Just say “No” to Cookie-Cutter, Same-as-Everyone-Else’s Fundraising Events!

By Lauren Brownstein

Over the past year, I planned my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah on a timeframe (around 6 months) and a budget (don’t ask!) that was atypical at best, and laughable to some. There are lessons here for many of my nonprofit clients, especially those smaller organizations that don’t have big budgets or tons of staff support for their events. Here’s the key takeaway:

Don’t plan an event that looks, feels, and unfolds like every other organizations event, just because thats what you think youre supposed to do. If you plan an event that looks and feels like YOUR organization, you can come away with some extraordinary results.

First, a caveat: Im not a huge fan of fundraising events.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think most nonprofit organizations do not use their fundraising events to their best advantage. They sink enormous amounts of time and money into these events, but they fail to ask for donations, do not ask for enough, and (most tragically) do not follow up with event attendees throughout the year, cultivating them and making them feel a part of the organization’s family. Once you add in the costs of the event and the value of the staff time dedicated to it, many fundraising events do not actually make money. There are exceptions, and I’ve written about one of them, my favorite fundraising event of the year, Connor’s Heroes Art Ball.

All that said… some organizations still will, and should, do fundraising events. Sometimes, the event is an expected part of the community calendar, and there are organizations that really use these events to their full potential – securing gifts and sponsorships, cultivating new donors, and maintaining relationships with attendees.

The Connor’s Heroes Art Ball integrates the people the organization serves (children with cancer and their families) and some of their healing modalities (art) into the event. On my podcast, I’ve talked about the Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy’s Adult Spelling Bee, a fun, high energy event that sets the organization apart and builds upon the organization’s literacy focus. These events distinguish themselves in their communities, and attendees walk away feeling energized and inspired.

How did my daughter and I plan a Bat Mitavah that looked and felt like us, and how can some of our tips apply to nonprofit fundraising (or other) events?:

We started with our values: We value community, creativity, learning and fun. We started with the notion that these would be part of our special day.

We thought about what we like: We like hanging out with our friends and family. We like arts and crafts. We like pancakes, and all sorts of diner food.

We kept our eye on the prize. Bat Mitzvahs can become more about the party than the real the meaning of the day. We always prioritized the learning and preparation for the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and our focus on the values and meaning of the day was felt both in the ceremony and in the party.

I compared lots options, but set a date to pull the trigger. I came up with a few party options that would fit with our timeframe and budget, and instead of giving myself endless time to hem and haw, I set a date to make the decision, and I just decided by that date. Once I made the decision, I could move forward with the rest of our plans.

THIS ONE IS BIG: We ignored most of the you have to comments. You have to have a professional photographer. You have to have a DJ. You have to have a bar. You have to have printed invitations. You have to order flowers. You have to have a videographer. Nope. Nope. Nope… we didn’t do any of that stuff. Saying no to the have tos gave us space to open up to the we want tos.”

We let our imagination run wild. What if we invited lots of family and friends to participate in the Bat Mitzvah ceremony? What if we had a crazy pancake buffet for dinner, with all sorts of fun toppings? What if we could do arts & crafts at our party, and set up a whole arts & crafts bar? What if we made our own music mix to play for our friends and family? What if we collected items to donate to foster kids (my daughter is a former foster kid)? We did all of those things! The ceremony was incredible, with 20+ friends and family playing roles and a speech by my daughter that left not a dry eye in the house. For our dinner and celebration we rented out a local pancake house for a pancakes and arts & crafts party!

We called in reinforcements when we needed them. My friends offered INCREDIBLE advice and support in planning our event. We had amazing teachers helping my daughter and I prepare for the ceremony. And, while I did not depend on a party planner for our entire event, I did use one for day-of support, once I realized that I could not possibly be in two places at once; I needed someone to set up our party at the same time that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was happening at a different location. I didnt want to be penny wise and pound foolish – it was worth it to spend the money to make sure the party was being set up properly while I was focused and mentally present at the ceremony.

I believe that any of these guiding principles could be applied to a nonprofit fundraising (or other) event, making your event memorable, unique, and engaging. Build and event that feels like you, and is grounded in your organizations values, and your guests will walk away smiling and inspired.

Lauren Brownstein has been working with Jewish communal organizations (and those outside the Jewish community) for nearly 30 years, both as an in-house programming and fundraising professional and as a consultant through PITCH: Fundraising and Philanthropy ConsultingJoin the PITCH list to get Lauren’s monthly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox, and get a free gift when you sign up!