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Fundraising: Special Events

Special Events:  Key to Success or a Costly Mistake?

This has to be one of the most common questions I hear from MAS clients. It’s a question that doesn’t have a black-and-white answer, but is an important strategy (and I use that word deliberately) to consider with your organization’s leadership and Board.

I work in a well-established hospital foundation in Toronto. Despite our current success, there was a time not too long ago when our foundation was at a real cross-roads in its growth and development. We operate in a difficult sphere of the health-care landscape – we offer post-acute care (e.g. rehabilitation) as well as long-term care to a largely geriatric population, in Scarborough. We don’t have the resources, connections, or profile of the “University Avenue” hospitals of downtown Toronto. Our patients and residents stay with us for weeks, months or years and so our ‘house list’ of patients and family members is very small relative to the bigger hospitals. Our Board is comprised of incredibly dedicated and hardworking volunteers who choose to fundraise for us because of our mission – not because of our profile. In short, we are a hidden gem in a loud health-care sector in the GTA.

Yet we host one of the largest, most successful, and long-standing galas ($1 million net per year – now in its 22nd year) and golf tournaments ($180,000 net per year, now in its 23rd year) in the city.

In 2004, our foundation raised $712,000 (net of all expenses). At the close of the last fiscal year, we raised almost $3.5 million (net). To what do we owe this success? Quite simply, through a keen strategy on special events.

Are special events right for every organization? Absolutely not. Can I promise 300% growth for your organization in 11 years simply by adopting a special event strategy. Most definitely absolutely not!! But there’s no doubt that it’s been the right strategy for our foundation. Here are three things to consider when setting your fundraising strategy and asking the question, “Should we host a special event?”

  1. Where is my organization in its own development?  

In the early 2000s, my organization was coming off its last major Capital Campaign. The final pledges were being paid and our major gift revenue was dwindling. After the fundraising for the campaign tailed off, there was a lack of attention on donor retention and sustainment of important donor relationships. In short, we had to start from ground zero. As mentioned above, we had low brand awareness and visibility. The events strategy was focused on closing these two gaps: donor relationships and profile-building.

Where is your organization today? Are you running a fine-tuned major gift program or are you a young charity looking to grow its donor base? Have you had a lot of staff turnover and lost important relationships (a common problem)? Is your charity’s brand lost among the 80,000 charities in Canada?

  1. Does your Board leadership have an appetite for calculated risk?

Setting a strategy centered around special event fundraising has its pitfalls and risks…but it also has its rewards. My organization had strong alignment on the events strategy between the Board Chair (who was a very strong, vocal and passionate leader) and our staff. One can’t drive the other…both sides of the table must be actively involved in decisions to start, stop or continue special events. Events are a financial risk for the first few years. A Board must have a long-range view of how events will help – whether to populate your donor pipeline or to raise awareness for your cause (or both). Talk to your Board members, ask MAS for consulting help, and do your research. Build consensus for success.

  1. Not every event is a fundraiser!

Most people have heard the term “This is a friend-raiser, not a fundraiser” and there can be real truth to that statement. Boards and staff must look at the return on investment, both in terms of donor pipeline growth and financial dollars.

However, I want to emphasize that your organization can take on events that don’t have fundraising components, but are meant to engage your donor base, volunteers and clients. Events can galvanize a community and help people feel a part of the organization. Some of the type of events to consider here are:

  • Annual “donor appreciation” receptions (a party for your supporters to say thank you…what a novel idea!);
  • Education events to engage your donors in your mission: Find your internal expert and do a Lunch & Learn around a newsworthy topic relevant to your cause;Open houses in your space (if it’s open to the public): Show your donors first-hand just how awesome your work is;
  • Education events to engage your donors in your mission: Find your internal expert and do a Lunch & Learn around a newsworthy topic relevant to your cause;
  • Volunteer and donor awards: Consider implementing an event to honour your most passionate advocates and supporters.

The key to successfully managing engagement events is to keep the “ask” out of them – they are not about dollars, but are about relationships, education, and appreciation.

Events have a place in fundraising strategies when the time and the climate are right. Take your time to think through the pros and cons, and consider engaging a MAS consultant to help your staff and Board navigate through the tricky questions.

This is the first in the series on Fundraising.  Stay tuned for our second post on building the right committee.

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