I will admit that my entrance into development was through events. I was doing nonprofit development work as a volunteer years ago, before I even knew that’s what I was doing.
Before I went to grad school, before I started college, even before I graduated from high school, I was a waitress. The most practical skills I learned, beginning at around age of 15, were customer service skills, being able to greet and talk with anyone, juggling 62 tasks at once, learning the timing and flow of programs and service, developing the extra sense of anticipating the needs of guests, and just being on the service-side of major events/banquets. My step into planning events was as an undergraduate student when my department needed to organize a dinner of some sort… I don’t remember what it was. I watched the faculty struggle with making decisions, offered to help, and they dropped the entire event on me. No problem! Since then, I have found myself running some element (or the entire event program) of countless auctions, receptions, conference sessions (and two full conferences), campaign events, house parties, promotional appearances, and concerts. I know events.
But here are some things I have learned over time that I wish more nonprofits would consider (and this has come up a LOT lately as I have talked with various orgs):
Brand new major events are not $ilver bullets that will make you lots of money in a short period of time, and should not be considered quick fixes for your revenue problems.*
If your organization is struggling financially, think long and hard before you decide to host a new event for the sole purpose of bringing in an infusion of cash. Events rarely work that way, especially when the event is brand-spanking new to your organization.
Events require a lot of time from your staff — and staff time equals money. Unless your staff members are working for free (and even volunteer hours need to be considered when calculating ROIs), their time is not “free time” to the organization. One can argue that the staff members are already in the office and getting paid, so working on an event shouldn’t be a big deal. When calculating your ROI for an event, you must figure staff wages in the calculation for it to be an accurate net-net. Consider how much more effective your staff could be developing individual relationships with prospective donors, putting together direct mail appeals, or developing a grants plan — all development activities that will result in stronger relationships for the agency and more sustainable forms of support.
There are organizations that are famous for having huge, wildly successful events — namely auctions and walkathons/marathons. But keep in mind two very important facts about these events:
- Most of these orgs have been building up their events for many years, and their initial ROIs were probably not great. If your organization is not sustainable or stable enough to incur low ROIs for the first few years, I would recommend you not start an event with the goal of bringing in a large return right away.
- Most of these orgs have at least one staff member (more likely a team) whose 10 to 12-month position is dedicated solely to the event. Remember staff time is part of the event ROI.
Events can be good and help you with your overall strategic development/communications/outreach plans.
Events have a very important role in strategic development plans — think about what purpose your event will have and how it will help you reach your strategic goals. Events are wonderful opportunities to engage your current donors and/or constituents, reach out to new prospective donors and constituents, show appreciation to volunteers, engage in new media and outreach campaigns around the event, and celebrate your organization. Your event can be a big, warm, fuzzy bear hug to the community — or a friend-raising opportunity in addition to a fund-raising opportunity.
Don’t let any leads go cold that come from your event: thank every single person who attended, add them to your newsletter lists, invite them to come tour your facility or follow up with a coffee meeting. Make sure that every single person who attends your event experiences a “good” touch by your organization. And don’t forget to follow up with those who had expressed an interest but could not attend. You have the names and contact information; what are your plans to re-engage them after the event?
And yes, usually an organization will enjoy a revenue return on the event — I’ve heard many times that the expense of 0.50 per dollar raised is considered great for events (that means for every dollar your agency brought in, you spent 50 cents — or an ROI of 100%). But remember your net-net; staff costs need to be included.
My advice: beware of introducing a new large event with the goal of that revenue buoying up your budget, or even saving your organization, if the ground upon which you are standing is not firm. Have an event, but design it to support the relationship-building, prospect management, and outreach work of your development team.
* Of course there are organizations out there that have put together a first-time, super-successful, “fund-raising is our only goal” event that brought in a great return on investment. Are you willing to take the risk that your organization will not be one of the lucky ones?