When organizations need money — whether they are small congregations or large universities — a lot of the people who serve those organizations start thinking about events. I’ve worked with organizations that host golf outings, put together trivia nights, host parties and galas, and do dozens of other things. And I’ve worked with organizations that have suggested other ideas, ranging from putting on a play to hosting a euchre tournament to letting people pay to destroy office equipment. And I understand why that is: we intuitively understand fundraising events and we see other organizations hosting them.
But here’s the thing: events are mind-killers. More often than not, they waste time and energy and money. And that waste means that they keep us from focusing on the day-to-day work of relationship building that reliably generates revenue.
So here are some basic truths about fundraising events:
Events are the least efficient way to raise money. It is a truth universally acknowledged by fundraisers that it costs about $0.50 to raise $1 from an event. Compare that to the cost to raise a dollar from renewing a direct mail donor ($0.20) or from closing on a major gift ($0.10). There’s no competition! If you’re planning an event as a fundraiser, there is almost certainly a better way you could be spending your time.
New events tend to lose money. It can take years for a fundraising event to become revenue-positive. Many new events cost more than they raise. If you’re lucky, an established event will eventually break even and then start to raise small amounts of money. That means that any event is an investment, and that you need to stick with it for years to start raising money from it. And given that it may never become revenue-positive, that’s a pretty risky proposition.
Even if an event makes money, there is probably a more efficient way to do it. Most of the people who attend an organization’s fundraising event are… people who already support the organization. Seriously. I’ve been to events where the only attendees are staff, board members, and closely-related donors. And that means that the organization could have saved on the cost of food, staff time, and so on by simply asking those people for money.
None of that means that events are completely useless. Well done events can be good ways to attract media attention, introduce new people to an organization, kick-off matching gift campaigns, and so on. The key phrase being ‘well done’. Effective events are an investment, very few organizations are really prepared to put on a good one, and even effective ones are almost never particularly good as fundraisers.
But here’s the most important thing. The idea of the amazing fundraising event that raises all — or most, or a significant amount — of the money that an organization needs captures the imagination of too many organizations. And by capturing that attention, it leads those organizations to focus on finding the right magical event… and it distracts them from doing the real work of fundraising.
Events are a mind-killer. The idea of events — the hope that organizations place in events — is a mind-killer.
So here’s a rule for organizations: you get one event. That’s your signature event. Any time someone comes along and suggests a marathon or golf outing or basketball tournament or gala, you get to say, “Sorry, we already have our signature event, and it’s the only event we’re doing this year.”
You get to spend some time every week working on that event. You get to spend some time helping it raise money and awareness. You get to spend some time figuring out how to get potential new donors to come and learn about the amazing things you do. You get to spend some time thinking about how you’ll follow up with all of those attendees and turn as many of them as you can into regular donors.
Yyou get to spend the rest of your time — all of that wonderful time that you’re not using to come up with yet another event idea — on the real work of fundraising. You get to spend it developing a direct mail program and an online program, visiting with potential major and planned giving donors, and reporting back to all of your donors on the work their gifts are doing in the world.
Then, you get to raise the money that you need in order to change the world.