7 Questions: Putting the “Special” in Special Events
I don’t know about you, but when someone mentions to me that we should do a fundraising “special event,” I’m inclined to run the other way. That particular brand of “special” brings to mind Dana Carvey as the church lady on Saturday Night Live, and not in a good way. And, as my boss is wont to point out, we’re a nonprofit theater. Every show we do is a fundraising event…well, ideally.
My admiration for those that can plan, execute, and raise funds from a special event is boundless. Some events that I am familiar with are wildly successful, and are a pleasure to attend. Many events, however, hit the same roadblocks and fall short of their goals, which can be heartbreaking after months of planning and hundreds of hours of work.
Before you jump into the special events ring (especially for the first time), ask yourself these questions:
1. Why are you doing a special event? And please, please, please don’t say “because we do it every year” and leave it at that. To quote Seth Godin, from his book The Dip, “Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations.” If an event is an albatross around your organization’s neck, if it is entrenched and more and more people are losing interest in it every year, just stop. STOP. And reassess. You may choose to scrap it altogether. Or you may choose to modify it. Look closely at it. Do a SWOT analysis. Then keep the strengths and leverage the opportunities. Breathing new life into an old event is fine, as long as you are honest about its weaknesses and dedicated to changing it for the better.
If you are thinking of doing an event for the first time, ask yourself why, and answer yourself candidly. Is this the best vehicle for the goals you want to achieve? Read on for more important questions.
2. Do you have enough time to plan? Time spent on planning is never wasted. If you are just now putting together plans for a major event to take place two months from now, do yourself a favor and move the date out. Next season. Next year. Always allow yourself more time than you think you will need. Don’t assume that everything will fall into place, and that there will be no disasters.
3. Do you have access to the right team? If your past events have fallen apart time and time again, and the same people want to sign up to “help” with this new event, it isn’t in your (or your organization’s) best interest to say yes. Special events are a lot of work, and you want to make sure that everyone involved is pulling their weight. Having a job description, detailing reasonable expectations for planning committee members, is not cheeky or mercenary. It’s smart. If your event will become an annual one, it will help you assess each person’s participation value. And the best volunteers like to know, clearly and unequivocally, that they are doing what is expected of them.
4. What is your goal for the event? If this is indeed supposed to be a fundraising event, and making money doesn’t come immediately to mind as your primary goal, you may be deluding yourself. (Cultivation events are a little different; more on this in future posts.) A special event is one way, but usually not the best way, to further cultivation with major donors. It may be a nice way to initiate contact with prospective donors, but there are better ways to achieve that as well. Your overarching goal, whether you like to admit it or not, should be to raise as much money as you can. Cultivation, educating attendees about your mission, and disseminating information can all be secondary or tertiary goals–just don’t make them your primary goal if this is a fundraiser. Have a monetary goal in mind, and plan your budget and activities around achieving that goal. And relatedly,…
5. Do you have a budget? Every venture that is going to cost something should have a budget. Keep on the safe side and be realistic. Underestimate your income and overestimate your expenses. Many event planners that I know have failed because they put too much faith in their committee’s ability to bring in sponsorships, and overestimated the number of people would would buy tickets. This is a recipe for disaster. A good rule of thumb for the first year is to plan for modest income, and no sponsorship. Write the budget down and review its status at every meeting. That way, when the event closes well in the black, you’ll look like a financial genius.
6. Do you have plans to follow-up with attendees and donors after the event? Don’t waste the goodwill of a great event. Follow up with attendees in a timely manner, thank them for donating (if they did) and for buying a ticket (if they didn’t donate in other ways). Invite them to stay engaged with your organization. Remind them of your mission. Treat them how you would like to be treated if you attended a special event that you felt good about.
On the flip side, make sure you get together with your team after the fact to debrief. Talk about what worked, and what didn’t. Talk about whether you would want to do it again, and if so, when the planning for the next one should start. And give yourselves a pat on the back if it was successful! Have a party and give awards for the efforts of your team and volunteers.
7. Is your event mission-driven? This may seem like a silly question, but I’ve seen so many organizations host events because they’ve seen other organizations do them. The problem is, the “other organization” is their polar opposite. Different audience, different mission, different, well, everything. Ideally, your event will be so closely linked with the work that you do that there will be no doubt what it is supporting. If this isn’t the case, think twice. If you want to do an unrelated event anyway (e.g. an arts org doing a fun run or a carwash), redouble your efforts to inform the attendees about what you do, before, during and after the event.
I don’t want to discourage you from doing special events. I do, however, want you to understand that the amount of time that it takes to raise $25,000 through a special event is far greater than the amount of time it would take you to research a prospect, cultivate them appropriately, and make the ask. There are reasons for doing special events, but don’t lose sight of the reasons to do something else.
Do you have a particularly successful special event? Or a horror story you’d like to tell our comment confessional? (Ask me about the skunk sometime.) I’d love to hear from you!