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. 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 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.