As I listened to my colleagues discuss their fundraising programs, I couldn't help thinking of Dorothy's words in The Wizard of Oz -- "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." The occasion was a gathering of development professionals from across the nation. For over an hour they discussed statistical data derived from focus groups, demographics generated from marketing surveys, and percentage of return from rented mailing lists.
Like Dorothy looking at OZ for the first time, I felt a bit dazed. Had fundraising been reduced to numbers, charts, and faceless data? Something was missing, but what?
One participant was surprisingly quiet. When asked to describe her fundraising program, she reached into a folder and pulled out photographs of smiling people. No computer generated printouts, no statistical data or financial spreadsheets, just photographs. Some people grinning into the camera wore colorful party hats; others wore tuxedos and gowns. All were clearly having a good time. Karen Crown, director of the Hunter Blood Center Foundation in Clearwater, Florida, explained, "We raise over $1,000,000 a year from special events because they're fun!" p What a radical thinker! For years I've been part of a growing majority of fundraisers who are moving away from special events. I rationalized that these events are time-consuming, labor- intensive, and don't raise very much money. I've heard this negative litany from other seasoned professionals who have forsaken special events for more lucrative fundraising activities.
Reaching for my phone, I began calling colleagues who were conducting events. My question was: Why? Why were they still holding special events when so many others had switched to planned giving, telemarketing, and extensive mailing programs?
I've based this article on their answers to that question. As I talked with them, I remembered how exciting special events can be for an organization. In my early years of fundraising I conducted dozens of events--ice cream socials, golf and tennis tournaments, formal balls, dinner dances, and art shows. As my colleagues reminded me, all such events accomplish five important things.
"Charitable organizations are making a big mistake if they don't have special events," according to Karen Crown. "The visibility alone is worth the effort. People talk about the event, which means that they're talking about your cause. People get to know you and your organization."
"The thing I really love about special events is you create the opportunity to meet your constituency. You get to know who they are and who their friends are. That is reason enough for a special event."
"If an organization isn't conducting events it's missing out on the public relations and donor building that will help it grow. When people come to your special event and have a great time, they will be more likely to attend again and reply favorably to an end-of-the-year mailing."
Byron Healy, board president of the Sun Health Foundation in Sun City, Arizona, agrees. His foundation conducts golf tournaments, variety shows, and cruises that generate over $250,000 each year. "The true value of a special event is not the money that it brings in, but the community visibility it generates. Special events acquaint the community with your organization, and once they know you, they're more likely to support you momentarily in other fundraising efforts."
"Special events open doors," noted Cille Swaback, chair of Scottsdale's Memorial Hospital Honor Ball. "Our event hosted 628 guests and generated $130,000 in profits. One reason it was so successful was the new funding sources it generated. I found there were major corporations who wanted to be involved with our event, actually hands-on involved. They wanted to participate, as well as give money. It was really important to them to be involved with the community programs that they were supporting. I'm sure that they will stay involved in the future."
Byron Healy had a similar experience. "When we set up our first golf tournament we approached a local country club to sponsor the event. They were initially very cold to the idea. But over a period of time we sold then on the concept that the tournament was a good way for then to give something back to the community. They finally bought the idea. Before the actual event took place their players got involved and helped us coordinate the whole thing. Now we have successful golf tournaments with three different country clubs. In every case members of the club gradually became associated with and supportive our organization."
"Special events are a win-win situation for both the organization and the community. The organization receives visibility and the community enjoys a unique activity."
Every special event has the potential of adding individuals and corporations to your donor base--people and companies you can cultivate for future gifts.
"Our current donor base is just over 6,000," Karen Crown told me. "Not huge when you compare it to other organizations, but they're very loyal. Every time we conduct an event we add new, involved, and motivated individuals to that list. That's one of the really exciting aspects of conduction special events. We make sure our events are fun! You gather a group of new people together to form the steering committee, then through time they become your friends and supporters. I believe special events give you the opportunity to make a great many new friends."
Almost everyone who has ever conducted a special event agrees it takes a great deal of time and energy. It is crucial, therefore, to involve paid and volunteer staff.
"Board members must take an active role in the special event. Their support, dedication, and knowledge of the community are vital to the success of an event," Cille Swaback pointed out.
"Special events are certainly time-consuming, but they have to be if you want them to be successful. By involving the board and staff members we generate a feeling of family. Everyone benefits because we're all working together for the same cause."
Karen Crown couldn't agree more. "My board gets involved because we make it fun. They enjoy the excitement and I believe it makes them feel needed and important. I work very hard to get each member of the board involved with the event. There are many jobs to be filled, and who better to fill them than knowledgeable and dedicated board members? I involve our staff and board members at all levels of the event from committee chairperson to greeter at the door.:
Gather a group of fundraisers and most will tell you special events just don't raise enough money when you consider the time invested. But there's a quiet minority reaping outstanding financial rewards. These are the fundraisers who have taken the time to make their events work.
"Having a successful event means building visibility, acquainting more people with the organization, and of course, raising money," Byron Healy remarked. "However, in my opinion, money tends to follow visibility and community involvement. Don't get me wrong, raising needed dollars is vitally important, and a successful bottom line after an event is critical."
Competition for philanthropic dollars is fierce. Statistical donor base analysis, financial spreadsheets, demographic studies, and philanthropic focus groups may be warranted. All these information-gathering methods have value. But should special event fundraising be relegated to the very bottom of the list when you consider its multiple benefits?
All Dorothy wanted was to go back to Kansas. It turned out to be as simple as tapping her heels together and saying, "There's no place like home." Karen Crown summed up special events by saying, "Special events should be like going home. The guests who attend must be treated like family. The event should be fun, comfortable, and should make people want to come back again and again."
The managing editor of the Dow Jones News Service in New York suggested this tip, which might increase your news coverage: Include a "significant paragraph" at the beginning of the release. This is a concise explanation of what the release is about and why it is important.
Source: Robert D. Prinksy, Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, 271 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016, cited in communications briefings.