Sunday, September 23, 2012

What the Special Event or Events Fundraising Method Is, and How It Works

Half of my official job duties was administration of special events when I first began working in fundraising for the now defunct Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County (MSAKC).  (In late 2008 its board of directors voted to roll the MSAKC into the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Seattle office's programs.  This decision ended a local nonprofit that had successfully provided direct services to Seattle-area people with MS and their loved ones for more than fifty years.)

A special event is a fundraising method that nonprofit organizations use to do several things at once.  It is an event or happening that should be enticing to the general public in order to acquire the most attendees or participants possible (and thereby both encourage the largest possible number of people among the general public to know about the nonprofit and to also participate and to give).  The event allows the nonprofit to raise funds.  The event is an opportunity for the organization to market its mission, achievements, and current programs and goals to the general public and increase its public relations.  A special event, too, should engender participants' genuine appreciation for the organization's work and its cause but too - they should feel good about having participated and frankly should genuinely enjoy themselves.  This, in part is how an organization retains dedicated attendees that participate year after year.

 The special event must be repeated once it is started.  It will typically not break even (expenses to put it on compared to amount raised) until approximately year three of conducting it consistently and will probably not make a profit until year four (but this can vary depending on the event's popularity or interest in it, the event's community, the attendees, and the location).  This is the case for almost any nonprofit and for any type of special event.  In other words, the loss in the initial two years of holding it must be expected and built into the organization's fundraising plan or development plan.

The special event raises more and more money each year it is held because it should retain past participants (at least 50% to 60% of them, year to year) and also bring new attendees each year.  It can either grow in number of attendees or participants, or the cost to attend might increase (if that is a cost effective choice to make and realistic), or sponsors may increase how much they pay for of the event as the event's popularity or notoriety grows over the years thereby lessening the amount the organization, itself, pays to hold the event year after year.  Ideally, all three of these things occur! 

Often, participants must register or buy tickets to attend, sometimes they raise funds in order to participate or invite colleagues or friends to join them at their table for dinner, etc. and then they actually attend the event.  None of these steps should be convoluted, difficult to conduct or submit/return to the organization, or annoying to those who sponsor the participant or come as guests with the participant to the event.  Customer service, at every stage of their experience with the nonprofit and its special event, provided to the participants and their donors, sponsors, or guests should be of the utmost priority, always - in order that attendees not only want to participate next year again, but so do those who hear about the event from them but have not yet participated, themselves.  This is the other part that ensures more participants return to attend year after year.  This may seem "obvious" but never assume that your organization's volunteers and staff know this or know how to be excellent at customer service.  Instead arm them with each and all with knowledge and train them.

[Warning: This paragraph's information is not to be taken in lieu of understanding all of your organization's overseeing governments' laws and rules about special event fees and donations and how to collect, account for, and report them.  Ask your organization's Certified Public Accountant for all of the pertinent information.] Participants will ask what their tax deductible contribution amount is, after paying to attend your event (and will ask for a receipt).  The IRS allows for the contribution (or deductible amount from their taxes) to be the difference between the cost of their attendance/and or participation minus the actual expenses to the nonprofit for everything they pay for that they will get at the event.  In other words, if we work for an organization providing a golf tournament and we charge golfers $250 per person to play in the tournament this is the cost of their participation or attendance.  We determine that the actual cost per person who golfs, at the event this year, comes to $150 (i.e. the golf course is charging our nonprofit $100 per player to hold the event at that golf course this year, and their food and beverages costs being charged to us for the entire event is $50 per player (i.e. for drinks and light appetizers during the tournament, and then a barbecue dinner with wine or beer afterward)) and there are no other direct costs to the nonprofit for that attendee, then the attendee is donating to the organization that remaining or additional $100 charged to him or her to participate.  The math is the total cost to the attendee less the actual costs for everything they will get at the event (that the organization pays for) is the contribution amount (in this example, $250 - $150 = $100).  That $100 is the tax free donation the organization is raising on top of the costs it is passing on to the participant in the participant's registration fee.  This $100 (in this example, or the difference between attendance fee and actual costs) is the amount allowed as a deduction to whomever pays for the attendee's participation.  If the golfer's employer pays for their registration then the employer gets the tax deduction.  If the golfer, him- or herself pays for it then they get the tax deduction (as long as their employer doesn't reimburse them because then the employer would being paying the donation and get the tax deduction).


The MSAKC held approximately four or five special events a year (and this was only part of the organization's total fundraising effort each year).  Two events were usually formal dinners.  One was a 'meet the author' event where a renowned author spoke at a formal dinner and the later answered questions and signed his or her book.  The other was usually an executive level (board members) dinner with some major donors, active volunteers, and key staff attending, as well and was sponsored by one of the major multiple sclerosis medication's pharmaceutical firms.  The other two events were sporting events.  One was an annual rollerblading race (around one of Seattle's scenic bodies of water in the summer) and the other was an annual golf tournament hosted by and entirely attended by professionals in various related industries to the construction industry in Seattle and her suburbs.

Special events require specific advanced planning in order for them to go off without a hitch.  Some nonprofits choose to hire special event planning firms or consultants to plan and/or implement their special events.  A nonprofit can hire a consultant (and this, of course, is an additional expense to the organization) but it is not necessary that a nonprofit hire an outside expert to plan and/or conduct its special event.  In fact, more money is saved if a nonprofit plans, implements, and conducts its own special events.  They become experts on how to do it.  Too, they create and then maintain the relationships directly with vendors, sponsors, and donors specific to the event over the years.  This is always invaluable to any nonprofit.  A direct relationship can (and often does) lead to: donor retention and dedication, participant retention (because of ease of attending and consistent professionalism and customer service in registering and actual participation), increased sponsor involvement (anything from sponsor's employees becoming chairs of the special event's planning committee to increased sponsorship contributions, and more marketing of the event within their corporate marketing, etc.), and vendors decreasing their fees to possibly even donating their products or services out of loyalty and support to the organization, its cause, and the popularity of the event (often, for example, in exchange for their logo being included in the event brochure, or on marketing or advertising for the event).  The involvement for sponsors usually has a lot to do with their own firm's marketing goals, but too, they wish to be seen as members of the community that contribute and give back.  Once they come to know your organization (especially if they work with the same volunteers or staff each year to help put the event on) getting their involvement and increasing how much they contribute is easy for them and your nonprofit year to year.

Special events should be planned out well in advance of their being implemented and then held.  It varies, but generally you will want to be planning out a never before held new special event at least a year and a half before the actual event's plan will be implemented (and this is before its held or conducted).  For a special event that has been held year to year, one may only need to begin planning for this year's version six months before marketing and then registration begins.  This too will vary depending on how experienced the committee chair is with the event, how well the event has been conducted in the recent past, and so on. The special event should have its own committee (ideally chaired by someone directly involved with the industry or issue the event pertains to so that they can easily call on colleagues and friends, etc. who will actually attend).  The committee should work well with the executive director and development or fundraising office (volunteers or staff) in order to plan and implement the special event.  Usually the committee conducts high level planning and operations (which leaders in the community will be asked to attend or get involved as sponsors or major donors; or the event is moving to a new larger venue this year and the committee selects it) but specifics are planned and administered by the nonprofit's fundraising staff or committee (i.e.booking the event location, acquiring the mid to lower range sponsors, registering participants, planning and ordering the brochures and marketing materials, etc.).

The special event must have clear and compelling (enticing, interesting, fun) marketing and public relations: made public WELL IN ADVANCE of the event and then ongoing until the day of the event, introducing the event, inviting the general public, and clearly explaining the when, where, who, how much, how, and why of the event.  Do not create an event that allows the organization to advertise it for only a week or two before registration begins or before the event itself.  That is not enough time to promote the event (which is part of what marketing and public relations does) but too, it isn't enough notice for people to squeeze something new into their social calendars.  Provide them with at least a month's notice of an event's date and details.  It seems like I'm overstating the obvious but you do not know how many professionally held events I've read about in which the organization simply directs the public interested in attending to some website to get the basic information!  A website address is not information in and of itself!  Read my last sentence, again.  A website can provide information (and should) but asking someone who hears about your event to then go to a website after hearing about it is foolish.  The public should not have to go somewhere (like a website) to get the basic information about your event, though, EVER.  You have their attention when they read or hear about your event, right then.  You should provide the when, where, who, how, how much, and why in every public relations and marketing piece pertaining to the event.  Never ask someone in the general public to go elsewhere, after you get their attention, for information.  Give it clearly and accurately to them, in the moment, right then and there, everywhere you discuss or advertise the event.  A website is fine for registration or additionally providing basic information but the front line is the second, the moment you have the general public's attention and that's when they see anything about the event like when they read the newspaper, see an ad in a local magazine, listen to local radio, see a poster in their local restaurant's waiting room, get your nonprofit's latest e-mail, get your newsletter, or go to your organization's website, etc.  Always give all of the basic information along with even the slightest mention of the event, itself.

The special event's plan clarifies for everyone involved the who, what, when, where, how, and why of each step in implementing and conducting the event including specific tasks, benchmarks, the entire timeline, the budget, intended outcomes, etc.  Too, each special event should ask participants to review the event in a quick survey and ask for suggestions or where improvements are needed.  The special event's entire team should do a Review and Wrap Up meeting after each iteration of the special event to review participants' feedback and suggestions, determine what worked, what needs improvement, what the improvements will be, how much was spent, how much was raised, etc.  This information should be used, year to year, to improve the entire special event and to increase participation and the participants' ease of attending and enjoyment of the event.

What should the brand new special event be that a nonprofit commits to beginning and then holding annually, thereafter?  It depends.  In the third paragraph, above, I stated about how many years it takes for a nonprofit to either break even or begin to regularly make money from the new event and that "...this can vary depending on the event's popularity or interest in it, the event's community, the attendees, and the location."  This has everything to do with what special event a nonprofit selects to implement.  For example, if a nonprofit chooses to do a special event that is being done to death, already in its town or community; or if it selects a special event that is not in line with local interests or taste; or if a nonprofit picks a special event that is too pricey to attend for its region's locals, or is too difficult to get to in order to participate, etc. then the organization's gotten in the way of its own opportunity and goal.  A nonprofit must think through and even do blind polls or community feedback gathering to determine what will work best.  Remember, your organization is committing to this new special event for probably at least five years to come if not more.  Some successfully special events have been held for more than fifty years.  You'll want to consider what is possible (scale and continuing to scale upward) for your organization to do, that too entices the most participation from the general public, for the least cost to the organization, that results in the most valuable experience for the participant.  Take time to study and determine findings because it will help your organization go in the right direction for success, but too, cost less over time, and be more popular and interesting or fun.

Bottom line - the special event is a fundraising method but it's more than that.  It's truly an opportunity for the nonprofit, the beneficiaries of its work, and the general public.  A well planned and executed special event: entices the general public because it sounds fun or interesting; is easy for the general public to attend because everything required of them is clear, easy, and quick to do; both provides them with the clear message that by participating they are partnering in your nonprofit's mission success but also doesn't hammer them over the head about the organization's cause or needs; engenders the general public's care and support of the organization and its work; and raises funds.  The event should be so fun that they participant wants to attend again next year and tells a friend or two to do the same.  A special event allows the organization to interact with the general public directly (instead of only with its clientele, volunteers, and donors).  Volunteers and staff should enjoy themselves, but too, know their responsibilities and job, and how to provide excellent customer service at each step.  Well conducted special events are an opportunity for everyone to win.

There are many reputable resources that can help a nonprofit's leadership learn how to best plan and successfully implement and raise funds from special events.  If you look in my Amazon  Bookstore, above, in the middle right of this blog - you can search for books explaining the 'how to's' of special event in detail.  The books in my E Store are hand selected.  I picked each for its reputation in the nonprofit sector.  You can't go wrong.  If you locate a book you'd like to use there, but your organization can't afford to buy it - check with your local public library to see if they have it.  If they don't ask about them either acquiring it or if you can get it through inter-library loan.  One of these options usually allows the public to get a book the library doesn't have.

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