If you are involved with a nonprofit organization, whether as a paid employee or volunteer, you understand the challenges of generating enough revenue to keep your organization afloat in tough economic times. Unfortunately, many sources of income like community grants, large corporate gifts and through umbrella organizations like United Way, are no longer as reliable as they used to be. And that’s why creating profitable special events is so important. These not only raise needed funds, but also create visibility and awareness, which in turn can attract more contributors, members and volunteers.
You will need to determine why you are creating your special event and what you plan to accomplish. Will the event be held for the sole purpose of raising funds, or can it also be a vehicle for recognizing important donors and supporters? Do you want community visibility or exposure to a targeted group? Will the event be held for multiple days or for one day or evening only? Once you know why you are creating your event, the other steps necessary to develop and implement a successful fund-raiser will more easily fall into place.
Every special event should have not only someone to chair it, but also a committee of like-minded and interested persons with varying skills necessary for successful implementation. The chairperson should be a volunteer from within your organization who not only has organizational but also demonstrated leadership skills and the ability to work cooperatively with others.
Once selected, the chairperson should recruit a committee of both volunteers and staff who must be willing to take responsibility for a variety of tasks including creating a budget, coming up with a theme, securing a place and date, marketing, underwriting, entertainment, invitations, a menu, decorations, silent auction, and a program book, among others.
At the first meeting, the committee should appoint officers and agree on meeting dates that should occur on a monthly basis beginning a minimum of six to eight months before the event. The secretary or chairperson should send meeting notices via email a week to 10 days in advance and attach an agenda plus financial and committee reports.
Within the first month or two, the committee should also construct a timeline that takes the end product (the event) and backs it into all the necessary steps to getting there. This should contain bullet points under each month that include when certain goals must be met.
How much money do you need to raise? Is it related to filling in budget gaps or, as mentioned earlier, to create or add to an endowment or towards a capital campaign? Once you determine the amount, you’ll need to plan how to get to that goal. You’ll need to ascertain what your expenses will be from all sources: food and beverages, entertainment, decorations, printing and postage, for example, and then decide how you can generate enough revenue to cover those expenses and realize a profit.
You can charge a set admission fee for all patrons or have tiered levels, with those paying a higher amount receiving more perks like ads in a program book, a special commemorative gift or reserved seating. You can solicit funds from businesses and wealthy patrons to underwrite the event with categories ($15,000, $10,000, $5,000, for example) and a list of benefits contributors get for each level. As a guideline, you may want to look at what other similar organizations in your community are charging for their events.
You can have a raffle, silent or live auction. You can create a program book containing ads from supporters and underwriters plus a “friends” category for those unable to attend the event but who are willing to make a small contribution to have their names listed in it.You can also increase revenue by soliciting in-kind donations, which will lower your expenses. These can include audio-visual services, printing costs, floral arrangements for centerpieces, billboard publicity, decorations or more.
You can have the best planned, most creative event ever, but if you don’t promote it, no one will come. You want to create a buzz around your community to help maximize attendance. For this reason, it’s important to develop an identity that’s linked to your organization through a coordinated marketing effort that should be used on all promotional pieces; not just your invitation. Get the word out through social and print media, using low or no-cost ways that are available to nonprofits. These include calendars of events, public service announcements, press releases and soliciting in-kind sponsorships from newspapers, TV and radio stations, billboard companies and magazines with a large subscription base.
There are many ways to make your committee members feel part of a team. Bring small treats to meetings. Empower them to do what they’ve been tasked to do so they know you trust them. Show appreciation for their efforts by remembering to thank them in person and in public. And be tolerant if they occasionally miss a meeting or deadline as long as it’s not habitual. Remember that they are, in fact, volunteers, and you can’t put on the event without them.
Without attention to logistics, your event will be disorganized. Prior to the event, make sure you have a workable and tasty menu, a plan for decorations, registration, seating and audio-visual needs. On the day of the event you will need to check to make sure everything listed above is in place, but also set-up your silent auction tables, arrange program books, have a registration table, a place to hang coats if the season dictates, and make sure your contact at the venue is available for assistance should you run into a problem.
For practical purposes we’ll assume your large special event will be held at a hotel, convention center, or other large venue. Your success hinges on the type of relationship you have with those professionals who have been charged with helping you organize it. Necessary traits for working with venue staff include kindness, respect, confidence and a sense of humor. They will go out of their way to give you good service if you treat them like the professionals they are.
Volunteers and staff have worked hard to assure that your special event is not only profitable but also memorable. If you haven’t already started the process, now’s the time to send thank-you notes to everyone you can think of: committee members, staff, venue professionals, cash and in-kind underwriters, vendors with whom you’ve worked and silent auction donors. You may want to host a celebratory luncheon, tea, or wine and cheese for volunteers and selected staff or bring treats or small gifts to a debriefing meeting. Whether you host a simple or more elaborate celebration is up to you, but do it. Everyone wants to be appreciated for a job well-done.
Creating special events, and doing them well, can accomplish many goals. The obvious reason is to raise money that can be used towards operating costs, an endowment campaign or for capital improvements. But another reason is to create awareness of your organization in your community, which in turn may help you increase financial support from other sources. Following the steps outlined in this article will get you on the right track. While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to create a special event, it does take volunteers and staff members with a common vision, commitment, and an understanding of the simple steps necessary for proper implementation and profitable results.
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