No one ever needs an excuse for a party, but throwing one that does some good is as good a reason as any to bring people together. Fundraisers provide a voice for causes all over the world, generating money to help those who need it and uniting people for one mission on one night.
“[Fundraisers] bring together a diverse group of people and give them a shared experience that can have a significant effect on them,” says Jim Leighton, vice president of events and partnerships for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund and former president of the ISES Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter. “When planned properly, events can be a very effective way to fundraise.”
Before any planning starts, it’s necessary to define the event’s main objective. Is it simply raising awareness? Is it fundraising? Is it both? That mission then needs to be communicated throughout every step of the process from the first invitation to the last guest slipping out the door.
“Make your event authentic and true to your nonprofit mission,” says Leighton. “Establish early on the purpose of the event and revisit that purpose throughout the planning process.”
Avoid the Goldfish
Sticking to the mission means always making it the focus of both the planning and the event itself. Early instinct may be to attract and entertain guests with lavish décor—but that’s not the ultimate goal. “Décor for a nonprofit event should always be appropriate and not too over the top,” says Leighton. “It should support your mission but not distract.”
The space itself needs to be comfortable—design the event with your guests in mind. Ask yourself what you would look for in attending such an event and what sort of décor would keep the nonprofit’s message running through your head. Consider sightline issues, distracting centerpieces or uncomfortable chairs. You likely want to raise both awareness and money for the nonprofit, and ensuring the comfort of your guests is one of the best ways to make this happen. Remember, extravagances can shock and awe, but they have a high potential of diverting guests’ attention from the event’s true purpose.
“If your purpose is fundraising, steer clear of using goldfish as your centerpiece,” Leighton disclaims. “Inevitably, one will go belly up, and soon that is the new focal point for that part of the ballroom. Remember, don’t distract from your purpose.”
As Leighton noted, gaudy, out-of-the-ordinary décor pieces likely aren’t a right fit for a fundraiser. However, standard items such as linens, chair covers and lightning should be taken into account (and be aesthetically pleasing), but it takes a keen eye to know exactly what is fundraiser appropriate.
“Event planners walk a fine line with décor,” says Shannon Pierce, owner and producer of Stagetime Productions, which produces 25 gala fundraisers a year. “You want the room to look nice, however donors do not want to feel an inordinate amount of their money is being spent on decorations instead of funding the organization,” Pierce says when it comes to smaller fundraisers.
It Takes a Village
For the most part, planning nonprofit events is similar to planning corporate and social events, with a few subtle differences. Many times, planners are working with both volunteers and staff.
Pierce collaborates often with volunteers both for the production and logistics of an event, where with corporate events there is typically one contact person and a few others that make decisions during the process. This can make communication difficult, so she sets up monthly meetings with staff and volunteers to help ease the planning process and keep the team on track to meet goals. “Organization is the key element to any successful event,” she adds.
With so many different hands in the pot, so to speak, it’s important for the organization to create committees made up of volunteers and staff that can assist with certain tasks. Find a leader to head each committee and assign duties based on each committee’s strengths. Once assembled, try not to interfere and micromanage—left alone, creativity can soar, a necessity for nonprofit and social events alike.
“Always be open to listen to other ideas, even if you don’t use them,” says Dianne Haag, co-owner and co-founder of DK Events. “It shows that everyone is a part of making this event successful.”
Mind the Budget
The money that makes up the budget also is a huge difference from corporate events. While all events have a set budget, nonprofits have to work to raise the money instead of reaching inside their own operating budget.
“Nonprofits are usually on a very tight budget compared to a corporate event who can afford to dip in the till for more funds,” says Haag. “Nonprofits take a lot more time and planning because their pockets are not as deep as the corporations.”
Pierce strives to make the cost of fundraisings 30 percent or less of the entire budget, with the higher-end events never exceeding 40 percent. To keep costs low, she works with preferred partners and advises clients on how to make more financially sound decisions, which can include the selection of A/V, décor and catering.
Configuring a budget also should include setting a revenue goal. In creating this goal, it’s important to keep in mind everything that goes into revenue: the event type, guest’s socioeconomic demographics and the number of attendees.
“Revenue goals should be realistic,” advises Leighton.
Going Once, Going Twice…
One way to help increase the revenue is with silent and live auctions. But, not all nonprofit events need to or should incorporate one or the other. It’s important to understand the audience.
Silent auctions, Leighton says, work for most audiences, and they allow guests to spend more time reviewing the items in a more relaxed environment so they can peruse at their leisure.
“The silent auction offers the opportunity for those who like to spend more time reviewing the items in a less frenzied environment,” says Kathleen Daley-Border, co-owner and cofounder of DK Events. “There can still be competition for bidding, but there may be breaks in the bidding of items as attendees get caught up with the festivities of the event.”
Stagetime Productions offers silent auction management to nonprofit clients. The service provides leadership and strategic management of the auction, which can be a bear for volunteers to handle. The company works with the client to create realistic auction goals and shares a database of companies that frequently donate to auctions.
Pierce notes electronic bidding, an option Stagetime offers, is now considered the norm. Instead of bidders writing down names and bids, they are entered into a database and calculated that way, which helps regulate the process and keeps the auction open longer.
Live auctions—a hectic but exciting form of entertainment that can easily raise funds—are a completely different animal. Plus, who doesn’t want to yell, “Going once, going twice—sold to the lady in yellow!?” The in-the-moment nature of the auction often causes items to go for much more than the market value. But, again, it’s necessary to remember the audience. Leighton notes live auctions are typically best for higher-end, seated events.
Sponsors are a great way to raise funds but require research and planning. Daley-Border notes sponsorships have become very selective. Nonprofits looking for sponsors need to find one that aligns with the mission and need to do so very early in the process; some sponsors require a 12-month advance notice.
If working an annual event, Haag looks to the previous year’s sponsor list, and also searches out recommendations. The bottom line is research and knowing how to craft a specific message when pitching the organization to a sponsor. It’s integral to highlight the nonprofit’s work, the goals of the event and specifics of the funds.
Goal No. 1 is getting guests in the door, and there are many ways to do so.
“Fundraisers are not a ‘one size fits all,’ so you need to market to your audience,” says Daley-Border. “Your fundraiser will not be successful if people don’t know about it.”
A solid idea is working with the nonprofit’s board, which can reach out to contacts and engage donors to purchase seats and tables at the soiree. Direct contact is the key here—it’s the personal touches that draw people in.
“People attend gala fundraisers because they were asked to come by either their friend or family or possibly by their employer who is a sponsor,” says Pierce. “Traditional marketing such as advertising is not an effective way to drive attendance—it’s a personal invitation to the event that is the key to success.”
Connecting with local media is a tried-andtrue method. A press release provides media with the necessary information, and many media outlets are happy to promote a community event that raises money for a good cause.
And, as for everything in today’s everconnected world, the importance of social media cannot be understated. Facebook is a given. Likely, the nonprofit group you work with will have a page; if not, encourage them to sign up. The organization should also create a Facebook invite and send it to all followers.
Twitter and Instagram are also perfect communication vehicles. The former gives you the ability to project short, well-crafted messages in a less serious manner, while the latter gives users a visual idea of what the organization does.
Nonprofits can use YouTube to post videos of past events or interviews with employees or those impacted by the organization. Those videos can then be posted on every social media account the organization has.
Another method is direct mail—something that is regularly done but doesn’t always have a high success rate and is becoming slightly out of touch; again, it depends on your audience. If taking this route, make sure to create something dynamic, visually appealing and, most importantly, unique. The campaign should stand out from the audience’s cable bill and the myriad junk that arrives every day. The same rules for snail mail apply to email: Be creative and stand out. Remember, throwing something away takes simply the flick of a wrist.
Finally, word of mouth is a great, free way of promotion. If you’re part of an annual event, encourage your past guests to invite their friends—those that have had a positive experience will come again and will want to experience it with others they know.
“You will never get 100 percent of your attendees to return, but your percentage will be higher if you provide an authentic, comfortable and compelling experience,” says Leighton. “Keep the event fresh, but don’t worry about making it radically different every year.”
The Final Countdown
When the big day rolls around, your job’s not over; keeping attendees engaged is crucial. Run the program short, and don’t overwhelm attendees with a whole host of speakers—people can get bored and excitement surrounding the event can wane quickly.
Communicate often throughout the event. Give brief updates on the auction or remind people why they’re attending and what the money will do. Consider sharing a story of the organization’s impact. Working with an animal shelter? Find a tale (no pun intended) to tell regarding the adoption of a pup. Most people like examples—and cute animal stories tend to resonate.
“Audience members who are not familiar with the organization need to understand the importance of their work and why funding them is so important,” says Pierce.
Conveying such information doesn’t just need to be done over a microphone; video, music and graphics are other mediums that work well for communicating this information.
“Your message is critical, so be sure your audio-visual is as good as you can make it,” says Leighton. “There is nothing worse than working really hard to tell a great story and then the people in the back of the ballroom can’t hear it.”
“At the end of the evening, every guest should know the mission of the organization and why their work is so important,” says Pierce. “Hopefully, they laughed a little and were touched by the stories of the people whose lives are impacted by the nonprofit.”
The message of the event is more important than the event itself. If each and every guest understands the organization’s values and purpose, and enjoys the evening, then it’s a job well done and time for a pat on everyone’s (staff, volunteers, sponsors, you name it) back. But don’t celebrate long—it’s time to start planning for next year.