This first appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.
It seems that spring brings us an even greater number of nonprofit events—plant sales, 5Ks, galas, golf tournaments, and teas—with many including silent or live auctions as part of the event activities. Board members play a significant role in the success of these events, from soliciting sponsorship support to designing invitations to serving as the clean-up crew. These are all important activities, but board involvement must begin long before the event is even scheduled to ensure its success.
Events have a greater amount of unpredictability associated with them than other fundraising methods. The weather, national and local events, and even people’s moods can dramatically affect event revenue. Despite their risks, fundraising events seem to remain a popular with all types of organizations. So how can a board help ensure a successful fundraiser that meets its financial goals, shines the best light on the organization, and builds stronger commitment among its supporter?
No sacred cows
Too often, organizations present an event because that’s what they’ve always done. Without careful evaluation, a fundraising event can become enshrined in an organization’s regular activities, long after it has lost its effectiveness.
As it sets its annual schedule, the board should objectively review the event’s purpose and if it has historically met its financial and attendance goals. The board will want to consider if the event promotes visibility, understanding, and the reputation of the organization and its work. If the event’s success has been declining, the board should consider gracefully retiring the activity, replacing it with more effective means to promote and raise funds for the organization.
Events are a high cost, labor intensive approach to fundraising. A board must examine an event’s direct costs, its indirect costs (typically staff time), as well as the opportunity costs, to determine if the return on these is justified.
The board should make sure that it has the right team to plan and present the event: people with marketing capabilities, people who are good with the operations aspects of the event, as well as individuals with financial expertise, and volunteer management experience. It’s not enough to simply have these people around the board table, the team must be committed to the time and work required to develop and present the event.
How’s the environment?
In scheduling and designing the event, the board must find a time and location for the event that does not conflict with other community activities that will interest the organization’s target participants. In addition to avoiding scheduling conflicts, the board should design an event that has distinct appeal to its potential audience. This might mean finding an unusual location, presenting an inventive program, or bringing in a popular speaker or performer to help boost attendance and visibility. Finding unique and unusual ways to highlight the work of the organization will help the event be distinct, appealing, and memorable.
Make the Connection
An event’s success is not only about the dollars raised, but also about the connections made and strengthened with those who attended. The board should ensure that the activities make a memorable connection to the organization’s work. Attendees should be able to recognize what organization is hosting the event and be able to tell what the organization does.
The event’s plan should include a process to follow-up with attendees within a couple weeks after the event. Follow-up should help connect attendees to something larger than the occasion itself by re-emphasizing the connection between the event’s success and the organization’s ability to do its important work in the community. Without including this connection to the organization’s work, a fundraising event is little more than a party, which can be fun, but is not necessarily the best use of the organization’s resources.
No Magic Bullet
Although it can be tempting, organizations should not be overly reliant upon event revenue. Even organizations that are able to produce successful and popular events should use a diversified approach to raising funds and increasing visibility. Objective analysis and careful planning help ensure that events are financially successful and keep the organization’s work at center stage. Savvy boards recognize that good events are not only fundraisers, but are also friend-raisers; organizations that build upon these connections are much more likely to be successful and experience long-term financial sustainability.