Using Special Events Selectively

Dear Kim:

I am the Marketing and Outreach Manager of a non-profit community health clinic, and like many of us in the business, I wear multiple hats. The newest one is staff fundraiser/event coordinator. Although our board has a fundraising committee, this is ‘new turf’ for many of them: they each have their own day jobs, are reluctant to “ask” for donations, and generally look to me to organize everything. My staff is focused on conducting grant-funded outreach activities, so I do most of the work on my own. Last year I arranged Save the Date & formal invitation mailings, tracked all expenses, secured all Silent Auction gifts, Live Auction gifts, and managed a gift raffle as well. In addition, I wrote to several local restaurants to donate light refreshments, and managed volunteer staff from our clinic team to carry out the different tasks: ticket sales, Will Call list, online purchases, you name it. I hired a part-time intern, but was burnt out to near exhaustion. Waaay to much for one person. I want to avoid the mistakes I made last year.

Any suggestions on who needs to do what for a successful fundraising ‘team’? Please help!


At Wits End

Dear End Wit:

The solution to your problem has very little to do with creating a fundraising team, because you did that, and from the number of tasks they took on, it would seem that you did it well. The problem is the strategy that you chose, or that was chosen for you: the special event. Special events are a time-sewer! If you took the amount of time you put into this event, and added the time of your clinic volunteers and whatever pitiful amount of work the board did, and applied that same amount of time to a major gifts campaign or a personal letter campaign inviting people to become donors, or any number of other strategies, you would have raised more money, and you would not be as burned out at the end.

Let me review what special events are for: they raise the visibility of your organization or project, they get publicity for your organization at a particular time, they help train volunteers in how to raise money, they are fun, they build community, they are a way to thank people, they bring people together: all good things, but they are not designed to raise money, and when they do it is because so much else is in place in the organization that the event is a logical strategy to augment all the other strategies already being used. Raising money is not the goal of events—in fact short of doing nothing, I can’t think of any strategy less useful for strictly raising money than a special event.

You cannot be in charge of Marketing and Outreach and Fundraising, and be the events coordinator! No one is that talented and no one has that kind of time. Organizations that put on events that require a high degree of coordination (conferences, elaborate dinner/dances, awards banquets and the like) should hire a professional event planner. Good event planners are worth their weight in titanium. This is not a job for a staff person who has lots of other responsibilities. Organizations that put on events that are not that elaborate can be managed and run ENTIRELY by volunteers. Anyone who has the skills needed to serve 12 people dinner at the same time, or manage a surprise party for a very popular person just turning 40, or plan a baby shower, has the skill to handle an event. Get four or five of those people on the event committee and you are good to go. Paid staff can sit in on the occasional meeting, can provide permission to buy this or that, but paid staff should not be part of running a special event.

Bottom line: draw some boundaries around your job, and start using fundraising strategies for what they are designed to do.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein