If you work in nonprofits, you’ve probably been part of a fundraising event, whether it was an extravagant gala or a simple happy hour at the bar around the corner. Many organizations, especially small ones, rely on these events to raise a lot of cash in a short period of time.
But when you get pulled onto the planning committee (or even have to design the event completely on your own), it’s no longer just a fun night out that you get to attend. Now, you have to work out all the details to create an unforgettable evening—one that will entice your attendees to drop a little cash in your hat.
Of course, the size of your organization and your donor level will determine the best kind of event to host, and that will certainly affect how you plan. But no matter the size or scale of your fundraiser, in my experience, I’ve found there are a few key elements that make these events work. If you’re embarking on your first fundraising event, make sure you have these five necessities.
1. A Budget
You’ve heard the saying “it takes money to make money”—and that’s 100% true for events. Sure, if you’re persuasive enough, you can probably get some essentials donated to your event—like an event space, booze, food, and even entertainment. But despite that generosity, you’ll still end up needing some cash on hand for quite a few other expenses, like transportation, meals for staff and volunteers, and tips.
To make sure you can swing it, create a budget before you start planning the details. With a good grasp on your financial situation, you’ll be able to easily figure out if you have the funds to plan a sit-down dinner—or if you’ll have to settle for a casual drinks-only reception. Then, as you start receiving donations and making solid plans, monitor your budget closely. You’ll have to balance any unexpected costs with new donations or adjust your plans as needed.
In order to have a successful event, people need to donate and show up. But to get enough donors to attend, you can’t be the only person promoting the event. You’ll need a group of other people who are willing to pitch the fundraiser to their friends, co-workers, and networks—and, of course, to inspire them to give.
This is what’s called your “host committee,” typically made up of people who already support the organization with their money or time. In addition to knowing your organization well, everyone on the committee should have a wide circle of contacts that they will encourage to attend.
Although every organization uses host committees in a slightly different way, I’ve been most successful when I’ve directly involved the group in the planning process. Of course, the degree of their involvement depends on the individuals, so use your judgment: Some people are more than happy to pick up cups at Costco or solicit major corporate sponsors, while others would rather just have their names listed on the invitation and make a few phone calls to their friends.
3. Multiple Opportunities to Give
The first rule of fundraising is to ask. And sure, when you host an event, everyone knows that they’ll be expected to cough up the price of a ticket. But, you can also incorporate other opportunities for attendees to give.
The most common type of ask comes in the form of a raffle or silent auction (and yes, you can do both). It is remarkably easy to get prizes for these types of activities by asking local businesses to contribute; you just need to make sure that the prizes match your audience. In other words, a spa day package will do very well at a Mother’s Day-themed luncheon—not so much at the golf tournament. Sometimes this may mean eschewing prizes altogether and instead have donors bid on program elements: $100 for a brick in your new community center, for example, or $1,000 to go towards a scholarship.
If you know that your guests aren’t the type to drop more money, ask them to sign up to volunteer for your upcoming programs and initiatives instead. This will engage them in your mission and make them more likely to give again in the future—and tell their friends about you.
4. An Entire Experience
Donating to an event is seen by many people as an equal exchange—they give you some money, and you give them an experience. Your job, then, is to make the event such an amazing experience that, in order for it to be fair, they need to donate even more.
Some organizations do this with high-profile guests and entertainment. But, if you don’t have Beyonce or Bill Clinton on your speed dial, you may want to consider an exclusive venue, an unusual activity (dance marathon, anyone?), or a high-class dinner. More importantly, think of ways to reflect your mission in the event. If you are a direct-service organization, you can invite clients to speak. Schools or arts programs can display their students’ work. By offering your guests an experience that reflects the uniqueness of your organization, you are offering an experience that cannot be replicated. And that’s truly priceless.
Surprisingly, the most important element of a fundraiser is the follow-up that happens after the event. Don’t be tempted to rest on your laurels (or nurse your hangover); get on the phone, send out emails, and update your website. You’ll want to personally reach out to every donor (or potential donor) you met the night before and thank them for their support. This can be the perfect opportunity to set up as many follow-up meetings you can—step one to cultivating them for their next donation.
And don’t forget your vendors and volunteers! Thank them for helping you make the night a success. They understand that you’re exhausted, so a quick email is fine, but for anyone who really gave above and beyond, a handwritten note is particularly classy. (Trust me, they’ll remember your gratitude when your next event rolls around.)
Every event takes a lot of time and effort in order to be successful. But by following the tips above, you’ll be able to host events that create and grow a following that will bring more people—and money—to your organization. And who knows? You might also have a good time!