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Why your event is worth more than just the money it raises

Posted February 17, 2015 by Timi Paccioretti

Events are a key component of many nonprofit organizations’ annual development plans. The most successful events are strategic in nature and focus on building community to advance an organization’s mission. At this year’s NCDC Conference, Chris Bicknell and Timi Paccioretti from Little Green Light and Madelyn Thompson from the University of Illinois at Chicago shared the building blocks for creating successful events and offered some suggestions for how data can make your next event more strategic and more successful.

For every dollar raised through special events, more than $0.50 goes to putting on the event.1 For anyone involved in managing a special event for a nonprofit, the costs are often compounded by the amount of staff and volunteer time needed to make the event successful. Because events are expensive and labor-intensive, isn’t it important to ensure they’re bringing more value to your organization than just revenue?

How can you ensure your special event is about more than just “raising money”? We suggest leveraging it by focusing on one or more of these strategic objectives:

  • Increase awareness of your organization’s mission and engage new volunteers from a different social circle in your community
  • Introduce yourself to a new set of prospective donors from the different social circle, and cultivate new prospective donors for your individual giving annual campaign
  • Steward existing donors by providing them with an enchanted evening awash in mission-focus
  • Highlight your agency’s brand in the media marketplace

Planning your special event

Hundreds of great ideas about different types of events are waiting for you out there (check out Pinterest, for example). As you’re deciding what will work best for your nonprofit, consider events that will:

  • Shine a light on your organization’s mission
  • Match your organization’s capacity
  • Allow you to showcase recent accomplishments
  • Be fiscally responsible
  • Give you opportunities to thank your community
  • And, most importantly, be fun and exciting!

The key to the most successful event is developing a clear plan that takes into consideration the needs of your target audience. The plan should include a comprehensive budget with clearly defined projected revenue and expenses, should be realistic in terms of your organization’s capacity and resources, and should adhere to a comprehensive calendar of tasks to ensure you stay on track. Planning tips include:

  1. Hold a maximum of one or two signature events per year that are part of your organization’s brand.
  2. Schedule your annual events to occur around the same time every year to develop a following. (You can expect 60 percent of attendees to return next year.)
  3. Provide leadership opportunities for volunteers, but assign a staff member to direct their efforts.
  4. Allow ample time for planning; 9 to 12 months is typically a reasonable guideline for a special event.
  5. Develop a strong volunteer committee, clearly define expectations and responsibilities, and be sure that the volunteers you recruit have the skills and interest to perform their assigned role.
  6. Communicate and engage with your organization staff to ensure proper facility needs, liabilities, and so on are in place.

Take into consideration how events will fit into your overall development plan and your goals for the year (i.e., engage more alumni, increase leadership-level donors, recapture lapsed donors, etc.). To make sure the event will engage your intended audience, use your data and committee to thoughtfully identify prospective attendees who fit within that target audience. And be sure you inject mission-focused activities to cultivate new donors and steward current ones.

Creating a comprehensive budget

Designing and adhering to a budget for your event is essential to its success. When creating your budget, incorporate both attendance and non-attendance-dependent revenue streams. Be realistic in your projected revenue; expense items and ensure those projections accurately reflect your organization’s overall goal for net profit. Be on the lookout for in-kind donations, and solicit sponsorships to help you offset your expenses.

Corporate and/or philanthropic sponsorships can be an integral part of a successful event. Madelyn Thompson, Director of Corporate and Community Relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Engineering, has much experience in securing sponsors for some of Chicago’s largest and well-known events. Here are some tips for getting a strong sponsorship program off the ground:

  • Foundations and corporate foundations have long lead times, so start well in advance (9 to 12 months) of the date of your event.
  • Approach funders (corporations, foundations, and even individuals) that tie into your mission. For example, if you are a conservation-based org, consider reaching out to organizations such as REI, LL Bean, Walton Family Foundation, etc., who share an interest in your mission.
  • Know what motivates your individual and corporate donors. Corporations will generally want something in exchange for their contribution, typically visibility and opportunities for their employees to volunteer for the non-profit, whereas foundations may or may not want visibility.
  • Consider starting a corporate giving group (e.g., with an annual contribution of “$x” you’ll receive “y” perks from the organization. The perks will depend on what your organization has to offer and should be exclusive and/or special to that level of giving.

Using data to drive strategy and success

Want to ensure maximum attendance at your event? Chris Bicknell, President of Little Green Light, suggests performing a data review well ahead of mailing your first invitation to ensure maximum success. Consider employing a data audit before your next event:

  • Donor and invitee name audit – Ensure you have the data to properly address constituents and produce accurate name tags/placards.
  • Address information audit – Do you want to produce a list of constituents who are within a certain mile search by radius of your organization or plan to want to mail a single invitation to many members of a household? You’ll need good, clean addresses and the technology to make this work.
  • Email and phone audit – Do you plan to send follow-up emails or make personal calls after the invitation mails? Be aware of the type of info you need and its reliability so you can properly follow up.

Once the event is over, data can play a key role in ensuring the success of next year’s event. Consider implementing some of the following data strategies:

  • Maintain a folder or binder of sample invites, letters, thank you’s, marketing materials, etc. that can be referenced the next time you run the event
  • Yearly events make it easier to recapture attendees, donors, sponsors, etc. Acquiring new ones takes a lot more time and energy! Documenting them in your donor management system will make planning next year’s event even more efficient
  • Hold a post-event review with staff/volunteers/attendees, and document what worked and what didn’t while it’s still fresh in their minds (don’t forget to thank them for all their hard work, too!)

Remember, strategic events that are well-planned and successfully executed can be a win-win for you and your organization’s supporters! Be sure to allocate the time necessary for planning and follow-up and you, too, will reap the rewards by not only generating much-needed revenue for your organization but also helping to advance and promote your organization’s mission.

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