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Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Nonprofit Special Events

Recently, I attended a local arts organization’s annual fundraiser. The night started with a fun cocktail party which included an inspiring and gracious speech by the board chair, followed by a wonderful dinner.  It made me think about what makes a successful event, why events miss the mark, and what fundraising alternatives could be more effective.

I’ve been on a lot of nonprofit boards and worked on various event committees: if you’ve ever helped run a fundraiser, you know how much work goes into one. Create a committee of volunteers, choose a date, choose a theme, perhaps find an honoree -- and that’s just to get the ball rolling. You also need to develop a budget, create and send invitations, find a caterer: I’m making myself crazy just thinking about it! And hard work does not guarantee a successful event.

The event I attended happens every year on the last Saturday in January. Having a date that people can anticipate is a big step towards retaining return guests and weaving your organization into the community’s fabric. We have a few events like that in Columbia County: the land conservancy’s signature event is on Memorial Day weekend; the hospital’s biggest fundraiser is the first Saturday in June; and a historical society’s blueberry festival is always the last Sunday in July. A challenge to sustaining an event’s success is recognizing what works at the event: if the underlying, basic structure of the event is firm, any improvisation should be done without disturbing the foundation, while keeping the experience fresh. A careful, post-event review of what worked and what might be tweaked going forward, is a best practice.

When an organization creates a tradition, people plan for it and they develop an attachment to the event. Also there’s likely less competition from other organizations on that date, and, let’s be honest, this is a competitive business.

Now, if you live in the Capital Region, you know that weather here is uncertain: it seems there’s a chance of snow nine months of the year! And, if it’s too warm for snow, there’s plenty of rain. This is one reason why an event underwriter is the most important component to your event’s success. If a few donors are willing to cover your expenses, you won’t be in the red even if Mother Nature or other unavoidable events conspire against you. It’s also really appealing to a guest if 100% of their ticket price goes toward your mission, not your caterer.

Now, I love an event as much as the next person: when my husband and I moved here, our social life revolved around fundraisers: they’re a fun way to meet people and get to know your community. But nothing beats a face to face solicitation. Parties are great and it’s always beneficial to have your organization equated with fun - regardless of your mission - but don’t kid yourself that it’s the most effective way to keep a nonprofit financially afloat. I’d rather have five individual meetings with people who are truly interested in my organization, than host a roomful of people who will never give another dime. You want sustained support.

Not all events are expected to be big money makers. Some are referred to as “friend raisers,” which - to me - is sometimes a euphemism for “I have no idea who might actually be interested in my organization.” If you go this route, you must have -- and

stick to -- a plan for following up with your guests, with the understanding that several people with absolutely no interest in your organization will happily attend your free party. If there’s no meaningful follow-up, you’ve wasted an awful lot of staff and volunteer time. The bottom line is that events take a lot of work. If you use volunteers, there’s only so much you can ask of them before they stop returning your calls. If you have staff, this takes away from their mission-related work.

So, enjoy your fundraising event, but don’t forget that that’s just one component of successful fund development. Make sure your attendees are thanked, and thanked again; make sure they walk away from the event knowing what your mission is; and make sure you cultivate individual donors who will be the lifeblood of your organization. Have fun and good luck!

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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