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Mantra for special events: Always make money

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Carol M. Shaw

Carol M. Shaw

Carol M. Shaw

There is only one reason to stage a special event, and that’s to raise money for a nonprofit the first time, every time. Too many organizations ignore that single objective and it costs them.

Special events can net significant revenue with the right vision, goals and planning. But all too often enthusiastic organizers feel that, no matter what the financial outcome, their gala or wine-tasting or golf tournament is worth it. They cheerfully assert that their special event is great public relations, cultivates donors, provides social cache and/or is really fun.

That may all be true, but consider this. A nonprofit can buy a really effective PR campaign with the same money it takes to stage most special events. Professionally produced advertising will garner a lot more name-recognition and visibility than a single event ever can.

Perhaps more importantly, fundraising staffers will have much more time to pursue projects that reliably bring in revenue. Together employees and volunteers work at least 1,000 hours to prepare and produce a special event, so redirecting their efforts may raise more money.

So why stage a special event at all? To raise money for a nonprofit the first time, every time.

That should become the mantra for organizations, but it may require a philosophical shift.

Many fundraisers and volunteers have a deeply ingrained belief that a special event is worthy even if it only produces name recognition. They consider an event successful even though, financially speaking, it didn’t do well. This is especially true the first year or two a new event is held.

That approach unnecessarily shortchanges the nonprofit and its mission.

Turning every special event into a sure moneymaker isn’t difficult if everyone focuses on the same goal: raising the most money possible.

First, make sure there are enough volunteers who are passionate about the group’s mission and are dedicated to its success. Give them and the staff a clear vision and set parameters so they can work together effectively.

Next, realistically evaluate the financial potential of each special event. Calculate expenses, including staff time, and draft a “sales” plan. Identify potential sponsors and quantify attendance to estimate the amount of revenue that can be raised. Then look at the bottom line.

Every event must bring in at least $300 income for every $100 of expense or it isn’t worth it. Apply this test to both new and traditional projects, and if any of one of them fails to meet that standard, improve it or drop it.

Even if a plan shows the $3-to-$1 ratio can be achieved, proceed with caution. Set “drop dead” dates such as when the invitations go to print. If there aren’t enough volunteers and sales going by then, cancel the event. The loss in cash and publicity will be minimal compared to the drain of an unproductive event.

The key to staying on-target is to have the right people in place. The chair and committee members must be able and willing to motivate themselves and other volunteers to sell sponsorships, secure in-kind services and sell tickets.

Their relationships are what pay off in the end, because people give to people, not to organizations.

Focusing on the single goal – to make money every time – can assure that special events are well worth the effort.


Carol M. Shaw is a field director for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Bethesda, Md. She has over 25 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management.

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