Bring up the idea of staging a new special event at your next staff or board meeting, and chances are you will be met with shrieks of horror, glazed expressions and incoherent mumbling. Rare indeed is the nonprofit organization that approaches a sit-down dinner or a Las Vegas night with glee.
Suffice it to say that a special event is the most difficult, the most labor-intensive and the most harrowing means of nonprofit fundraising known to humankind. Let it be added immediately that a well-orchestrated special event is crucial to your overall development effort. In fact, fundraising staff and volunteers who ignore special events may well be imperiling the very survival of their organizations.
If your nonprofit is serious about staging a special event, you must begin by asking yourself one extremely important question (and rarely asked in advance): do you want the kind of event that will
A) attract the largest number of community members, or
B) make the most money?
It is the rare event that covers both bases (although many nonprofits try!). If you want to welcome your neighbors to your new homeless shelter, send out invitations to everyone in your locality, serve cookies and punch, and show them around. If on the other hand you want to raise big bucks for the homeless shelter, rent a banquet room at a downtown hotel and invite upper-crust types at $300 - $500/couple. You really can't have it both ways. Each type of event serves an important purpose: which is appropriate for you in the coming year or two?
How to Implement a Special Event
What is the most effective means to implement a special event and to steer clear of the pitfalls that imperil your success? Let's use a sit-down dinner as our example; this is the most complex and difficult kind of fundraising event, so if you master the dinner, other kinds of events should prove somewhat easier. Understand immediately that you will require between nine and twelve months to plan and execute a sit-down dinner. Allow enough time to ensure the success of your event!
Dinner Committee Members: The first step is to convene a dinner committee to oversee the event. You are inviting disaster if you expect your staff to mount the dinner entirely on its own. Remember: fundraising is a peer-to-peer process. An enthusiastic, well-connected committee is critical to the success of your event. The committee should be made up of members of your board of directors who have expressed interest in the dinner, ex-board members who retain an interest in your organization, and other volunteers who may not have the time or inclination to serve on your board, but who can be of great value in helping with the event.
Committee Responsibilities: The committee is charged with making all important decisions relating to the event and overseeing the work of staff. The staff is responsible for the "detail work" and for prodding committee members to complete assigned tasks (the relationship between staff and committee parallels that between staff and board). The committee should meet at least six times. If you have nine months between the first meeting and the event, consider meeting every month for the first three months, and every other month for the final six months, with the understanding that an emergency meeting might have to be convened at any time, should circumstances warrant.
Dollar Goal: At its first meeting, the dinner committee decides upon a dollar goal for the event. Decisions must then be made (at this meeting and the next) concerning event locale, date, ticket prices (both sponsorships and individual tickets), food and drink, emcee, speaker and honoree.
The Event Site: The event site should be located close to public transportation and to inexpensive parking. You should choose a time of year when people are likely to be in town and when potential weather problems are at a minimum. A good meal that is affordable is of course central to a successful sit-down dinner. You must also consider whether to serve wine with dinner and whether to have a cocktail hour before dinner. If you choose to have a cocktail hour, will the bar be open or no-host?
Emcee: You will want an emcee who is personable, humorous and able to keep the program moving along. The right speaker or honoree will also help to guarantee the success of your event. Give thought to the individual's involvement in the kind of work that your organization does, and to the ability of that person's name to sell tickets.
If the committee needs more information about any of these items, it is the staff's responsibility to do the necessary research and to report back at the next committee meeting.
Selling Tickets: Committee members must understand the crucial role they play in selling tickets. Let's use a legal aid society dinner as an example. Assume that individual tickets cost $200, a "sponsored" table of ten is $2,000, and the legal aid society hopes to persuade the 15 largest law firms in town to be sponsors. It would be pointless to ask the legal aid society development staff person to call the firms to sell sponsorships. Instead, committee members should decide who has the best contact at each firm, and it should be the appropriate member's responsibility to call his/her contact to sell the sponsorship. Remember: this is a peer-to-peer business.
Committee members must also decide how many individual tickets each member will be asked to sell, and who else (staff, ex-board members, other volunteers) will be expected to peddle tickets.
Staff Responsibilities: By the third meeting, the committee should have made all decisions concerning the site, speaker and honoree (you need not have both a speaker and an honoree, but the combination can help to sell tickets). Staff is then responsible for making formal arrangements with the hotel or other site and taking care of all program arrangements (e.g..--scheduling the speaker, purchasing the wine, getting the names of the honoree's family in order to send them complimentary invitations, etc..). The committee must also decide how to publicize the event; it is the staff's responsibility to implement the committee's recommendations about publicity. Again, however, if a committee member has an "in" with a local reporter, it is that member's responsibility to make the connection.
The Program: The committee and staff should develop the evening's program together. Keep it short. You might want to ask the emcee to make introductory remarks and to acknowledge the presence of notables before dinner. After dinner, the main program might include a description of your organization (delivered by the executive director or board president), introduction of the speaker, speaker's remarks, introduction of the honoree and honoree's remarks. Remember: it's nighttime, people have had a filling meal, and most would like to leave as soon as they can respectably do so. Keep the program short.
Other Important Items: Other important items include preparation of the written program (be sure to acknowledge all sponsors!), processing of tickets (mail reservations and pick-up at the door usually work best, provided that you have enough staff on site), provisions for members of the press (you may want to make dinner available for them, or you may simply want to invite them for the program, not for dinner) and appointment of a "point person" to deal with the inevitable snafus that will raise their ugly heads on the big night. The more time that you allow yourself to plan, the fewer the nasty surprises at the dinner, and don't forget to plan an evaluation meeting! Plan ahead and keep your sense of humor!
Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.