Evaluating the Special Event Fundraiser

The Special Event Fundraiser has long been a pet peeve of ours.  It seems that every organization conducts their share of special events, unfortunately, too many seem to take on a life of their own and are now divorced from any rational strategy to truly advance the organization.  The March issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy has some thought-provoking articles about getting smarter in how we raise money.  In our view, special events can be wonderful tools to accomplish certain objectives, but they are rarely a singular solution.  Instead, we feel they fit into a more comprehensive strategy of development tactics.  This article describes how one organization carefully analyzed the true cost of their special event, and how they arrived at a data-driven conclusion. We encourage more organizations to follow this example of how to raise more money.

special eventA Tool to Measure the Real Success of a Fundraising Event

About five years ago, Friends of the Rainforest, a small St. Louis-area charity, set out to put on its first major fundraising event. Though board members had hosted intimate gatherings in their homes, the organization this time aimed to draw hundreds of people to a forum featuring a prominent local botanist.

Organizers had several goals: They expected to raise money through an event auction and a soft ask, but more important, they wanted to cultivate newcomers to the organization as supporters.

Kate Danna, then a member of the group’s board, assembled an event “audit” to measure costs and expenses as well as the awareness the event raised. “Awareness is hard to calculate,” Ms. Danna says. “What any organization has to do is define indices of awareness: How many people attend? How many new donors come? Of the new donors, how many become continuing donors?”

Ms. Danna’s audit grew to seven pages, with a summary of objectives and results, along with more than 80 data points measuring event promotion, registration, follow-up with potential new donors, and more.

To quantify staff time, the organization (then called Friends of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest) created a Google document in which staff members logged their hours spent preparing for the event. Ms. Danna then assigned a cost-per-hour for each staff member based on salary.

Ultimately, the event produced top-line numbers that suggested remarkable success. It netted more than $17,000 — well above the $10,000 goal — with more than half the dollars coming from 74 new donors. The organization also added nearly 300 new names to its database of potential donors.

Hundreds of Hours of Staff Time

But the audit clearly showed areas that needed improvement. The group fell short, for instance, of its goal of securing underwriting to cover the full cost. Also, not all board members brought to the event their quota of 10 new potential supporters. Perhaps worst: Three staffers logged more than 643 hours preparing for the event. The cost of that staff time, according to the event audit: $18,619, which is more than the event netted.

The organization hosted the event again the next year, with tweaks. But ultimately, it decided to return to small gatherings, as the burden and cost of organizing such a large event proved too great.

“Events can be a huge time-suck,” says Ms. Danna.

Ms. Danna now works as a consultant for nonprofits and frequently uses the event auditwith clients. Events offer many benefits, she says, including the opportunity of fundraising involvement for board members who might be skittish about making direct asks. But development officers should make sure that every event advances their nonprofit’s major-gift efforts.

“For some organizations, events are a great way to raise money,” she says. “And a great majority serve a lot of good purposes. But the high-level concern for any event is: What does it do for our major donors? How can it be used to steward and cultivate major donors?”