As a fundraising consultant, I have spent a lifetime trying to help organizations move from a ‘special events’ fundraising mentality towards a more personal and professional program of major gifts solicitation. Clearly, if there are limited time and scarce resources, the systematic cultivation of major gifts is the most productive and effective means to realize the most money for a nonprofit institution. Perhaps the most productive result of converting your nonprofit to a major gifts fundraising focus is the financial stability it provides.
Yet, for almost any organization the special event is still an important part of the development and fundraising mix which must be built into the calendar each year to help the organization realize its truest potential. Special events help the nonprofit by:
- Raising money (albeit usually not a great deal—and often at a high cost in time and energy of both paid staff and volunteers);
- Establishing, cultivating and building friendships
- Educating people about your cause
- Marketing your wares and creations (especially where your organization has items for sale in the ordinary course of business—like an artist’s guild, etc.)
- Increasing your visibility within a given community or area
- Connecting your constituents so that those you serve come into contact and begin to build better relationships with those who serve them, as well as the volunteers and board members whose involvement is so essential.
Many other benefits inure to the not-for-profit organization which holds special events. This, though, is not generally a way to net large sums of cash to further the mission of the institution. In fact, since events are so costly, there is almost a direct relationship between how much of the budget comes from special events and the volatility of meeting the budget. Groups who depend almost exclusively on special events generally are struggling to make ends meet. They tend to struggle to get good board members because they are quickly exhausted by the pace of event fundraising and the constant need to approach everyone they know for support of these events.
With that said, most non-profit organizations will benefit from special events. These events help build a sense of community and belonging. Despite the enormous amount of management, staff and volunteer time and energy that go into the planning and managing a special event, they can be transformational for the constituents, and memorable for everyone.
Whether it is a soiree for the local symphony orchestra, or a ball to celebrate the major contributions made in the community by the local medical center, it should be memorable and it should make for stronger friendship as well as stronger financial statements. To do so, the event has to be particularly enjoyable and highly choreographed. I have two suggestions which, while very simple indeed, will make your event the “talk of the town” and the “envy of your competitors.” They are:
- Professional Event Management
First, like anything involving real estate, special events are about location, location, location. It is critical that the location be easily accessible to the folks coming. If not, arrangements should be made to ensure guests arrive in comfort, and are starting their experience with big smiles on their faces. What is the view? A scenic view from a mountaintop will always work better than a view of the city’s dump. What is the vista from the windows?
Not only is the physical or geographic setting incredibly important, but the appearance of the facility and the novelty of the destination are vitally important. What is the perceived quality of the hospitality organization/s; you will surely want to consider whether proper parking, catering and other ancillary services are available. Also consider what kind of entertainment is possible within and around the facility and grounds. There are numerous other considerations, but we have all been to extraordinary places and they are easily distinguishable from a convenience location.
Second, the best value you can get is the service of a top flight events manager. While this person will drive up your costs somewhat, you will surely realize a greater value in both the “bottom line” and “top quality.” These professionals have done it before. Nothing is left to chance, and if you want a truly memorable event you want your professional development staff to be spending time with major gifts prospects who are enjoying an extraordinary evening rather than worrying about whether the food and beverage folks are doing their jobs.
Take my advice and find just the right place for your event, and just the right professional to manage it. Before you know it, you will be watching your membership rolls grow, right along with your organization’s fundraising revenue.
David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS). CDS is among 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.