The Life Cycle of Special Events

Dear Kim,

We are a 50-year-old social service agency and we have done a gala wine tasting event for the past 20 years. For many years, it was really fun and was the place to “see and be seen” in our community. About 300 people always came and we netted more every year. Our highest net was $75,000.

We had a strong volunteer group who did most of the work and a list of sponsors who said yes almost without being asked. But in the last 5-7 years, several things have happened which have depressed our income and the fun of the event, and almost all of them have to do with aging. Our main volunteers retired and many of the regular attenders started saying they don’t like to go out at night, or their doctor has said they can’t drink wine or they can’t hear and the event is unpleasant for that reason. Needless to say, some have died. Last year, staff did most of the work on the event and we netted about $25,000. About 200 people came but that’s because we let staff invite five friends for free so we only had 120ish paying customers.  

My question is this: is the event worth it? Should we change it up entirely? People have a lot of loyalty to this event but it seems to be slowly dying.

~The Bloom is Off the Rose

Dear Off the Rose,

You are describing a nationwide phenomenon: popular signature events that had their heyday in the late 1990s or at the turn of the century are now losing steam. The people who invented, attended and loved these events are now older and these events are not as appealing or as accessible. The event did not attract a younger crowd and now they slowly shrink and wither unless they are reinvented or put out of their misery.

Generally special events take 3-5 hears to hit their stride and they often have a short lifespan: 8-10 years is a good run for an event. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Most people who would think the event sounds fun have attended, and sometimes several times. But after awhile, it is more of the same, even for the die-hards. If the event is very successful, chances are several other organizations in town are having a similar event and so your audience is being dispersed among competing organizations. Finally, what seems fun and novel to one generation of event goers will not seem so to another.

You have had a good run with this event, and even today a $25,000 net is not shabby. Clearly the event does need retooled, though. Having to give away tickets will only fill the house a few times and cuts into your profit. In looking at whether and how to re-think the event, you need to consider what this event does for you that no other fundraising strategy does and make sure your refurbished event does that.

Your old event clearly built community and attracted people to it who wanted to be part of a strong community. (You should still approach these people for donations and planned giving opportunities.) As you make changes to this event, consider:

  • What kind of community do you need to build now?
  • What are the demographics of the people you want to attract to your organization and will an event attract them?
  • What kind of event will those people want to attend?

If what you mostly want from an event is money, then consider using a crowdfunding campaign. Many organizations have replaced their events with these. Even small organizations can raise $15,000-$25,000 using any of the dozens of platforms available if you have a large enough network.

With some rare exceptions, events aren’t forever. What people want, what they think is fun, what they will pay, what else they can do with their money and time, is constantly shifting.

Best wishes,

~Kim Klein