5 Ideas to Save Your Next Event

This morning, I was scrolling through my twitter account and was a bit taken aback when I saw a couple of tweets pointing to a blog posting entitled “Why You Should Ditch Your Next Event” that Gail Perry wrote a while back.  I hadn’t read the posting when Ms. Perry first wrote it late last spring, but this time around, it got me fired up all right.  But not in the usual good way.

First, I should say that I have enormous respect for Gail Perry (and I’m a bit more than a little nervous even typing her name!).  I follow her religiously on twitter, subscribe to her excellent Fired Up Fundraising Newsletter (just got another great tip as I was writing this post) and regularly attend her sessions at conferences.

I’m a big fan.

But I’m an even bigger fan of Special Event Fundraising.  Like a lot of people, it’s where I started my fundraising career.  It has a big place in my heart.   And frankly, I get a bit defensive when people starting talking smack about it.

In fact this is not the first time I’ve been set off by someone writing a piece urging people to reconsider special events.  I wrote this piece about a decade ago: Special Events – Good Times, Great Fundraisers.

Is this just an unhealthy pattern? Perhaps.  Will I stop?  Unlikely.

As you can see, I spoke a lot about mass participation events and how they can stand proudly beside their Annual Giving, Major Gifts and Planned Gift cousins in a spreadsheet.  I still firmly believe this.

But since 2003, I have also experienced many more special events like the ones I somewhat glibly referred to as Gala Dinner Silent Auction.    I’ve been to a lot of terrible events – bad food, tarted-up-yet-still-lacklustre venues and uninspired themes sometimes in direct opposition to the mission – all with brutally high cost ratios.

I have also been to some amazing events and have eagerly listened to sharp fundraisers telling me stories of successful (and highly efficient) fundraising events.

What I’ve learned is that done wrong, special events will do exactly what Gail Perry predicts – “kill your staff and volunteers” while setting your ROI on embarrass mode.  But done right, they can be energizing and raise money at a reasonable cost.

So, how do you do them right?  Here are 5 ideas I hope you’ll try, before you decide to ditch you next event:

  1. Invite the right people.  Make sure you have a healthy mix of donors at your event.  Special events are great opportunities to cultivate and steward major gift donors.  Then can be a great way to recognize bequest donors.  And they can be an excellent time to inspire loyal annual giving donors to increase their giving level or make a stretch gift.
  2. Make your mission the shining star.  Even if you have a ‘celebrity’ hosting or appearing your event, make sure that it’s your mission that is the biggest star.  Have the people your charity serves playing key roles at the event by delivering a passionate speech, thanking people for coming at the door or handwriting personal welcome notes to use as place cards.
  3. Remind people why they are there.  Set a goal for the evening and let your attendees know.  Give them updates throughout the night, thanking them often along the way.  Don’t be shy on incentivizing it for them.  Are you hosting a sit-down dinner with a long program?  Try cutting one speech for every fundraising milestone achieved.
  4. Show your work.  Get your event attendees excited by showing them the work you will accomplish with the funds raised that night.  Is it for a piece of hospital equipment?  Have the doctor who will be using it give a short presentation about what it will do and the impact it will have on an individual patient.  Will the money help build a school in a developing nation?  Set up a classroom with all the items you will provide.
  5. Do something awesome.  This is the hard one, but you’re smart and creative.  One of my favourite ideas is a stroke of genius a former colleague of mine had while she was working for a big-city hospital foundation. She did a live auction of naming rights for hospital rooms at their gala dinner!  It raised a lot of money and it really got mid-level and major donors excited about making their gifts.

So, please give it another go.  It is possible to raise more money, control costs and create a brilliant and memorable event.

Good luck and send me a note to tell me what you did to make it awesome!