Nonprofit professionals of all types seem to have a love-hate relationship with fundraising events. Events can be costly, ineffective, deplete staff time and drain organizational resources. Conversely, events can also help increase visibility for your mission, build a broader base of support, celebrate milestones and, in some cases, raise significant funds.
Regardless of how your organization feels about fundraising events, if you are committed to hosting them, you should also be committed to doing what it takes to make them successful. While fundraising events can run the gamut from large galas to small, curated home events, the following focus areas can be helpful in ensuring that your event is more organized and successful.
Establish Role Clarity
One of the main pain points for non-fundraising staff in regard to fundraising events is being asked (many times at the last minute) for significant time and input on an event while also managing competing priorities. To avoid this dynamic, which can erode efforts to build a greater culture of philanthropy within your organization, you must establish role clarity at the start of the event planning.
It is a helpful practice to hold a kickoff meeting that convenes everyone who will be involved in the event. Try to make this first kickoff meeting inclusive of any staff involved in the event. This means inviting someone from the finance department, since they’ll inevitably be tracking revenue, inviting IT staff with whom you’d like to collaborate for A/V needs, or the operations and facilities staff who will need to help with day-of logistics. Ideally, this kickoff meeting should include a discussion of the purpose of the event, key goals/benchmarks, the planning timeline and most importantly, roles and responsibilities.
A useful tool to consider using is a relationship assignment matrix or linear responsibility chart with a timeline, especially when planning a large scale event, so that people understand the nuances of how they will be involved and have an opportunity to provide feedback and ask questions. It must also be noted that board members should have their own separate kickoff meeting, to give a greater degree of attention to their specific roles/responsibilities.
Get Systems in Place Beforehand
It is surprising how often systems for revenue tracking and donor/sponsor recognition can get lost in the shuffle of the event planning process. Before you start receiving money for an event, there should be a cohesive understanding between development and finance staff regarding the coding, tracking and allocation of event income, from sponsorships to ticket sales to night-of gifts. Finding the right tool for end-to-end event management can be tricky, but thankfully there are comprehensive online platforms like LiveImpact and others that can help you manage everything from ticket sales and seating charts to mobile check-in and auctions.
In addition to ensuring that you have appropriate financial tracking and event management systems, it is also highly advisable to map out a donor recognition plan and write acknowledgement templates in advance of receiving money for the event, as well as confirm a clear understanding among your team of how, when and in what way donors and sponsors will be acknowledged.
Progress Reporting for Stakeholders
One of the most challenging parts of managing a fundraising event is keeping a wide variety of stakeholders abreast of progress. As part of establishing role clarity for your event, it should be clear who is providing updates to whom on what and how often. It is particularly helpful to confirm this with board and event committee members, so they are confident that they’ll be receiving updates on event progress at regular intervals. It is also helpful to establish a date by which all event revenue numbers will be close to final, to appease those eager to know how the event performed financially.
Developing a dashboard that communicates progress on ticket sales, sponsorship, event promotion efforts and other planning highlights that can be shared on a regular basis throughout the planning process can save a lot of time and energy that would otherwise be spent giving individual or one-off updates. You can download a example of an event progress dashboard here.
Give More Attention to Your Big Ask/Call to Action
There is nothing more tragic than attending a fundraising event and watching an ask or call to action fall flat. Often this is because either the person making the ask was uncomfortable/unprepared or the ask itself was unclear. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to devote time to planning your “big ask” and ensuring that it’s compelling and elicits the right response from your audience.
Once you’ve determined what the ask will look like, it is also critical to ensure that the person making the ask can do so with confidence and clarity. This preparation must occur at least a few weeks prior to the event, so the person making the ask can practice and adjust. It is also particularly important to make sure you provide clear instructions to event attendees if you plan to use online or mobile giving technology.
Get Feedback on the Attendee Experience
If possible, after the event is over, make an effort to get feedback on the attendee experience. In addition to asking donors you know and trust what they thought of the event, make sure to ask staff and board members who interacted with guests their sense of whether or not the event went smoothly. This may help reconcile any internal assumptions about what went well and what didn’t, and illuminate issues that might get overlooked. If you feel that it is appropriate for your donor base, you may also want to consider sending a survey to your attendees to gain more information regarding their experience. If you do distribute a survey to your guests, it is important that it be concise, focused and either woven into a post-event “thank you” email or after gifts have been acknowledged, so as not to overwhelm attendees with communications.
Debrief and Document
After an event, especially a large event that required a major organizational lift, be sure to thank everyone involved and celebrate your shared success. Save analysis for a separate conversation and make sure that everyone who participated, even in indirect ways, is appreciated for their contributions. Once you’ve had an opportunity to express some gratitude, you can move on to a more critical debrief of the event itself. A thorough debrief should include a discussion by key stakeholders of whether or not the following worked well:
- The planning process
- Systems used to support event management
- Print/digital collateral and sponsorship materials
- Attendee experience
- Vendors and contractors, including venue and entertainment
- Event program, remarks (including ask) and run-of-show
- Follow up with donors/sponsors
At a higher level, it is also essential to evaluate whether or not the purpose of the event is still relevant, particularly in regard to return on investment. Examining the connection between your event and organizational strategic priorities can assist in determining whether or not an event is actually supportive in advancing your organization’s mission. Finally, your debrief should be clearly documented and preserved as a piece of institutional memory, so that it may inform future events strategies.