Tue, October 23 2012

An open plea to hold better events

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Events •

I got the following email today from one of my blog readers, John Scott Foster of the Wesselman Nature Society.

I had an experience this weekend I thought you might be interested in.  I attended two “gala” type events.  One was the standard, at a conference center.  Held from 6 to 8:30.  Coat and tie.  Arrive at 6, cash bar, sit at a table at 7.  People say nice things.  You eat.  People say nice things.  Silent auction.  Then at the end of the silent auction, we are thanked for coming/supporting and told we can all stay and dance to the DJ selection.  3/4ths of the people run out the door, happy to have that obligation over.

The next day.  A beer tasting and restaurant sampling event at my nature center.  The only roof the spreading branches of 300 year old trees.  Jeans, sweaters, comfortable shoes.  Beautiful weather.  Among many options, a fire ring with a gourmet s’mores station. Acoustic guitarist who was amazingly talented. 3 microbreweries and then one distributor with a total of over 50 beers that could be sampled.  A wood fired brick pizza oven on wheels serving pizza.  Held from 3 pm to 6 pm.  We had to chase people out.  They didn’t want to leave.  They were having fun. 

Obligation (we need to support this important cultural institution) vs. fun (this important cultural institution is providing a great experience for us).

Great story.  As John adds, “People love being out in nature. It filled a need that they might not otherwise seek fulfill.” 

As John notes, we do amazing work in the world, but we nonprofits don’t always have great events that reflect the heart of our efforts.

Ask yourself: Is your event about dressing up and collecting money for you?  Or is it about the essence of your work for others?

Here’s another example of an event focused on the experience of those who participate: Strollers in the Front 5k.  As this post in Event360, a group of parents are running with strollers to support The Neighborhood Parents Network in Chicago. It celebrates the experience of parents jogging with kids in the name of building communities of parents and their families. 

The bottom line is, the event should be about the experience of the cause - not the experience of fundraising.  The more people feel the immediate joy of the larger mission, the better. 

 

  • Comment: (19)   

Comments

Great post Katya (and John) and I agree whole heartedly. John points out the importance of thinking outside the box and creating an experience for your donors/supporters. I once organized a thank you event that had a So You Can Dance theme and asked that attendees prepared some sort of routine beforehand and it was the most successful event in the organization’s 13 year existence. It made me realize the true value of engagement and I think that often times, organizations are stuck in the same old ways.

Posted by Shane Francescut  on  10/23  at  09:29 AM

Katya, I would actually take your argument further and say that the nonprofit sector needs fewer fundraising events overall. If you calculate the cost of fundraising for an event you will more often than not find that the event has actually cost the nonprofit money, rather than created a profit. I would love to see more nonprofits calculating the true costs of their events and then deciding if the event is actually worth it to them, you can see how to do these calculations here: http://www.socialvelocity.net/2011/06/financing-not-fundraising-calculating-the-cost-of-fundraising/ Instead of better events, I think we need fewer events in the nonprofit sector.

Posted by Nell Edgington  on  10/23  at  10:24 AM

Nell, you are correct, ” If you calculate the cost of fundraising for an event you will more often than not find that the event has actually cost the nonprofit money, rather than created a profit.”  However that being said, nonprofits should first know what they hope the event will be. Will this event be for awareness or to thank your sponsors and the people who donate to your cause. I for one enjoy the idea of thinking outside the box and coming up with an “event” that raises funds and offers a good time.  Both events that Katya and John spoke of were great.  I would have stayed and danced the night away.  So we need to know what events bring people and funds and they have a good time while giving to a good cause. Please do not take away the events!

Posted by Deborah Logan  on  10/23  at  11:56 AM

Nell, I suppose I am a little biased since we raise over $100 million/year for our clients through immersive event experiences, but I strongly believe a balanced fundraising strategy should include events.

Let me start on a personal level: If you were to analyze my lifetime giving history, you would see that the organizations I have donated the most money to are the one’s that I’ve actually had an opportunity to experience their mission through an event of some kind. These events incorporated all five senses to completely engage me, and then multiplied that immersion by hundreds of interactions with other people as I asked my social networks to support these causes.

Done correctly, these event experiences are an unmatched way to allow donors to see, feel, and interact with an organization and its cause. Yes, there are plenty of organizations that don’t understand or embrace the basic tenets of your blog post, but using them to indict all of event fundraising doesn’t add up.

Posted by Jono Smith  on  10/23  at  12:37 PM

Great article! It was a great reminder to think out of the box and make your organization stand out. I do wonder, however, about the effectiveness of the second event. It may have been more fun, but did people actually learn about the mission? It sounds to me like John raved more about the food, beer and weather than the non-profit itself.

I also disagree with Nell’s comment. Usually, the goal of an event is to be a friend-raiser as well as a fund-raiser. The cost of the event is to gain exposure and introduce new individuals to your organization. It costs money to make money.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/23  at  04:17 PM

We host two events each year—really one too many—but like aspects of each. The more trendy and growing in popularity is a wine and food tasting with silent auction at one of our senior communities. The challenge is the “program” part of the event. Since it is casual—no sit-down as opposed to our traditional sitdown dinner—tough to get everyone’s attention. Any suggestions on how to host a non sitdown event but incoporate a recognition part—honoring a volunteer and/or making an ask?

Posted by Olivia Mayer  on  10/24  at  11:18 AM

Well, i was bragging a bit on the gustatory experiences provided, but our mission is to connect people with nature and we have been looking for ways outside of the more stereotypic science driven, come and learn how to identify all the trees, type of programming.  By having it on site, people how may not normally take the time to hike the woods came out and experienced them, had the chance to remember they love being out of doors, were reminded that they like nature, got to see a bird from our teaching collection up close on the arm of a volunteer, got to explore the center.  They were engaged with the woods, we just created a setting that encouraged them both to come and to stay.  things that don’t often happen in a conference center meeting hall.

Posted by John Scott Foster  on  10/24  at  11:52 AM

I did do a bit of bragging on the gustatory aspects of our event, but the event met our mission to create experiences that connect people with nature.  We have been looking for ways to step outside of the more stereotypic nature center program of teaching you how to identify every tree, bird, wildflower in the woods and look for new ways to engage people.  Our participants could hike in the woods, interact with a docent with a hawk on glove, explore the nature center, all things they may not have done without the sirensong of the event.  They loved being in the woods, being part of nature, something that would not have happened if we had held it in a conference center.

Posted by John Scott Foster  on  10/24  at  01:56 PM

Deborah, Alexandra, and Jono,
I too think that there can be a purpose to events in the nonprofit world. If approached strategically, cultivation and stewardship events to a targeted group of potential and/or current major donors can be hugely beneficial to a nonprofit organization. But you don’t want to confuse “friend-raising” events with fundraising events.  Events on their own do not tend to net revenue for a nonprofit. But if instead you hold an event as a way to cultivate potential donors who you will follow up with down the road, then that type of cultivation event can be very successful for an organization. My point is that we need to take a step back in the nonprofit sector and understand that events themselves don’t make money. And Alexandra I completely agree that it takes money to make money, but in order to actually make money you have to understand the net revenue and cost to raise a dollar of the activity. You have to be smart about how you spend money in order to actually make money.

Posted by Nell Edgington  on  10/24  at  02:17 PM

Hello Katya:
I enjoy reading your blog and often find helpful information or affirmation of what we are already doing.  As with most of your posts, I agree that organizations should come up with fun and creative event ideas to make them more desirable and memorable.  We are also guilty of putting on one of the boring events described below and often have volunteers come to us with ideas from Organization A or Non-Profit B, exclaiming how it is something we should also do.

To those volunteers we say, “Great!  Help us figure out how we can make $250,000 with this new event idea.” 

Our event always recognizes honorees, and although it means we have to create a program of talking heads, those honorees are responsible for bringing in significant attendance and donations/sponsorships.  Having tables assigned for a sit-down dinner encourages our hostesses to be sure their entire 10-person table is full.  Our “paddle raise” brings in $20,000 - $50,000 in less than 10 minutes.  How can we turn all this away?  It’s working for the objective we are looking for – it is raising money.

So my plea to all our fellow non-profits is, “HOW?”  We want the fun, exciting events that everyone talks about.  But how are you doing it while still bringing in the dollars?  I wonder if others are struggling with this same challenge.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  01:10 PM

Andrea, if your event is working—and by working I mean that net income is increasing each year, your participant retention rates are high, your cost model is getting more efficient, and you are surveying the participants and they would recommend the event to a friend, then it sounds like you’ve got a great formula.

In terms of the “fun factor,” be who you are. Not every mission is a good fit for “fun” events.

As for your volunteers with all of their great event ideas,... if you use competitive benchmarking as a proxy for strategy, your events are going to end up looking like everyone else in your issue area.  My advice for your volunteers: “Don’t worry too much about our competition—let them worry about us.” Focusing too much on your competition will only make you more like them.

Posted by Jono Smith  on  10/25  at  01:45 PM

Great Idea. We have an education Gala every year. We do it the same way every year and our numbers keep going down . This year I was asked to put it together. Do you have any Ideas? The Gala is held in the middle of December so out doors may not work. I really do want it to be fun. I want people so say that they can’t wait until next year.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/29  at  08:57 AM

George: A few general pieces of advice. First, fundraising events are meant to raise money, not to raise friends or provide entertainment. In order to have a successful gala, you need to view it as a valid development function, used in conjunction with all your other development efforts.

Second, events are a means to an end. You don’t do galas for their sake; galas or any event for that matter should be done to further the mission of your organization. Realize that the event you are planning is a tool, a vehicle to take you from a goal to a result. The event is not an end in and of itself.

What if you skipped the gala this year and put all of the time and money you would have spent on the gala on cultivating major donors? Would you be better off, or worse off?

Posted by Jono Smith  on  10/29  at  11:30 AM

Jono, I think that would depend on who would be attending the Gala and again it would also depend on what donors you would seek out. However you are right by saying “In order to have a successful gala, you need to view it as a valid development function, used in conjunction with all your other development efforts.” Everything a charitable organization does should have an aim or strategy to reach that aim.

Posted by eddie justo  on  11/09  at  12:36 PM

First of all I would like to thanks John for sharing this great story and also to Katya for sharing.
And obviously we people love the immediate joy of the larger mission better, hence as you said the event should be about the experience of the cause - not the experience of fundraising.

Posted by judy  on  05/07  at  10:29 PM

I think its a great Idea. I often arrange educational forums. We generally use the same methods and our attendees keep rising . I would be interested in some more detailed information before my next event!

Thanks so much for the info - great stuff!

Posted by Alison  on  05/23  at  12:25 PM

“The more people feel the immediate joy of the larger mission, the better” AGREE !! : )

Posted by Miranda Chow  on  06/18  at  09:18 PM

I think its a Awesome Idea. I often arrange educational forums. We generally use the same methods and our attendees keep rising . I would be interested in some more detailed information before my next event!best of luck.thanks for good job.

Posted by Robirul  on  06/26  at  08:12 AM

If this is done correctly, these event experiences can be an unmatched way to let donors see, feel, and interact with an organization and its cause.

Two thumbs up on this post! Thank you!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/11  at  05:05 AM

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