Winning Fundraising Events for a Modern World
Disclaimer: I pledge that, at no point during this article will I mention the words ‘COVID-19’, or ‘Coronavirus’, or speak of ‘a new normal’. Let’s just agree that they’re a big part of the conversation.
Is it just me? Or does it feel like the whole Golf Tournament/Gala Dinner fundraising model is a relic of another era?
We live in a world of smartphones, tablets, 4K TVs, social media, streaming sites, and (increasingly) online meetings and webinars. Yet we still expect our supporters to draw from their dwindling cache of leisure time, dress up, and travel downtown, or to some suburban golf course—all for the express purpose of being hit-up for a donation.
Here’s an important question: Do people even play golf anymore?
- Between 8%-10% of the U.S. population plays once a year.
- Less than 25% are women.
- The average age of a golfer is 54.
Does it feel to you like that a golf tournament is an inclusive event that represents the general interests and past-times of the broadest cross-section of your donors (and potential donors)?
Events on Auto-Pilot
The worst way we can treat our supporters is to force them to come our events out of a sense of duty or obligation. The problem is, we do it all the time.
How do I know? Because I’ve heard this story a hundred times:
- Revenue and attendance at our golf tournament and/or gala dinner is down year-over-year.
- We’ve been extracting guaranteed revenue from this model for many years, we’re afraid what will happen if we try to replace it.
- We’re examining new techniques and investing in new features that will inject more fun and wring a few more dollars out of our event this year.
Events for the Modern World
If that’s your story, then you need to start thinking about a clean sheet of paper. I always begin with the understanding that the 21st Century is a super-busy place. And that many people—especially young people—want to demonstrate their support on their own terms and at their own pace.
Think about ways you can tie your mission and your programs to both your fundraising event strategy and your donor cultivation plan. Then graft those variables onto an event option that lives and breathes in today’s world.
Here are a few event sub-segments I’m pretty keen on:
- Small, exclusive events: I’ve seen people score big with intimate, home-based events, for example. The trick is to have a high-profile host or special guest that your supporters really want to engage with. A snappy place to host it doesn’t hurt either. Spin a web around your top 10 to 20 prospects and build a memorable major gift event around your most important program/project priority.
- Digital, digital, digital: If you want to cash-in on the fastest growing fundraising opportunity of all time, you’ve got to think annual fundraising drives, crowd-funding campaigns, peer-to-peer, online auctions, or even a telethon (RIP Jerry Lewis). To get to ‘Go’ you’ll have to build your online community. Invest in that sagging, under-appreciated social media feed, or gear-up a MailChimp quarterly newsletter (and think about ways you can add names/emails to it every day).
- ‘Achieve Anything Day’: I don’t know about you, but I’d way rather dig a hole than sit at a table with a bunch of strangers and listen to a bunch of self-congratulatory speeches. Why not start an annual neighborhood clean-up where your programs take place? You could build a partnership with a business and get them involved in your events and outreach. Businesses love to demonstrate their support for their community by forcing their employees to pull weeds for some charity.
Here are three steps you can take to ensure your events remain fresh and can continue to contribute to the sustainability of your organization:
- Balance your revenue: I’m just saying. But have you ever thought that your organization is over-reliant on event revenue? What percentage of your fundraising does the event program represent? What new revenue streams (like planned giving, grants, or online donations) could you be investing in instead?
- You don’t know if you don’t try: Think out of the box and start with one limited-sized event that stimulates imaginations and makes your supporters want to participate. It’s just possible that an online auction, for example, is less work and produces a higher return on investment. And don’t forget: failure makes us stronger.
- Feedback matters: There are no excuses when it comes to soliciting feedback from your event participants. If you’re talking honestly with your donors, you should know if they enjoy your events or think of them as a chore. Match that with some quantitative feedback using a simple online, or event-based, survey. Even if just a handful of people reply, you’ll generate some revealing data points that you can apply towards improvement.
Bottom line: Your supporters want to be involved in your cause and help you move the ball forward. It’s your job to ensure they can demonstrate their support in the most convenient, enjoyable, and gratifying manner.