How to Take Charge of Your Fundraising Events

Lori Halley 18 February 2014 5 comments

So they Don’t Take Charge of You: Is Your’s Worth the Effort? 

This is a guest post by Claire Axelrad (Clairification). 

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. This 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 offered a white paper that outlined “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? 


This is a guest post by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE. Coach, trainer, consultant and author, Claire has been called a “practical visionary” and “fundraising ninja.” Her 30 years of frontline development work earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” and Fundraising Success’ “Best Fundraising Blog” awards.

This post was originally published on the Clairification blog and was re-printed with permission.

Image source:  Events courtesy of

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 18 February 2014 at 8:30 AM

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  • Patty Foley said:

    Tuesday, 18 February 2014 at 10:02 AM
    What a great post! This goes for new events and long standing events. I see groups get busy on preparing for the next event - and don't do this most important step. The group works, works, works - the event happens, and then they sigh relief. In my humble opinion - that is when you go to work to follow up with those that attended your event. Getting the buzz before the event and after the event are important steps.

    Thanks for the post!
  • claire axelrad said:

    Tuesday, 18 February 2014 at 6:49 PM
    Thanks for your comment Patty. It's good to hear that you understand events have little purpose as stand-alones. It's always good to remind yourself WHY you're doing the event in the first place. It shouldn't be simply busy work that justifies your existence as an employee. It should be work that furthers the existence -- and mission -- of your nonprofit.
  • claire axelrad said:

    Tuesday, 18 February 2014 at 8:04 PM
    Speaking of putting events in a context, you all may be interested in something new I'm offering. I'm finding that too often nonprofits pick relatively "risky" events (nowhere near the most cost-effective awareness-building and fundraising strategy) in lieu of strategies that will give a bigger bang for the buck. For 2014, I believe the #1 thing your nonprofit should do is start -- and rock! -- a blog.

    If you think it's not for you... you don't have time... you've got a newsletter, website, social media... think again. It will simplify your life! It will help you to integrate everything else. I'm not kidding. I love blogs for nonprofits!

    Check out my new e-Course: Charity Blogging Gold
  • Joelle O'Reilly-Hyland said:

    Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 1:19 AM
    These are all great tips for fundraising events. This must be shared!

    <a href="">Joelle Wyser-Pratte</a>
    Managing partner of Ounavarra Capital Partners, LLC
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 5:24 PM
    Joelle: Glad you found Claire's post helpful and share-worthy! If you apply any of Claire's guidance, please share details re your event success.
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