How to Take Charge of Your Fundraising Events so they Don’t Take Charge of You: Is Your’s Worth the Effort?

What do you want to achieve? Will your event do this?

What do you want to achieve? Will your event do this?

Before you hold your next fundraising event, ask yourself one simple question: WHY?

Take a minute, right now, to jot down all the things you’d like to happen by virtue of you having held your event.

I’ll wait.

Seriously, do it. Jot.

I’m waiting.

Okay, there are a few of you who don’t yet have pencils and paper in front of you. Yes, I can see you.  Remember ‘Miss Nancy’ from Romper Room? [I know; I’m dating myself on this one].

Now, let me guess what you’re writing (and/or thinking).

  • To create awareness?
  • To make new friends?
  • To find/involve volunteers?
  • To cultivate existing donors?
  • To appeal to a broader demographic?
  • To raise a bundle of money?
  • To have fun?
  • To keep our board members/volunteers happy?

Am I in the ballpark?

Okay, super. Now let’s boil it down to the one real reason you’re holding your event.


You see, you really shouldn’t care if you have lots more volunteers and friends enjoying themselves at your event if it doesn’t translate into action that moves your mission forward.  And you can tell your board and volunteers that I said so! So many organizations host golf tournaments and barbecues and open houses to appease board and volunteers who suggest these wonderful ideas.  And they often suggest them because… drum roll… it means they don’t have to do other things that they find more terrifying.

Fun events may bring in hundreds of attendees, but a fundraising event is not an end in and of itself.  Often the charity never sees these folks again (or at least not until the next event) because these folks are golfers or ‘thoners, not donors. You must have a strategic approach so that you convert event attendees and donors into ongoing annual fund supporters.

Wait!  You say you raised money?  Well, think again. You generated some money. But the money is generated at a very high cost (50 cents on the dollar is “good” for special events, compared with ranges from 2% to 20% for most other fundraising strategies; plus most folks calculate this 50% return without factoring in the time spent by staff and volunteers). The dirty little secret of events, if we’re being honest, is that net/net events usually are money losers.

Don’t despair!  Events have a place in your comprehensive development/marketing strategic plan.  But you’ve got to call for the desired action response. Katya Andreson of Network for Good provides some suggestions in How to inspire action at your next event.

The key takeaway?  Put in place strategies to inspire action. Unless you ask, you won’t get.

Some strategies can happen right at the event. For example:

  1. Sign-up sheet (or drop business cards in a fish bowl) so attendees can be added to your mailing list for updates and/or information about volunteer opportunities. Consider a raffle prize as an incentive for taking this action.
  2. Collect credit card information for folks who’ll later be participating in your silent/live auction.  When they sign up, include an opt-in box for your newsletter/mailing list.
  3. Ask attendees to donate via pledge cards on the table.  Offer an incentive for doing so now, such as a raffle prize or matching gift that’s good only right now.
  4. Ask folks to participate live by considering a “text to give” campaign to raise funds for a specific project; tweets from the event; posting photos from Instagram, or uploading snapshots to Facebook. These actions will broaden awareness of your mission beyond the several hundred folks attending your event.

After the event, follow up! You absolutely must plan for this follow up in advance of the event so that you hit the ground running and don’t miss opportunities.  An event is really a giant donor cultivation tactic, and should be viewed as one step in a series of strategies leading up to an ask or a larger ask.  If you’re letting your event be a stand-alone one trick pony you’re really wasting your energy and resources. So, ask yourself:

  1. What will you do to retain the attention of what I call ‘hangers on’?  These are the folks who come as unpaid guests of other donors.  Often, especially when corporations buy a table, there can be quite a few of these folks.  Don’t write them off.  If your event does a good job of inspiring folks about your mission, there’s absolutely no reason these guests cannot become individual donors to your organization. Are you getting their contact information?  Are you sending them a thank you for attending? Are you letting them know how much the event raised, and how it will be used? Are you sending them information that informs them about your mission? Are you writing a special note on the next appeal they receive from you that shows them you appreciate them (and connects the dots for them by reminding them they were at your event)?
  2. What will you do to capture attention from the ‘pledgers’?  If you host a walk-a-thon you’ll often have scads of folks who write checks.  Many of the same follow-up suggestions apply.  These folks are connected to their friend at this point; not to you.  But you can change that by providing them with inspiring stories about your mission. Operate under the assumption that they’re already part of your community, and include them.  Folks like being a part of a community if they’re warmly welcomed and embraced.
  3. What will you do to learn more about your new, potential supporters and also help them to learn more about you?  If you have phone numbers, try giving them a call to get their feedback.  Folks like to give advice and since these people are new to your organization they are your best possible resource for feedback about your event. These is a great “action” in which they can engage and help you, without having to go back into their checking account.

Turning event attendees into ongoing donors requires patience as well as strategy. Be patient.  Don’t write folks off just because they don’t respond with a gift or other action right off the bat. You’ve got to do the relationship building first. Cultivating event attendees takes about a year until they’re ready for an ask.  But you’ve got to start immediately after the event or folks will forget who you were and why they attended. Seriously, this is key. Don’t delay!

You must show event donors you know them, embrace them and want to connect more deeply. Event 360 has a free, downloadable white paper that outlines “4 Steps to Converting Event Donors to Organizational Donors.” In a nutshell: (1) Identify: Capture all the information you can about the donor; (2) Engage: Send communications that reference the event experience in some manner; (3) Qualify and cultivate: Assign event donors as major, annual or planned gifts prospects, then personalize their experience, and (4) Convert: Ask!

Have you made your special event worth the effort?  How? 

What’s working for you?  What will you do next year to achieve even greater results?

Photo: Flickr, emagic

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Great piece, Claire. One suggestion to add: keep track of top prospects and donors who don’t come to the event (because they have a calendar conflict, because they hate crowds, because they are tired at the end of a long day of work, because they can’t arrange childcare, etc). It’s worth calling those people to see if they are interested in getting together 1 on 1 afterwards to learn about the great things going on at the organization.
    Paul jolly recently posted…The fundraising equivalent of the four minute mileMy Profile

    • Thanks Paul. And you make a good point. I’d also suggest including the non-attendees in all the exciting follow-up and reporting post event, with a link to a “still time to donate” button. Even though these folks couldn’t attend, they’re still part of your family and inner circle. Treat them as such.

  2. Cassandra George Ramos says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Thanks so much for this “events in a nutshell” piece. I particularly like your point that things other than events are “terrifying” and that makes events soooooooooooo much easier to “do”. God forbid we should actually talk to people and ASK!!

    • Yes, and the sad part is that to make events successful one still must talk to people and ask. There’s no getting around this one. That being said, events have their place. It’s simply important to recognize what that place is and make decisions (go or no go) on that basis.

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