7 secrets to a successful fundraising event

Love ’em or hate ’em, events are a right of passage for a strong fundraising program. Here’s how to keep them from driving you crazy…

1. Decide on your true top goal

Many will say ‘events don’t raise money’. Not true. They can if they are particularly designed to do so.  If you really want the event to raise funds, have a strong sponsorship program, table purchases, auctions, wine pulls, ‘moment to give’ and a follow-up mailing/email.

If you don’t have the time, staff or support to truly build a fundraising event, then don’t judge your efforts based on dollars raised. Instead, work hard to leverage the event to build new relationships. Ask your closest folks to fill a table.event pic

2. Get the right people in the room

No matter if you’ve chosen to focus on raising funds, or building relationships – getting the right people in the room might be the most important part of any event. ‘Table captain’ is an age-old relationship building strategy.  You ask your closest donors and board members to fill tables – in hopes that those people are then turned on to the cause.  But here’s what most people miss…work with them to determine who they might invite.  If left to them, a table of 8 will include them, their partner, and the rest will be any ‘warm bodies’ they were able to strong-arm into attending. It’s likely that those folks many not have the means to donate much and/or not be truly interested in your cause – they just didn’t have other events that night and figured a free chicken dinner was worth sitting through your pitch video.

Instead, meet with the table captain waaaaay in advance and bring a list of those you’re looking to connect with, and/or help them scour their network for those that truly might be interested and able in supporting your cause at a significant level.

3. Create the right energy

Except for maybe the weather, you’re in control of every single aspect of your event. Details ARE the difference.  Lighting. Place setting.  Good drinks and no lines at the bar.  Traffic flow (vehicle and people).  Timing of the salad, speaker, video, ask, etc. Background music.  Coat check and valet.  Speedy auction checkout.  Walk through every part of it as a guest and decide what feelings and emotions you want guests to have – then make sure your event reflects it.

Most importantly, if you’re going to make an ‘ask’, make sure it’s T’d up perfectly.  The event can drag on and have an awkward ask where people either skip the gift or make a small one to cover their chicken…OR…you can be impressive, impactful, authentic and compel attendees to make a significant gift because they were moved by your video and/or your speaker.

4. Ask. Or don’t. But plan exactly what you’ll do.

It’s ok not to put an envelop on the table and make an ask that night.  In fact, I personally prefer it.  Instead, share the materials, the cause, the need and ask people to go home and think about it. Then, it’s on you to personally follow up with attendees.  Further, it’s cut out the awkward part of it where everyone looks at each other as they decide whether or not to give and how much.  Instead, you can have open, honest, 1:1 conversations in a more comfortable environment with them later.

5. Follow up, follow up, follow up.keep-calm-and-follow-up

No matter which direction you choose, it’s important to follow up with event attendees.  Remind them of the evening, the message they heard and engage them for further discussion. Otherwise, you spent a lot of time and money for nothing.

6. Debrief and document

Bring together your team and/or event committee together quickly after the event to debrief, determine what worked/didn’t and make notes for next year.  9 months from now it’ll be a blur and you’ll risk making the same mistakes again.

7. Celebrate – no matter what

Events are exhausting for all involved. If there’s ever a time to take the highroad and not dwell on negative minutia, it’s after an event.  Share stories of who talked to who, who went off script, who brought a guest they didn’t register, who unknowningly competed with their friend for an auction item, who said they want to come back for a tour of your cause in action, etc.   If you focus on how dry the bread was or the one high-maintenance guest – you’ll zap the energy of your team who spent the last 3+ months building up to the night. Don’t do that. Celebrate the wins and debrief details later.

One thought on “7 secrets to a successful fundraising event

  1. Good stuff, Nathan! I agree on all counts.

    I do want to add that you should only do an event if you’re confident it will meet your goals. There are only so many days in the year and attendees have to choose where to spend their time. Make sure your event is unique and has a message that will draw them!

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