Will Hosting An Event *Really* Boost Your Nonprofits’ Visibility or Fundraising Plans?

Scene: your nonprofit office. In a group meeting discussing strategy and financial needs someone chimes in, “we need to boost unrestricted income for the year. We don’t have a lot of time, but we need to raise [astronomical amount]. I know – let’s have a gala!”
 
…As if the heavens parted and the answer was so simple. Yes, a gala, a cocktail reception, a golf-outing, or a benefit concert – would surely cure all that ails, fill all the budget gaps, and would be a great time, to boot!
 
Before you coast to easy street with your hopes folded into the envelopes of your event invitations, you may want to consider:
 
Timing: For a first-time full-scale gala type event, you will likely need a full year to plan (and potentially more, to secure first time sponsors). At the least, one year. There will be some variance depending on how many staff members can be devoted to the task, what you will be offering (Entertainment? Food? Production?), whether you have a venue at your disposal, and what the scheduling needs are of all parties (including honorees, vendors, and even your guests). You’ll also want to consider when other organizations in the area are hosting events, when holidays are, and when seasonal vacations are more likely for your constituents (ie winterbirds).
 
Recruitment: Ticket sales do not singularly translate to success. Unique invitations do not convert cold calls. While it’s nice to have a good turnout – ticket-only sales will not shore up returns, may not appeal to corporate donors, and are less likely to convert attendees to consistent donors. Work with your board, staff and volunteers to identify prospects that could benefit from sponsorship – this kind of affinity marketing is especially meaningful in regions like ours, where relationships are central to success. Do you have time to tap your board? Do you have resources and incentives to offer sponsors? Do you have existing relationships which can galvanize a baseline of support?
 
Your Needs: Get real, get specific – what do you need? Get specifics and quotes from each vendor – what will this cost? For the amount of billable staff hours and effort it takes to produce a successful event, aim for four (or better yet, five) times the calculated cost of production to cover internal resources and external invoices. Now get specific on what your goal is – what is your desired net revenue for this event? And how does that compare with the hard and soft costs?
 
Also – does your organization have the cash flow to produce the event from inception to execution before receiving any cash flows? Can you confidently raise the funds needed to cover costs through sponsorship? An event should not jeopardize the sustainability of an organization, ever.
 
Point of Entry: Given your needs – both actual, and desired – what would you need to charge per guest? What range of sponsorship levels would you need to secure to meet those needs? Do tickets and sponsorships feel like reasonable points of entry to your donors, supporters, and community? Does your point of entry reflect what you are offering guests?
 
Donor Needs: Speaking of offering – will this event give your donors a feeling of community? Will it engage, inspire and excite them? Will they have opportunities to participate? Will their contributions be acknowledged? As with all fundraising efforts – your work is only as good as it makes people feel.
  
What are your risks? By allotting staff hours to planning and execution – will your appeal suffer? Will the timing of your event detract from your year-end appeal? If you lay out cash for the event and don’t meet your goal – are you endangering your ability to deliver programs or keep the lights on?
  
Given these considerations and others, is a fundraiser really the best investment (of the many resources needed) for your organization? Creating a signature event could be a solid strategy – or a steep misstep. So before answering the clarion call – consider if this is a heaven-send, or a return-to-sender.