska Children’s Services (ACS), one of our state’s oldest nonprofits, conducts a single event every year. When ACS was established it was known as the Jesse Lee Home and was a place for children who lost parents in the flu epidemic or other tragedies. Benny Benson, the 13-year-old who designed our state’s flag, was once a resident. Every year on Alaska Flag Day on July 9, ACS holds its Flag Day Celebration. They invite neighbors, donors, community leaders the public, along with families of some of their clients, to a grand party. It seems they are blessed with sunny days every year. They have hamburgers, hot dogs, soda and ice cream. There are activities for kids, music for adults and kids, recognition of the Alaska Flag. And they charge enough to almost break even. So why should we use their event as an example of how to do one the right way?

Alaska Children’s Services has an effective and sustainable plan to organize the event. Unlike most organizations, ACS breaks even financially with its Flag Day Celebration. Most important, they get everyone’s name as they come in. From that day on, attendees receive information in a newsletter on ACS services. In addition, in every newsletter, those same people are also asked to consider naming ACS in their will. People have responded to that request and ACS has used this tactic to quietly build their endowment.

Events are not for every nonprofit. Events are not sustainable – therefore plans for contingencies are critical. While we do not suggest the right number of events to hold, we would suggest that fewer is better – one or less is probably still the best number.