Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Starting a Charity? Don't leave Money on the Table

When you're planning a special event, it's important to consider that there's money left on the table after the event, and that you should make the effort to go out and get it.

Here's what I see fairly frequently: The staff and volunteers of a nonprofit organization work hard to conceive, plan and put on a successful fundraising event. It may be an auction, an awards dinner, a golf outing or any of the hundreds of things Board members and staff dream up as a way for people to have fun while charities raise some money.

Putting on a special event is a huge involvement of time and energy. It takes a fairly large group of volunteers and places high administrative demands on the most dedicated and stalwart of staff members. In the end, what do you have for all that time and effort? A few more dollars in the till.

Special events, like direct mail, are heavy on the cost to raise $1, and therefore are pretty inefficient ways of raising money. An auction might bring in a couple hundred thousand dollars in an evening. But the time involved is thousands of hours of preparation.

Finding, cultivating and soliciting sponsors and donors of auction items; publicity; making the physical arrangements; providing the food and entertainment; putting together the invitation lists and sending the invitations; thanking the donors; all this must be done. In the end the nonprofit is spending anywhere from $0.45 to $0.75 to raise each dollar – IF they're doing the job in a relatively efficient manner; and many charities spend far more than this.

We must acknowledge, however, that special events – the "fun" of fundraising – are a necessary part of a well-rounded, multi-faceted fundraising effort. More than anything else, they are "friend raisers" because they bring together the charity's friends and supporters in a way where informal networking and "meeting and greeting" can be done. This permits time for cultivating and building relationships, which are so fundamental to the fundraising process. They allow new people a place of entry into the life of the nonprofit. They provide an outlet for the energies and passions of volunteers. So special events do play an important role in the overall development of the nonprofit organization.

But here's the rub: After putting in all that time and effort, when the auction or dinner or golf outing has been declared a resounding success, the nonprofit's staff are completely worn out and frazzled. They're glad simply to put the file in the drawer, go on to the next priority on their to-do list, and wait until next year when they must start the event process all over. "Thank God that's over!" is an expression one hears frequently the day after a special event. And rightly so, considering the intense work and energy that went into making that event happen.

From the standpoint of long-term fundraising success, however, this process of putting the event away until next year leaves tons of money on the table. After we bring all those people to the table, the golf links, the auction, what do we do with those names? We shove them into a drawer, or maybe give all the attendees of the event a code on the donor database, and let it go at that. In reality, the fundraising process has just started. But don't tell that to the special events people! They'll be after your head with an ax! No, this is the time for the calm, cool, collected major gifts specialist to step in and intensify the cultivation and major gift solicitation process with all those people who attended the function and with all those volunteers who helped make it happen.

By John G. Fike

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