When evaluating different types of fundraising strategies that are part of a development plan, special events are often viewed as necessary evils that must be tolerated. These events are seen as intensive activities that require lots of time and money (direct and indirect) even though they don’t raise a lot of funds. But what if these “red-headed step children” could help you gain grant funds and other resources as well?
I have been in charge of many types of events over the years—from recognition events to general fundraisers. Participants numbered in the hundreds depending on the event. And even though the events were not all fundraisers, each one of them did raise cash for my organizations.
I will outline several of them to demonstrate the ways in which my organizations approached several of the events to garner support of all kinds.
Humane Society Halloween Event
Having been part of their community involvement plan for many years, this event had become a staple in the organization’s overall community relations plan. The volunteers and staff approached this event simply as an event that would raise money for the animals. To do this, they asked local restaurants to donate food for the event, as well as asking others to donate items to be auctioned. The program department was in charge of the event each year—and they did a masterful job. However, because they had taken ownership of the event, there had been no involvement by the development side of the organization. Thus it was not a surprise that when I met with them to discuss the ways in which they needed to evolve the event, program department staff members were resistant.
Meeting with the program staff I suggested several topics for discussion. I felt that they needed to raise ticket prices, host a special reception for event sponsors and large ticket purchasers, and create a volunteer committee to help plan and implement the event.
When I met with the board president, I explained how development staff could expand and build upon the current event to make it even better. The first change that I proposed was the direct involvement of a key corporate contact. This particular contact was the head of his foundation and just happened to be a vice president of the local bank that managed the board president’s very large account.
After some convincing, the board president, a program department staff member, and I visited with this key board member. We asked him to help facilitate his bank’s sponsorship of the Halloween event.
We explained the benefits of sponsoring the event. First, the bank’s sponsorship would ensure that all the event’s costs would be covered, thus allowing every penny people paid for the tickets to be used for the benefit of the animals. Secondly, with all funds raised going directly to program services, we believed that people would be encouraged to pay an elevated ticket price. Additionally, the bank would benefit from copious amounts of public publicity and recognition from pre-event communications, as well as during and after the event. And of course, we described specific public exposures that would result from their sponsorship. They were SOLD! We got the sponsorship.
I’m happy to report that that the new strategies facilitated the event doubling its revenue. Having succeeded in this step, I helped them take the next step which was to cultivate this bank’s vice president further to join the board which he did. As a result, his foundation gave the organization a $25,000 grant for the much-needed infrastructure repair and he brought on another board member who gave the organization an additional $10,000 grant for operating funds.
Moreover, the newly formed volunteer committee continues to help with event planning and implementation. Composed of many very socially prominent young people, committee members not only entice their friends to buy tickets, but they have also connected the organization with the Junior League which made a $2,500 grant award.
In just one year, the organization secured $37,500 in new grant funds as a direct result of a special event where cultivation was the new strategy employed. It’s amazing what a little elbow grease and flattery can get you.
Day of Caring
The Day of Caring is one of local United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area’s annual events that focus on getting corporate donors and individual volunteers to contribute their services for one-day repair, renovation, and client interaction projects in United Way agencies and public schools. The event was started as a way to sustain corporate support and engender community involvement.
This event takes a year to plan since the project assessment and volunteer coordination are so intensive. However, it is a prime opportunity for us to involve these corporate team captains in the planning and implementation of the event. Already popular and generating generous donations (both monetary and in-kind), participants wanted to do more for the community. As a result of participant involvement and advocacy, the United Way received more than $200,000 in new grants over three years to allocate to its agencies.
Offering plenty of recognition, we found that the corporations were more interested in the ongoing support of the agencies they had experienced first-hand. Thus, we now emphasize in our Day of Caring promotional materials the way their dollars can keep working for the community year-round. In addition, we used this event as a way to involve the team members in planning the campaign and other non-fundraising events.
Halloween Event—United Way of Brown County
The United Way in Brown County was small even though it was surrounded by some of the largest business concerns in the Midwest (including Procter and Gamble, James River, Shade Printing, Fort Howard, and American Foods). Annually, the community held a Halloween event at Heritage Hill state park. Called simply Halloween at Heritage Hill, it focused on providing the community’s kids with a safe, contained environment for trick or treating. Though Heritage Hill provided the venue, the United Way was responsible for the lion’s share of the planning and execution. They recruited a volunteer committee, produced the bags for the event, and approached the community and local corporations to fund the event’s expenses. Sadly, no one in the group had previously considered how this event could produce more income for the United Way.
Primarily advocating for the children of the community, there were some people that felt that turning it into a fundraising event would make us seem mercenary. However, I argued that producing revenue (not at the cost of the families) would be in the best interest of children throughout the Brown County area. I pointed out that we should even brand the event as one hosted by United Way—renaming it “Trick or Treat down United Way Street.” The group agreed and so we changed the name. Note that Heritage Hill still received some of the money raised, but the publicity was much more heavily weighted towards the United Way. This focus on United Way gave us more leverage to approach sponsors that I could cultivate for future funding as well.
As part of the event, we started dropping off the free trick or treat bags (used as the entry tickets) to member agency sites so that people would make the connection with the United Way. It not only gave the community a personal connection to the agency, some of the sponsors personally delivered the bags to agencies serving children. Furthermore, the committee that coordinated the event was made up of mostly business people so they were “infected” with the United Way spirit (pardon the pun). These connections wound up generating grant awards to agencies that sponsors and committee members visited—a $5,000 grant for one and a $2,500 grant for another. Additionally, several of the committee members have joined the board over the years and generated even more grants for United Way.
I’ve presented a simplified version of the special event strategies I use to generate new grant funds. I share this in the hopes that you will see that special events can be a real revenue-generating engine if planned correctly. The keys points that you’ll need to remember are as follows:
- Involve a committee made up of key community members.
- Think strategically about recognition and tailor it to the people you want to cultivate.
- Keep planting the idea of future funding in their heads by including subliminal messages in your promotional and verbal communications with them.
- Be sure they have a GREAT experience when they are involved.
This formula has worked for me and others. It can work for you too!