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It’s Party Time!

cartoon black tie Fridays


This New Yorker cartoon reminded me that event season is right around the corner. As sure as the sun rises and sets, so too does the annual onslaught of galas, golf outings, dinner-dances and awards ceremonies. Between our clients and other non-profit organizations that receive my personal philanthropic support, spring-themed invitations are now arriving on a weekly basis.

As the calendar begins to fill up, the social scene suddenly becomes all consuming. Ticket or table? Cocktail dress or floor-length? How many times in a month can I reasonably ask my partner to put on his tux? What’s my tolerance level for yet another silent auction or casino night? Will the charity offer a fund-a-need opportunity? Is the mission anywhere in sight? Will the “right” people be in the room? And – worst of all – will it feel like a wasted evening?

The Party Crashers
It’s an occupational hazard that we at Copley Raff approach these functions not just as guests, but with the mind-set of consultants. None of us can attend an event without evaluating, analyzing, critiquing, imagining what could be done better, taking mental notes about top prospects, devising follow-up strategies.

In our work building the capacity of advancement programs, special events are often the sacred cow In fact, an astonishing number of advancement enterprises are centered around episodic events as their primary source of contributed revenue.

Following the Party Line
The conventional wisdom is that fundraisers are embedded in the DNA of non-profit organizations. Special events put an organization in the spotlight and create a sense of community, reinforcing the loyalty of long-time donors while attracting new constituents. For smaller charities, the occasional black-tie gala can provide some badly needed flash, sizzle, and credibility. And over time, if well executed, these functions can build a somewhat predictable flow of income.But there are considerable downsides. Events can become stale and competition for attendees is fierce. Revenue will eventually plateau. As institutional energy dwindles, fewer volunteers may be willing to lead the charge. And inevitably, over time, staff takes on a greater share of the responsibility.

Special events are also an appealing avoidance tactic for Boards and volunteers (and sometimes staff) who fear the thought of face-to-face fundraising. Recruiting talent to participate on the advancement committee and make personal visits is not as attractive as working toward one glitzy evening with hundreds of attendees and a large infusion of cash. As time marches on, many organizations find they have become overly dependent on events, making it more difficult to be weaned off them. When advising clients, we encounter this dilemma on a far too frequent basis.

It’s my Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To

If you and your colleagues find yourself drowning in event planning and dreading the administrative black hole of March-May, we recommend making an objective assessment of the value of your events in the context of your overall advancement program and institutional objectives. Nothing feels more liberating than challenging the status quo and asking the hard questions!

· Is this type of event really right for your organization’s mission?
· Has it outlived its useful life?
· Have you ever conducted a true cost-benefit analysis, including staff time?
· Are special events draining the energy from your staff and volunteers?
· Have you fallen into the entertainment business, with your organization’s mission barely visible?
· Are events part of a rational system that reliably produces sustainable income and long-term donors?
· Are you establishing and meeting donor conversion objectives?
· What other productive advancement work could your development staff be doing with the same expenditure of time and effort?
· Does this event provide the best way to develop the giving potential of your donors and build capacity for the future?
· If a donor walked in and gave you a check equivalent to the event’s net proceeds, would there still be a rationale for holding the event?

The Party’s Over

Special events are rarely the mainstay of a robust, mature, strategic advancement enterprise. Whether you are a staff member or Board leader, we suggest you think more realistically about why and for whom youre hosting these functions, keeping special event revenue in reasonable proportion to the overall advancement plan. Many clients are shocked to come to terms with the extent to which special events have taken over their programs, ultimately hindering the growth of far more valuable major gifts and planned giving efforts.

Here are some steps to include in your assessment of a single-solution event — whether its the spring gala youve held for years or the golf tournament your new Board chair wants to implement next year.

Bring Something to the Party

Review how you got here. Detail how your organization came to the conclusion that a particular event is the best way to raise money or expand the donor base. Are the original assumptions still accurate?

Dont just plan — strategize. Establish the purpose of an event at the outset. Is it to raise money, cultivate relationships, recognize a leadership gift, or elevate the organization’s profile and brand? Raising money implies there will be an “ask.” If so, make sure your attendees are philanthropic and resonate to your mission. If you are focusing on cultivation and information sharing, then smaller, more intimate gatherings might be a better option than a 400-person dinner.

The day after. What are the specific next steps? Do you have a written plan for event follow up? Will attendees receive a personal call from a Trustee or staff member? Will thank-you notes be sent? Will a tour or lunch with the CEO be scheduled? Will wealth screening be conducted on the attendance list? Event execution can be so exhausting that staff and volunteers often consider the party to be the finish line and overlook the critical follow-up! Organizations that use events strategically and effectively consider the conclusion of the event to be the beginning of a new, more sustained relationship with their constituents. As one savvy client mentioned last week, “tonight may be the gala, but tomorrow the really hard work begins!”

Dont lie to yourselves. Sure, we all want successful and profitable events, but we often forget to really consider the true cost of an event when we evaluate net revenue. Did you account for paid staff time? What are the opportunity costs of not having staff and leadership doing more productive advancement work? Are your special events strengthening the organization’s relationship with volunteers or burning them out?

Let’s Get The Party Started

Take a different approach. Okay, so now that youve thoroughly dismantled your events, what advice can we offer?

Position special events as just one element of a diverse, comprehensive fundraising program. Events should be incorporated into an overall strategic advancement plan and not viewed as singular activities to raise money. And never should they serve as the foundation of your development enterprise! Just as certain programs will interest some donors but not others, individual fundraising efforts will connect with some while leaving others unmoved. Employ a variety of creative, highly personalized approaches to touch all your donors and prospects. And if an event is no longer effective, give yourself permission to stop holding it!

Focus events on getting your organization closer to the “right” people. In addition to large, ticketed events, also consider the notion of holding smaller, more targeted cultivation gatherings that have a designated purpose and projected outcome. These could be receptions at a Trustee’s home for campaign or leadership gift prospects; coffee with the CEO for planned gift candidates; or a luncheon and tour of your facility for new, prospective donors. Smaller events are generally less costly, less-time consuming, and more focused on getting you closer to the objects of your affection.

Become The Life of the Party: Your Takes

11. Design your events with multiple objectives to accomplish the day of the event and over time.

22. View special events as the beginning of a donor relationship, not the end.

33. Make sure you are converting event attendees into reliable, long-term donors.

Susan Kinney is a Senior Consultant with Copley Raff Inc.