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Why You Should Ditch Your Next Event

Fundraising events are a foundation for many nonprofit fundraising programs.

But they are the most inefficient way of raising money.

Here’s a well-known chart of “cost per dollar raised” for various fundraising strategies:

Cost Per Dollar Raised

(Data comes from James Greenfield.) And what does it show you?

To raise one dollar in a fundraising event, it will cost you $.50 to raise it.

But your board members and volunteers don’t know this statistic.

Many volunteers aren’t familiar with annual or major gift fundraising - especially their costs vs. their benefits.

That’s why they zero in on EVENTS as the life-saving panacea for fundraising. That’s the only thing in their sphere of reference.

Here are 3 reasons you should ditch your next event:

1. Events are not very efficient fundraising strategies.

You can raise more money with other fundraising strategies.  The ROI you get from an event is far less than other fundraising options.

Looking at the chart, compare the costs of raising money with an event that to a mailing campaign like the annual fund – the cost per dollar raised is only $.25-.30 cents on the dollar.

And the most efficient way to raise money of all is face-to-face solicitations focusing on major gift donors – that’s only $.05 -.10 on the dollar.

2. Too many events KILL your volunteers and your staff.

The last thing your hard-working staff needs is another event. They are generally overworked, underpaid and certainly not appreciated enough.

WHY would you ask them to spend so much energy on something with such a low return?

And you won’t have a lot of volunteers left if you work them too hard.

Will you?

There are easier ways to “raise friends” for your cause.

3. You can raise more money with one annual event than with 3, 4 or 5 events.

Why? The real money from an event is raised from sponsorships.

Was it really worth it?

And it takes a decent lead time to develop sponsorship materials, target the right prospects, organize a committee and make the asks. Then you need the lead time to get their names on the invitation.

If you focus all your energy on one major event each year, you can raise bigger sponsorships because the single event has the visibility and the pizazz.

Why would you want to spread yourself too thin, wear yourself out, exhaust your volunteers – all for such a small return?

Got me!

Don’t get me wrong – events are fine.

They can be a very important part of a full-scale fundraising program.

But just don’t overemphasize them.

Try more sophisticated approaches, such as one-on-one asks.  Or try a carefully planned series of letters, postcards and emails designed into a campaign.

Five benefits of only staging one major event a year:

1.  Your volunteers can go all out in spreading the word and generating attendance, because they are only going to focus on one a year.

Have only one event a year and make it fabulous!

2. You can have the lead time you need to identify, cultivate, and ask sponsors. And that’s where the money is.

3. You’ll have greater attendance and attention from your supporters.

4. You’ll be able to raise more money overall because the staff now has time to focus on other, more productive and more efficient fundraising strategies.

5. You’ll have a happier and more productive staff.

Yes! My motto IS “when in doubt, throw a party!”

What I mean is that you need to turn everything you do into a party- and have some fun. You’ll be more successful if you do.

I don’t mean that you should stage event after event.

Just be smart about where you focus your time and energy.

You’re welcome to forward this to your volunteers who are overly event-oriented.

Just let me know!


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  • Carol Teal

    Gail, This is right on target.  We are focusing on one major event this year and engaging in a new major donor program.  Thanks for you “always on target” advice in a quick read.   

  • Tel

     Gail, thank you for posting this. Now if only I get my boss to believe it!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jonosmith Jono Smith

    Instead of advising people to ditch their next event, I’d suggest encouraging them to make it more experiential. Unlike direct mail, annual reports, or e-newsletters, a good event actually interacts personally with individuals. It incorporates all five senses — moving beyond sight and sound to completely engage the whole person. Also, good events multiply that immersion by dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of interactions with other people. Done correctly, this experience is an unmatched way to allow donors to see, feel, and interact with your mission.

    If that’s not an option, there are other steps you can take. For one, differentiate your event as best you can. Instead of hosting another gala, create an event that others aren’t doing en masse. Next, establish an event planning process that is driven towards clear, definable and measurable goals. Events are much easier to manage if the process is begun the right way, and if they aren’t, you are setting yourself up for failure.

    One of the number reason events under perform is because people fail to treat them as a development function. Fundraising events are meant to raise money, not to raise friends. In order to have a successful event you need to view it as a valid development function, used in conjunction with all your other development efforts.

    And when it comes to events, organizations should stop using cost to raise a dollar as a key measure and focus on net income. No commercial business is judged on its cost ratio, and we should stop apologizing for investing in our causes.

    Bottom line, don’t do events for their sake; events are done to further your mission. Realize that the event you are planning is a tool, a vehicle to take you from a goal to a result. The event is not an end in and of itself; unless of course your mission is to feed people chicken dinners.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Tel, bless your heart!  Good luck!

  • Anonymous

    Hey Carol, glad to provoke things and be a help to you! 

  • Bill Lappin

    Gail, good article. Have we done this as a program for AFPTriangle?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Bill! For the state conference a couple of years ago, I presented “Turn Your Fundraising Event into the Best Party in Town” but didn’t do quite the same content.  Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Well Jono you are right on. I agree with differentiating your event, and making it more experiential.  You are sharing some tips for making sure your event is successful and I absolutely support them! Love the idea of the event as an immersion experience.

  • braininjurytn

    Thanks, Gail! This is incredibly good info in your blog. I could certainly use some tips and tricks to help us raise money at the Brain Injury Association of Tennessee. Come check out out website: http://braininjurytn.org.

    Thanks, 
    Mark Kerrigan
    BIAT Administrative Assistant

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mark, love to help you if I can!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting points. I think y0u are spot on in saying “just have fun” and throw a party if in doubt. I believe that so many staff/volunteers can be easily overwhelmed by so many fundraising events, that in the end they are not fun or worthwhile. 

    Great conversation starter!

  • Anonymous

    Yup, if the staff and volunteers are worn out, it’s not fun and not very productive!  Too many events are like sacred cows at organizations!

  • Lballard Cat

    2nd sentence is opposite your point. Typo?

    > But they are the most inefficient way of raising money.

  • Lballard Cat

    Oops my bad

  • http://twitter.com/philresearch La Sridhar

    Gail- as always, great insights!  The article is touching on a key point on how good Dev directors see themselves as fundraisers vs. event planners.  This simple shift in thinking helps in the goal setting (# of donors vs. the money goal); event experience for the donor, time given for planning the event; board and volunteer energy.  I am all about making it a “Listening” party vs. a “Asking” party! 

  • Anonymous

    Great point! If you are really strategic about why you are doing this event – both long and short term goals, you can get more out of it!

  • Libby Villavicencio

    Thanks for this! I think this is what all of us have thought all along. I appreciate your good thinking on this topic, that is near and dear to many hearts.  

  • Carolyn Copp

    I have developed 4 criteria for our events: 1) must be mission relevant (I don’t get how a golf tournament is related to our mission to help children and families) 2) donor educational…all donors/prospects must learn what we do, and the impact of their support 3) cost efficient (small events that rely on the hosts to pay for food/venue are ideal) 4) sponsorship funded (either by major donors or by corporations). I strive to create “misson moments” where donors/prospects have an opportunity to see, hear about or be a part of seeing our mission in action.

  • bradyjosephson

    Good post and like the organized lists and tips. Especially like and agree with your points on time and volunteer burnout.

    I would say though, that ROI numbers used for events is one of the most abused and mis-used statistics around and you proved my point. How many of those annual fund folks attended an event? How many major donors first gave at an event? We look at ROI as dollars spent versus dollars raised for that one particular event but constantly forget about the bigger picture (largely because we don’t have the capabilities to track it accurately). Donor acquisition, in this day and age, is extremely difficult and very expensive and is a place where events can play a huge role in building a fundraising program.

    I think we would agree more than my comment would suggest and I appreciate your post. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

     Hi Brady, you’re correct – the numbers are a gross over generalization. And I’m first to agree that a smart events strategy can be an important part of a fundraising plan.  But- and a big but here – so many of my friends’ board members leap to the idea of an event when they think of “fundraising.”  It’s interesting to see the light dawn in board members’ faces/brains when I explain this chart – and it fascinates them. So I think we are in agreement – there are subtleties that I didn’t include in the post, for sure. thanks for writing!

  • Aspringer

    Brilliant!  What an improvement in the quality and impact of events.

  • Sol

    Hello Gail, I am on the board of a small early childhood development org in Evanston, IL. I’d like to share this article with other board members.

    Just “letting you know.”

  • Anonymous

    Please do! It’s really popular for volunteers too!

  • Dave

    Hi Gail,

    Do you have any statistics on how many events are held annually in the US and if these numbers are growing?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Dave, I sure wish I knew those stats. Never have seen any. 

  • Dave

    Gail,

    Thanks for closing the loop.  Yes, having trouble finding that for a summery we’re writing.  

    D

  • http://twitter.com/ShaunLynch3 Shaun G. Lynch, CFRE

    One key point that gets left out all too often is that events only achieve their full benefit when they are fully integrated into an overall development strategy. The relatively high cost is worthwhile if the event is serving to deepen the commitment of existing donors, leading them towards making more and larger gifts, and to cultivate the commitment of newcomers to the cause. In that context, it’s not just the event itself that’s important, but everything leading up to extending out from the event. In addition to the basic financial objective, event evaluation should also look at measures of increased understanding and identification with the cause, as well as measures of long-term donor value. Most importantly, it’s essential to go into every event with a fully developed fllow-up strategy to keep participants engaged in the cause and communicating it to others following the event.