Special events? Bah! Humbug!


Women waiting for the start of the KC Women’s Tri back in 2007. One of the many events I (and my team) created and managed.

Note: there are lots of caveats and qualifications to what I’m about to suggest. I know that. There are tons of examples that refute (or at least SEEM to refute) my premise. Regardless, I stand by my core assertion, which is …

Looking for, creating, planning, and holding a special event to raise money is a waste of time, energy, and resources that could be better spent developing an annual giving program focused on individuals.

I know that you will immediately think of a dozen events that are HUGELY successful in your community that raise THOUSANDS of dollars every year. Yep. We have them here in Kansas too. You may already have an event that you are very proud of. There are also lots of people who make their living planning special events that will vehemently deny that they are a waste of time. I know. I used to be one of them.

But what I’m trying to suggest is that UNTIL a nonprofit has a comprehensive and successful individual donor program in place, special events (with fundraising as a goal) should be a secondary consideration.

If, like me, you’ve been on a board of directors or worked for a nonprofit organization, you’ve encountered a well-intentioned board member or volunteer who suggests that you create an event like so-and-so across town. “They raised $35,000 from their pancake feed in just two days. We could do that!”

Unless you’ve actually organized an event like that, you’ve no clue what it takes in staff time, volunteer effort, and resources to create a successful fundraising event. In my experience, it takes way more energy and effort than what you think it will. Way, way more. Plus, it’s a diversion from more effective and sustainable strategies.

Of course there can be lots of great outcomes to a special event. They can be great at raising awareness, building rapport with donors, and generating excitement among your volunteers. But it comes at a cost that you won’t fully understand until it’s too late.

The first thing nonprofits have to create is a sustainable annual giving and major gift campaign that focuses on individual donors and board involvement. Until that’s in place, you shouldn’t get sidetracked with a special event. And while a donor cultivation event can be a nice addition to the annual campaign, that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Bottom line: I think special events are too often seen as a panacea for struggling nonprofits. While an event can be part of a comprehensive fundraising plan, it shouldn’t be your main focus or the first thing you attempt.

What do you think?