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Fabulous Fundraising Events

By Steven Stokes

At the end of each year, we do a massive decompression to examine completed work to both acknowledge what worked and look at what could be improved. There is a fair share that we plan to do differently in 2013, especially when considering fundraising events. Here are five key points to consider.

What does the board of directors/event committee like to do? 
Invariably someone on the committee will say, “We should do a golf tournament (or a gala, or a fill in the blank),” because someone else they know has made money. Then ask, “How many of you play golf?” and if the answer is “None,” you will not be successful.

Your major marketing and support for an event comes from this group of people, so if they are not super excited about it from the start, you are doomed to fail. Not only are they not as interested in helping plan the event, but when it comes to inviting, they won’t have any friends that play golf either.

What’s different about your idea?
The people who regularly go to fundraising events are all too aware of the drill … reception, small talk, rubber chicken dinner, long speech, awards, exit. How are you going to make it different? This year we had the opportunity to plan a four-course progressive dinner in a museum, and the attendees had so much fun. Why? It was different. They expected one thing and we provided another from entrance to exit, and it showed. The event sold out in record time because the committee was excited to share this unique opportunity.

The details make the difference.
While scouting an event and walking around, we noticed the centerpieces were understated, the theme wasn’t fully developed and the food didn’t match the theme. You might think people do not notice, but our host couldn’t stop talking about how much the theme did not carry through the whole event; he made the assumption that if they didn’t care about the details concerning the event, they likely wouldn’t care about the details of the program being offered. I am certain the management of that group had no idea that the lack of centerpieces at the event would equate to the thought that they might have a poor management team.

Follow-up, follow-through and heartstrings.
Recently I spoke to a nonprofit that did not make its fundraising goal at a summer event and were trying to determine what event to do next. I asked how much money they had made with follow-up after their last fundraiser, and the answer was surprising to me. They hadn’t done any follow-up.

The event is an opportunity to show people what you do. The connections at the event are the true opportunity. If you have done it well, they saw what you could do, you pulled on their heartstrings, and now follow up and ask them to give based on what was experienced at the event.

Never assume anything.
One of our first experiences owning a company taught me perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned in fundraising. In our planning, we spoke with the board of directors about how many people they thought could be invited to their event-there were 500 seats available. They said 4,000 invitations based on an old list. A good start, but with an old list, who knows for sure? As we began gathering invite lists closer to the event, the eight-member board came up with a total of 600 names. Six-hundred invitations might yield 500 people at your wedding, but in the competitive world of fundraisers, there is no chance for survival with that number. We worked with the board to change expectations, moved to a smaller venue, called the caterer, lowered the numbers and squeaked by with 150 people and a small loss overall. But the lesson was learned: Never assume anything!

– Steven Stokes

Steven Stokes is program chair for the Event Management Certificate Program (EMCP) at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton and operates Events Etc.