Special Events -- Good Times, Great Fundraisers

Posted by David G Phillips on Aug 9, 2018 4:41:01 PM

Special Events: those two words are like a physician’s reflex mallet with Development professionals and non-profit executives. And I’ve just struck the collective knee. As soon as you read ‘special events’ your brain reached deep down into its ancient mammalian part where instinct rules. Did it instantly send you an image of a cheesy low-rent suburban motor inn ballroom lined with bad art and gaudy gift baskets? You’re not alone.

All of your professional Development training has probably taught you to dismiss Special Event Fundraising as rubber chicken friend-raisers with difficult committees and little if any financial return. It’s O.K. Misunderstandings and confusion are just a regular part of my experience when discussing Special Event Fundraising with colleagues; along with blank stares of disbelief and suspicious sidelong glances.

We have all been told that the REAL money is in Major Gifts programs, and Capital Campaigns. Recently, I have become fanatical about proclaiming this additional truth:

Special Event Fundraising is a Fantastic Way to Raise A TON of Money and Build a Solid Foundation for ANY Charitable Organization!

Honest. Try saying it to someone in your office, or at your next conference. Really. It’s worth the look on people’s faces. I do have some evidence to demonstrate my point, but I will be honest - you’re probably not going to make a ton of dough at your next gala dinner silent auction.

What I am talking about is the giant pink elephant hiding right in front of our fundraising noses: Mass Participation Special Events. Millions of us take part in them every year. North Americans are crazy for these things.

I’ll bet you have (or someone close to you has) put on a pair of sneakers, and walked 5 miles (12 km) one morning. Or you have rolled up your pant legs, gotten on a bike and tortured your backside for 150 miles (too many kms). Ever woken up at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday and pretended 25 years hadn’t passed since last running more than 5 miles during a year, let alone all in one day? Or maybe you’ve leashed up the dog and gone to the riverside or oceanside park and walked with three thousand other insane people in driving rain, hail or snow.

Why do we do it? We participate for the cause, and for the challenge. Because somebody we love is sick, or was taken by a cruel disease or terrible circumstance. We participate because someone dared us (and we could not come up with an excuse fast enough) or because everyone else in our office is doing it. Many more do it because their kid’s soccer team needs new uniforms or the school needs a new playground.

Do you remember how you got those dollars into the bank? By asking everyone you know (and maybe a few that you did not) to sponsor you for $5, 10, 20, 50… Maybe you even cornered your rich uncle at your cousin’s wedding and hit him up for a couple hundred bucks. I’ll bet that you got pretty good at it too, or maybe obsessed is a more accurate word:

“Hey, I know, I’ll send out a shameless ask instead of my annual Holiday letter. I’ll spend every lunch hour this week hitting up everyone in my Rolodex. I can stay late one night and send an email to everyone in my address book. Oh right, don’t forget the hairdresser, she could donate her tips…hmmm…do you think it’d be too cheeky to ask the mailperson?“

Sound familiar?

And here’s the shocker: You were put to hard work, fundraising, all in the name of fun, a bit of exercise and a great cause!

There is a growing list of organizations that rely on special events to bring in significant portions of their annual revenues, some up to 50% or more. Seriously! In Canada, many of the top five grossing health charities run this kind of events, and they bring in millions of dollars. NET dollars. Every year. The situation is similar in the United States. Most Canadian charities looked south before they launched their own events, and what they saw was huge opportunity.

In fact, in large American markets, just one single event, in one single location can bring in $1, 2, 3, even 5 million in a day or two. We are starting to see more of these kinds of numbers in Canada, too. All that money is raised with thousands of hours of devotion from participants, volunteers, committee members, sponsors and staff. This is not easy work. But it is hard to deny the bottom line value of these kinds of activities, let alone the public relations and education opportunities.

These kinds of events also tap into corporate marketing dollars. These dollars usually come from a separate budget line (other than pure philanthropy) and are not always to Major Gifts Officers. Speaking of Major Gifts, mass participation events can help feed your donor pyramid and be used to identify, cultivate and steward prospects for larger, personal solicitations.

This kind of fundraising can be a rich vein to exploit, but competition can be fierce. Perhaps there is a reason that this news is not always shouted from the rooftop. Although, I am optimistic that we have all learned that by sharing our experiences and best practices, our whole profession is enriched, and even more great work gets done.

Now that I have hopefully swayed you with a convincing argument about the potential of Special Events, I challenge you. Ask your local professional organization to have a speaker give a presentation about Special Event Fundraising at your next luncheon. And for a little extra fun, try asking the organizer of the next conference you plan to attend to add this topic to their agenda. Finally, do not buy that next how-to fundraising book until you turn to the special events chapter and make sure the author has made more than a passing reference to dinners, auctions and bake-sales. If the author does not tell the truth in that chapter, how can you trust the rest of the book?


David Kravinchuk is currently the Direct Mail Annual Giving Associate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. In the recent past he was employed at one of Canada’s largest health charities as a Special Event Fundraiser. A previous gallery owner, he feeds his passion for special events by sitting on too many committees and boards with a variety of organizations, especially those devoted to arts and culture.


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 info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: annual fundraisers, Capital Campaigns, fundraising events, Fundraising Principles, Special Event Fundraising

Subscribe to The Fundraising Free Press

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all