The Evolution of Special Events as a Fundraising Opportunity

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

So often, sometimes too often, special events are a central focus and chosen method to engage involvement in a non-profit and to generate additional revenue. While it has its place, special events have not always been an especially successful approach for securing support from “regular” contributors and bringing in “extra” dollars. However, non-profit leaders should neither automatically dismiss special events nor utilize them as the main source for support. A happy balance and some type of blending works best.

Today’s fundraising arena focuses on the “new normal:” on the changes that now characterize non-profit practices and fundraising strategies brought on primarily as a result of the economic downturn. As recovery seems to be very slowly upon us, we ponder how do special events fit into a non-profit’s annual program?

The “new normal” has re-defined how a non-profit functions on a daily basis, and one area that has seen significant change is special events. Our approach as well as advice regarding special events: be cautious!

Especially over the past two years, many organizations became perplexed, and some quite fearful, about how to handle and integrate special events into their development calendars. Certain organizations have historically placed a strong emphasis on events, whether they are extravagant galas or charity sporting events. They were increasingly unsure of how to feature well-planned, compelling events on smaller, tighter budgets that produced more net dollars.

An even bigger concern rose to the surface as well: how to plan successful events that were not being seen as outrageously lavish and wasteful of hard-fought dollars. Donors did not want organizations spending their precious donated dollars on events that could be seen as frivolous, during a time when non-profits were contracting their staffs or reducing programming.

While we do not see events as the central development effort for non-profits of any size, we do see them as one important method to create community, build awareness and sometimes honor those who have made a commitment to the organizational mission and goals. We do not want to discourage any agencies from holding various types of special events, especially those that have become “tradition.” However, we strongly recommend that organizations continue on the same path of scaled down events and that leaders be much more frugal in their execution than they may have been in the past.

Here are nine mandates on how to plan a special event within today’s “new normal:”

  • Develop invitations and other materials in-house instead of outsourcing and use email more widely for dissemination and accepting payment;
  • Secure a larger number of sponsors or underwriters;
  • Look for opportunities to co-sponsor events with compatible organizations, thereby sharing in the proceeds;
  • Utilize social media and other free advertising sources to promote the event;
  • Decrease extra costs by eliminating goody bags or event “gifts” that do not add anything to the experience;
  • Scale down the size of the event, if necessary;
  • Be creative as you look to cut corners: for instance, turn a sit down dinner into a cocktail party with an innovative theme
  • Negotiate with providers: for example, we have noticed that catering businesses are much more willing to negotiate prices and provide creative menus at lower costs as they, too, are hoping to increase business and develop future relationships; and
  • Make the calendar work for you and your organization: country clubs are much more likely to open themselves for charity golf outings in May and September than during peak golfing times.

Here are four other, somewhat obvious, pointers that require being repeated:

  1. set responsible dollar goals;
  2. charge the maximum to come without discouraging attendance;
  3. begin the planning process early (more time may be needed to recruit vendors and sponsors);
  4. recognize that changes will need to be made from past years.

Note that we have witnessed more robust events being planned as organizations are regaining strength and confidence and looking to re-establish their brand and to celebrate certain accomplishments. As you begin to plan your next special event we recommend that you take into consideration many of the suggestions above. Be creative as you look to develop an event that will compel donors and others to attend, as well as leave the impression that your organization is making an impact on your constituency and acting as a responsible non-profit, within the realm of the “new normal.”

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.