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Special Events as part of a Fundraising Plan-what is their true purpose?

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

The true purpose of a special event is sometimes lost in the flurry of planning activities. When I attended a meeting of our local AFP chapter, the topic was "Special Events: To do or not to do"

A four-person panel discussion of nonprofit development directors and associates emphasized the four main reasons to conduct a special event for your organization. The reasons are:

*As a fundraising effort

*As a cultivation effort

*As a stewardship effort (clarified as a thank-you and/or recognition to your donors, OR

*As a public awareness, marketing effort

The panelists were open in discussing their successes and giving suggestions about their special event. They engaged the audience by inviting us to ask questions, give input, and provide our examples. Questions such as "How many events a year should an organization have? What type of software and/or firm is the best when utilizing online bidding auctions? and so on. One of the panelists was discussing a recent golf tournament he had conducted for his organization. I held up my hand and asked if any of the panelists had kept track of how much staff time was dedicated to special event preparation, and had they done a basic cost/benefit analysis of their time spent on special event preparation, coordination, and execution of the event?

Amazingly, not one member of the panel had tracked how much time they or their staff had spent on special event preparation. Many stated, "I have a pretty good idea how much time I spent".


Often when you look at your time spent preparing for the fundraiser, you will see you would have been better off having coffee with two of your small or mid-size donors and moving them up in giving. Chances are you would raise as much as you net from an event. It will surprise you if you track all your time, and guys- your time is money to the organization-so use it wisely.

Tom Ralser, an experienced fundraiser and nonprofit author, discussed in his book, Asking Rights: Why Some Nonprofits Get Funded (and some don't), ..."these types of efforts seem to hone the skills of event planning rather than fundraising, which would be a far better skill set to develop to help the organization more sustainable." Tom gives us an example of how some special events are perceived by sharing a story of attending a client's special event, when a major donor of the organization said to him, " I am here for the social aspect and the fun. Come see me in my office if you want to talk seriously about money."

Your donors may love your cause and your events, but they really want to believe they are investing in an organization that is delivering valuable outcomes and providing measurable results for your target population. Ensure that this important topic is discussed when you and your supporters are able to meet one-on-one.

Many nonprofits cite the need to raise revenue as the reason for holding these special events. Is it really easier to hope that big donor you were not able to get an appointment with, would show up to the event with a friend that is also a donor? Yes, it is easier but in the above example, potential donors are there to enjoy themselves, and may not give their full attention to you about a new exciting program, or hear a poignant story about a client you provide services for.

I DO believe that a single, well-planned event can serve to market an organization, bring brand awareness to your cause, provide networking opportunities for your supporters and maybe obtain endorsements from a prominent community member. You should think of special events as more than a TOOL to bring in donations. Deciding on the main goal of your event, (increasing awareness, thanking supporters and celebrating recent successes) and then choosing the appropriate type of event for that goal is critical.

A one-size-fits-all approach to special events, auctions, charity walk/runs and other efforts can prove detrimental to your organization. If you select an event type based on what other organizations similar to your own have executed, it will not necessarily garner the results you seek.

The type, size, and mission of any nonprofit needs to be considered when developing your overall fundraising plan and especially before dedicating precious staff and volunteer time to any special event. If these factors are considered, they can make the execution of special events an invaluable component in your organizations' overall fundraising strategy and enable you to attain your central mission.

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