Five Tips to Keep Your Special Events Alive and Thriving

By Susan Fields, CFRE

While special events serve as an excellent means of generating enthusiasm and attracting supporters, preparing for them can be a time-intensive endeavor for staff, volunteers, and board members with less return on the dollar compared to other fundraising vehicles. Of course, there is always the challenge of keeping events fresh and engaging each year in an effort to attract more attendees and sponsors. This APF-NYC Educational program provided both trending and time-honored ideas for sustaining and improving existing events as well as creating memorable and lucrative new ones:

  1. It all begins with the budget. Planning an event without a budget is like steering a ship without watching for icebergs. Determine in advance projected revenues vs expenses based upon your goals for table and seat sales, sponsorships, journal sales, and other pre-event fundraising. Keep in mind that things can happen! Inclement weather, a power outage, or a less-than-compelling speech from your board chair can seriously boondoggle your night-of-event fundraising.  Although many events lend themselves to making a direct ask in the room, if at all possible, try to reach your fundraising goal before the event and rely on live auctions, paddle raising, texting, pledge asks, etc. as an on-site boost to fundraising success.
  2. Don’t get stuck in the honoree dilemma. Many organizations have reached their limit in recruiting corporate honorees as a means of raising funds and attracting attendees to their events. If you have tapped out all of your contacts, look inside your organization for honorees such as former donors, alumni, staff, community leaders, board members emeritus, local politicians, and other prominent people. Many organizations have several honorees receiving different awards to maximize table sales, sponsorships, and other fundraising. Remember that most people do not come to your event to meet a corporate honoree and will probably be more interested in hearing about people they can identify with.
  3. Examine all the options before retiring an event. Before doing anything drastic, determine who is displeased with the event and why. Sometimes only the staff feels this way with your board, donors, and other supporters having a very different perspective. Sometimes only minor or incremental changes are needed to create a fresh, new feeling such as shorter programs, a “wow moment” from a celebrity, or a buffet dessert table where people can mingle. Of course, the financial success of the event also needs to be considered. Keep in mind, however, that ceasing to continue an event can be a very political move and all effort should be taken to discuss this decision with your board and other major players in your organization. 
  4. Keep the length of your programs in check.  There is no polite way to get a speaker off the stage, but you can minimize the chance of them going overtime by providing a detailed run-of-show and requesting that their 2-3 minute speeches be written in advance. This will allow you to review the material and suggest eliminating redundancies. Rehearsing in advance or using a teleprompter can help keep speakers on track. Of course, not everyone needs to speak, and it is best to avoid having special presenters for each speaker.  Some nonprofits use pre-videoed presentations by family members or key individuals in the organization. Above all, avoid having a program with a long list of “talking heads” which can give your event a reputation of being painfully boring.
  5. Inspire your guests. Everything that you do prior to the event, during the event, and after the event should speak loud and clear of your organization’s mission, goals, and value to the people that it serves. Make sure your guests are welcomed by people who are close to your nonprofit. Provide your CEO and five key board members with a list of who is in the room, where they are seated, and the cultivation and stewardship conversations that are necessary. The next morning, make sure to send an email blast to sponsors, attendees, and volunteers thanking them for their participation and informing them of the success of the event. Make everyone feel good about what they have been involved in and follow up with those who are likely to become more involved. 

Theme picker