Dear Kim:

We’ve being doing a single-day event, the Portland Highland Games (all-volunteer organization) for more than 53 years. We hold a traditional Scottish/ Celtic Games featuring Bagpipes and Drums, both individual and bands, Highland Dancing, Fiddling, and the heave events, caber toss, weight for distance, etc. In the past five to six years we’ve noticed a real decline in the attendance and ticket sales.

I’m wondering if this is something other events are seeing across the US? Obviously, fundraising is taking a bigger part of our time. Since we’re so specialized do you think we need to focus our efforts and where would we look for Sponsors/ Donors, etc.?

— Broke with a Brogue


Dear Broke:

I have two observations that will be interesting to you. The first is that special events have made a real comeback since 9/11. For several years prior to that, organizations were finding that their events took more and more work to bring in the same amount of money. Many consultants (including me) advised organizations to move to other strategies and spend less energy on events. However, after 9/11 people wanted to find gatherings of like-minded souls, and many events did better than they had in years. At the same time, events are a huge amount of work, and many organizations have gone to putting on their major signature events every other year, which is something you may want to consider.

The second observation is that events do wear out. Often we find that events have a lifespan of ten years or so, and then they start getting smaller or have a harder time attracting an audience. The reason is obvious: all the people who were interested have gone, and some have gone more than once. The event is no longer interesting, and a new audience has not been created. It is good to know when to let an event go and create something else in its place. (For more on this topic, see “When Fundraising Strategies Wear Out,”

Your event, at 53 years old, is a real record breaker. You have attracted at least two generations of people: some people must have grown up with this event. Can you attract a third generation? It is hard to say. You will want to do some kind of survey of your current attendees and, if you can, of some regulars who have dropped off. What would attract them back? Is price an issue? Do they need lessons in how to play some of these games? Would they be interested if it were an international games festival, with games from around the world?

Finally, to attract sponsors, you are going to have to show that your audience is growing in some way. You should be able to save this event, but it may have to look different from what it has been over these years.

Good luck!

-Kim Klein