For nonprofit organizations, events can be opportunities to lure new supporters to the cause, gain media coverage and, of course, bring in much-needed cash.
Nonprofit events combine all the intensity of event planning-logistics, décor, catering, public relations-with the added pressure of having to parlay those elements into passion for a cause.
We asked industry pros for their tips and insight into creating nonprofit events that pay off.
Clarify Your Goal
Ensuring the success of your nonprofit event first requires determining what success even means.
"What’s the event’s purpose: Is this a friendraiser? Is it a fundraiser?" says Yodit Mesfin Johnson, director of business development at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, Inc. "Intentionality is really important in terms of best practices."
Jami Markle, CMP, donor relations manager at The Nature Conservancy, agrees.
"You need to identify your goals and objectives, hands down," she says. "[As an event planner], I’m very much-what kind of tangible, measureable results do we want to walk away with? Is it just smiles? What’s the point of doing this? You have to determine ahead of time how you’re going to measure the success of an event."
Focus On Relationships
Perennially cash-strapped nonprofits tend to hope each event will be a moneymaker, but many people need time to get to know an organization before they’ll write a check.
The Nature Conservancy frequently organizes events intended to provide current and potential supporters with distinctive experiences, from boat tours focused on bird migration to flyovers of land the conservancy is hoping to protect to luncheon lectures by the organization’s scientists.
"The way we build our donor pipeline, we constantly need to have new people introduced to our organization," Markle says. "It’s not about begging for money. Building relationships is the key for our events; that’s what’s going to get you the money."
Carol Rosenberg, director of the Jewish Senior Life Foundation, emphasizes professional invitations for her organization’s events, with a personal handwritten note to the recipient that indicates your interest in them attending.
Relationship-building, she says, extends to individuals who can provide powerful volunteering and support to your mission. For example, she says, Florine Mark, president and chair of The WW Group, agreed to host 100 Michigan retirees in her Florida home for a catered foundation event.
"You have to have connections, you have to know your community," Rosenberg says. "It’s making the relationships to the people who will enrich your organization."
Create An Experience
Many nonprofits tackle weighty topics such as poverty, domestic violence and homelessness. Effective events strike a balance between connecting attendees with the cause and ensuring they have a good time.
The Jewish Senior Life Foundation hosts about 10 events a year targeted toward different audiences who support quality of life for older adults. In April, the foundation is planning to screen a movie about a Holocaust survivor at the newly renovated Maple Theater in Birmingham, where guests will enjoy a reception with Israeli food before taking in the film.
"We’ve got these very serious subjects, and you have to soften the [experience for guests]," Rosenberg says.
Organizations should consider hosting on-site events that allow guests to experience their work firsthand, Mesfin Johnson says. She points to the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, which teaches boxing to at-risk Detroit youth and provides intensive academic tutoring. It held a small fundraiser in December at its gym on Saint Aubin Street. The 80 attendees met kids enrolled in the program, while enjoying a dinner cooked by prominent local chefs, led by Dave Mancini, owner of Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market.
Mancini says he's been impressed by the youth boxing program's work, so when he learned it was facing severe financial challenges, he persuaded several chef friends to pitch in and create the December event. Their contributions ensured the program took on no costs. The event came together in just a couple of weeks- and raised $22,000 for an organization with a $60,000 annual budget.
"The thing I love about Detroit is you can make a difference pretty easily," Mancini says. "There’s a lot of good energy among people down here; they like to see things happen. It’s all about having conversations with people and being open to people."
Know Your Audience
Creating a meaningful experience means knowing your guests.
As Rebecca Schlussel, vice president of Joe Cornell Entertainment, says, "Let’s not just serve a chicken dinner and hope people dance. Let’s figure out a way to cater this event to your audience."
Even the best ideas can go wrong if the audience isn’t at the center of those plans, she says. "It sounds amazing to have an ‘80s neon night disco party, but only if the people coming are in their 40s," Schlussel says. "I have transformed a ballroom and created an amazing ‘80s disco, and there’s been 60-year-olds and it wasn’t the right fit. I like to say, ‘Tell me about who you’re servicing. Tell me your mission so we can appeal to the audience.’"
Schlussel also serves on the board of ORT Michigan, which provides access to technology and other resources for the underemployed and unemployed. The organization draws a lot of support from women, and its upcoming annual fundraiser is going to feature drag queen bingo.
"It’s what’s new, it’s what hot and it’s going to be talked about for a year," Schlussel says. "If the appeal isn’t there, it’s hard to sell the ticket."
Don't Bore Your Guests
The No. 1 mistake nonprofits make at their events, Mesfin Johnson says, is "they talk too much-the talking head syndrome. There’s too much mission appeal. I’m at your event. You’ve already sold me."
No one ever got excited about a cause while being subjected to a longwinded program.
Yet, many nonprofits force attendees to listen to one organization administrator after another, or bring in a big-name speaker who talks for 45 minutes.
Programs should be short and focus on the people that benefit from the program, not the organization’s leadership.
"We love to hear from people who are engaged in the organization," Mesfin Johnson says. "Let someone else tell me how great you are, like constituents or other donors."
Mind Your Costs
Most nonprofit events aim, at the least, to not lose money. Even when the primary goal is relationship-building, few nonprofits can afford the staff and hard resources to create a money-losing event.
Nonetheless, the fundraising track record for nonprofit events is pretty dismal-most are lucky to break even.
Mancini first encountered the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program at a fundraising event at the Detroit Yacht Club. The event was lively and compelling, but it made no money because the venue costs were so high, says Jessica Hauser, the program's executive director.
"A lot of the profits we would have made went into food for our guests," Hauser says. By comparison, she says, the no-cost event at the organization’s own gym raised money and allowed staff to use its time for the kids.
"Be very smart about your expenses and don’t do an event just to do an event," she says. "They are very time-consuming and can be a huge cost."
Keeping costs low won't just lead to a bigger payoff- it can also spark creative event planning. Mesfin Johnson says nonprofits are moving away from big sit-down dinners, which tend to be stagnant and expensive. Instead, she says, she's seeing passed hors d’oeuvres or, like the boxing program, local celebrity chefs who donate their efforts.
"The local celebrity host, especially in this region because we’re so locally focused, that’s huge," she says.
House parties are also increasingly popular. The Women’s Caring Program, which provides scholarships for early childhood education, hosts a yearly strolling wine event at a high-end home in Grosse Pointe. And with all the focus on urban agriculture, garden parties have taken on new appeal: Growing Hope, an urban agriculture organization in Ypsilanti that, among other things, runs a hoophouse and offers youth-centered programming, hosted a dinner in its garden using food it had grown.
Don't Make It All About The Money
Even though the term "nonprofit" is often preceded by "cash-strapped," It’s shortsighted to see money raised at an event as the only measure of its success.
"Don’t do it if you don’t have a purpose, and the purpose should exceed fundraising," Mesfin Johnson says. "It should be about getting people more engaged in the work. Success for me comes later. How many likes did you get on your Facebook page? How many volunteers did you get? How many people are coming back for more?"
All nonprofits must look to their future, Schlussel says: "You need to appeal to the younger generation to keep a nonprofit in existence." And that younger generation is more likely to attend an event at a roller rink or bowling alley, or pony up $25 for a courtyard concert than $100 for a ballroom extravaganza. Your organization might not clear much money, but you’ve pulled in people who can grow with you- and will one day be able to write bigger checks.
Hauser says her organization's fundraiser netted three highly qualified tutors for its academic program, and response to its annual appeal letter included checks from event attendees for whom the event was their introduction to the program.
"Make sure you capture the people who attend so you can grow your donor base," Hauser says. "Pretty much everyone signed up for our mailing list. And several people have emailed, offering to be a part of the next event."
According to Markle, the exposure an event provides can help an organization catch the attention of potential supporters it might otherwise miss.
"There are markets here in Michigan, like southeast Michigan-these folks are going to different events every night of the week," she says. "If you’re not seen, they don’t know who you are. We’ll have a gala but we’ll often break even. It’s about talking to people, and then the follow-up."
Always Make Donors Feel Loved
Making donors feel appreciated is key to an organization’s success.
"The essential part of success is the thank you," says Mesfin Johnson. "I really do appreciate a handwritten thank-you note. Rather than spending a bunch of money on a printed invitation, I would spend money on thank you notes."
Markle says making donors feel appreciated is key to an organization’s success. "You meet halfway- how are our goals as an organization going to meet your passion for giving?" she says. "It’s donor intent. We do a lot of listening: What are you passionate about?"