The Problem With Special Events

Nonprofits LOVE special events. And why not? They’re exciting and bring in revenue. But there’s a huge problem with them. In this video, I tell you what that is and suggest a better approach.

Video Transcript

I’m hoping that the palm tree is a clue. The clue is that I am on vacation. What am I doing talking to you? I’m not entirely on vacation. I’m getting a little R and R in Naples, Florida courtesy of my dear friend Joe and wife Phillipa. Today I offer you a video blog. The title, “The Problem With Special Events.”

First, you’re thinking to yourself why is there a problem with special events? They’re great. You bring a whole bunch of people together, right? You get them to hear the message of the organization. They meet other people who are connected to the organization. They meet board members. Win win.

Flip side, costs money, right? Thirty, forty cents on every dollar, easy. Time? What a time bandit, ask any staff member. By the way, boards get very, very engaged in special events. They become like this big special event committee. All unto itself, kind of forgetting that it has other work to do. This is the problem.

The big problem for me is that I believe that special event fundraising actually lets fundraisers off the hook. Let me explain. I’m going to use the Girl Scouts as an example. Every spring they knock on your door. You run to the door. In fact, every time the doorbell rings in the spring you run to the door because it just might be them. It might be the Girl Scouts with your Thin Mints. Your Samoas. Your Tag Alongs. Before you know you’ve spend a hundred dollars on cookies that you clearly do not need. But you’re so excited. Then if I asked you what the Girl Scouts do with that hundred dollars, what are you going to tell me? You’ll say something about girls and empowerment and there’ll be something about camp fires. There’ll be, I don’t know, badges maybe? Lots of them. Girls Scouts, big organization. Meanwhile, the whole time you’re thinking should I freeze the Thin Mints or should I leave them on the counter? Well, I like them both ways, right?

This is what I mean. The Girl Scouts have kind of ruined fundraising for the rest of us. I mean that quite facetiously. The Girl Scouts do an amazing, amazing job. I’m trying to make a point about transactions vs. relationships, right? I spend a lot of time working with organizations trying to make them more effective so that they can reach their mission, move obstacles out of the way. One of the big obstacles is that the revenue portfolio is not diverse enough. They’re overly reliant on special events. Sometimes to the tune of like 80 or 90%.  It’s really super risky, like if you were to take your own investment portfolio and put all of your eggs in one basket.

I think special events are like Thin Mints. I want to prove my point to you, that selling tickets is different from asking someone to invite… Inviting someone to the opportunity to participate in a real and lasting way with your organization. That’s my point. So, in order to make my point what I’m going to do is I’m going to do two mock asks. I’m going to make them of Mr. Palm Tree, my friend Joe, and his wife. I’m going to ask them to make a $500 gift to the organization, outright. First, I’m going to invite them to buy a $500 ticket to our upcoming gala. I’m going to use as an example the Ronald McDonald House of Essex County. I don’t actually think there is one in Essex county, forgive me if there is. It’s an organization I have a family commitment to, so that seems good. Many of you have probably heard of the extraordinary work that they do in supporting families when their children are sick in nearby hospitals.

Here we go. Ticket. “Joe, hey. I know that you know that I’m on the board of the Ronald McDonald House of Essex county. It’s an organization that’s had a lot of personal significance to me and my family. We have a gala coming up in the Spring. Tickets are $500 and I wanted to know if you’d like to join me. I have a table. It’s going to be such an incredible event. It’s at this venue called the blah blah blah and I don’t know if you’ve ever been there but it’s incredible. Beautiful views of the city and there’s going to be an open bar. The food is actually being catered by XYZ and I don’t know if you’ve ever had their food, but oh, it’s heavenly. In addition we’re honoring a couple of really great celebrities. My table is going to be filled with some very interesting people that I think would be really helpful for you to know and meet as you move in your professional career. Would you like to join us? The tickets are $500 and it’s worth every minute and you know the Ronald McDonald House is important to me.”

Joe’s $500 ask, “So Joe, I’m a board member at the Ronald McDonald house of Essex county as you know. It is an amazing board and an amazing organization. I feel so privileged to be able to make a contribution to an organization that has given so much to my own family. I don’t know what you know about how much of an impact the organization has. The past year we have done… We have had over x families as part of our home, our homes throughout Essex county. We have impacted the lives of x number of families. We have engaged over x thousand volunteers who come, cook, hang out, play with kids. It’s a remarkable community of people. I feel remarkable privileged to be apart of that community.”

“We don’t get a ton of money from McDonald’s. We get much less than you think and rely very heavily on private funding and on generous individuals like you. My family has been a contributor to the Ronald McDonald House for x number of years and I would like you very much to join me as a donor to the Ronald McDonald House of Essex county with a gift of $500.”

Okay. There they are, both of them. One of them is going to cost… If he buys a ticket $500. It’s going to cost the organization at least thirty cents on every dollar. On the other hand, maybe I bought him a cup of coffee, maybe he even paid. One of those gifts will stick and one of them will not. If Joe’s not available next year he won’t go to that gala, right? If he gives the gift of $500, what happens? Then about six or nine months from now I have a touch point with him where I tell him something remarkable, a great story about something that happened at the Ronald McDonald House and at the end of that email I will say, “Your fingerprints are all over that work.”

Hear the difference? Feel it? See it? For some reason it’s so much harder for board members. They think selling a ticket to an event that it’s a I can’t ask somebody to spend $500 unless I’m giving them something in return. What they’re missing is that by making that $500 gift out right Joe is getting something in return. Right? The donors get as much as they give. Maybe more, because they get an opportunity to be invited into a community of people who care about an issue that is meaningful in Joe’s community. That should be easier than selling them a ticket to an event, where there might be a b-list celebrity.

I just feel like it feels a lot better to ask someone to become a part of your tribe than to sell them a ticket to an event, where the big get is you know great food, a couple of celebrities, a live auction, and an open bar.

Something to think about today. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll take this video and forward it on to your development staff, to your development committee, and it’s less than ten minutes long. Maybe you could show it at your next board meeting. I hope it’s been helpful. See ya next time.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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Latest posts by Joan Garry (see all)

  • Nk

    Thank you.
    I work for a start up national cancer research foundation and manage our peer to peer fundraisers on a national level. Because of the (typical) slim staff I find myself also working on our events which weigh heavy with some as described in this video. Money. Time. Our potential impact redirected to the glitz and glam.
    I was literally in tears this afternoon arguing with my heart on the time, energy, and focus used on the event rather than the fundraising. The reason I was in tears was because I watched yet another heart breaking story of a family torn by cancer, and although love was in it, we spent way too much money on a one night hoorah with very little to show for it.
    As a mom of two little guys, a wife, and someone who really feels I’ve got something to give this world- a reason I am here for such a time as this- I want to know how I can convince those pushing costly events that it is not the route to go. I tend to put my thoughts and emotions into the core of what I do, but feel I have a gift of not allowing them to control the outcome of my words…would you suggest expressing reasoning of shifting focus from events to asks with emotion and urging or just stick to the facts of figures.

    • Nk. You are welcome indeed. And your org is lucky indeed. You clearly have passion and just this comment illustrates your gift for storytelling. Events have their place and their role. But your org – staff, board and volunteers need to move toward asks with emotion and stories. And just enough data to support the BROADER NEED for the gift. It’s clear that the video affirms your point of view ; now maybe time to use it to shift the point of view of others?

  • Jennifer

    Great post, Joan – and it’s fun to see you on video!
    I agree; even mature special events (maybe especially mature events?) can really suck up resources and divert from the main mission. I do think special events can (CAN) be great for new donor acquisition and can also be a training exercise for board members with limited experience asking for gifts outright. But you are totally, absolutely right: events let us all off the hook. Ironic, isn’t it, that so many of us in social service work talk about the importance of relationships in the lives of the vulnerable people we serve, but we don’t always take this same advice in building OUR relationships with donors. Good food for thought.
    Enjoy your R&R, and thank you for sharing your wisdom and knowledge with all of us who follow you.

  • Annie Guion

    OMG, spot on. Thank you so much for posting this!

    • Annie. My pleasure (and I can I tell you that videos can be easier than writing blog posts) (but let’s not tell anyone 🙂

      • Annie Guion

        your secret is safe with me…;)

  • Stuart Whyte

    Thank you for the video, Joan. I appreciate the genuine passion you are sharing with us today. We have been feeling the burnout lately from events that take up too much time & resources for too little return. It’s great to get an outside perspective. Like a breath of fresh air.

    • Stuart. I am glad that my video was so well timed for you. Nonprofit leaders need a breath of fresh air from time to time. A privilege to be able to provide it!

  • Nancy Meyers Preston

    Thanks for this post. It’s a position I take on a daily basis. You hit the nail on the head when you describe galas/events as “transactional.” In addition to Joe possibly not being available to attend the gala next year, I maintain that Joe may only be attending because of your affiliation with the organization. So if you step away, Joe may leave as well (and possibly follow you to the next board you serve on or organization you work for). Unless the organization has a stellar stewardship and follow-up plan in place to cultivate everyone who attends the gala, which could yield some new long-term donors, the best approach is the cultivation and solicitation of gifts.

    • Nancy. I’m back at Joe’s house from the beach and we are making him a very nice dinner to thank him for allowing me to use him as a video guinea pig 🙂 My Joe is a loyal sort but most Joes need to cultivation, stewardship, stories and an understanding that they are making a difference.

  • CS

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s warm somewhere. It’s 11 degrees here in Montana. I completely conquer that special events are a time suck. I’m lucky to work for a theatre company that has built in events–our performances. We have an opening night reception for each of our 5 performances but very little money, time and effort is put into the receptions. The food, beverages and flowers are all donated and our lobby is beautiful so we don’t have to fuss over decorations. The receptions provide me, my ED, and our board members an opportunity to see and thank our donors 5 times a year in addition to our personal meetings, notes, emails, phone calls, etc. These folks are our most dedicated donors and my go-to group when we need additional funding for a special project or a campaign. And, since they are the first to see the show, they are excellent advocates for helping us get butts in seats for the rest of the run. When board members come to me with ideas for your typical auction/dinner I remind them that we already have an “event”. It’s a win-win for all! Thank you for ALL you do!

    • CS. thanks for your comment here. You sound like someone who really understands stewardship and cultivation. And you are totally right – your shows ARE your events!

  • Heather Cammisa

    So true. I wish there were fitbuts that showed everyone the truthful cost roll up of org-wide staff and volunteer time and the opportunity cost of that time. Thanks for the great vlog.

  • Susan Thornton

    Joan – brilliant video! Yes, I’m sharing with my sole development person and will also share with my Board chair and a few of our board members who really struggle with financial support for the organization. I agree with you about the special events. While they work for some organizations and there is a time/place for them, they are or should be just one component of a diversified funding portfolio. Our organization is overly reliant on pharmaceutical company funding. It’s a great source given our mission and we wouldn’t be where we are without it, but its volatile and changes yearly, a big challenge for us. Our board isn’t accustomed to asking for funding and its one of the areas we need to work on. Thanks for this!! And enjoy your vacation!!!

  • Maia Tolsdorf

    Joan – thank you for this great conversation. I am going to jump in to say that while I totally agree that events too often are transactional, in my experience they don’t have to be; and while donating to a organization can make you feel like you are part of a family, as you’ve said before, sometimes it makes you feel like you’re at ATM! So much is in the follow-up. My organization is very heavy on four main fundraising events, but we make story-telling and messaging a huge part of each event, and they almost feel like reunions for the breast cancer patients we serve. I love to invite new prospective donors to these events because through them they will really feel what we are all about. Our programs are personal and private, so there’s not much opportunity for prospective donors to really see us in action except at our events. I often give away tickets to prospective donors for exactly that reason, and the ask happens at the event (live auction “fund a woman” donations) or in follow-up from our team. I think you make a great point about the resources that are dedicated to events and the danger of an uneven donation portfolio, but I would say that depending on the nature of your work, events can be a critical part of stewardship itself. And if you’re asking for a donation from someone who doesn’t really know your organization, they may give that first time because of your relationship, but if you want that gift to keep coming year after year, you’ve got to steward that donor and be sure they truly do feel a part of something special. Thank you for your great work, Joan!

  • Macaira Koch

    Joan- this makes sense and most fundraisers would agree. We need strategic steps to get out of events one step at a time. Non profits are reluctant to drop an event because they see the chunk of money they will lose.

  • Tricia Baker

    Joan, you identify the issues clearly, as usual.
    Would you believe that, as recently at this year, I was interviewed for a position where the organization wanted to add an event??? And the organization is in a rural location as well!
    I appreciate your time in sharing your wisdom with us all. I would suggest that both Board Members and executives listen to this, so that they will have the words to explain why adding events might not be the best way to add engaged donors. Thanks!

  • Debbie Peters

    I’m glad to see that you are enjoying some R & R! You have become one of my favorite Champions for our non-profit mission! Our organization is dealing with this EXACT issue, with special events. Of course, it’s complicated and filled with lots of emotional and personal ties. However, my role as the ED is to look at the whole picture, and make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. With this said, I may lose a volunteer and perhaps a Board member. I believe in responsible stewardship and practice it, too! I am a servant leader……….no one is being martyred today. Thank you, Joan!