Dear Marc,

Help!! My board wants to do ANOTHER fundraising event! We’re already doing 10 events a year. How can I tell them we don’t have the resources to do another one?

Stressed in San Diego

My Answer

Dear Stressed,

Oh no! I definitely feel your pain! I think your board is living out the “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” truism. In fact, does your board meeting look like this?
Hammer and Nail by

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. You have to believe the board isn’t trying to kill your team but that they are truly trying to help. It’s just that they don’t know how to help. So they’re mistakenly equating “fundraising” with “event”!

Fundraising events are fairly inefficient ways to raise money. I haven’t seen updated statistics, but it used to be that an event was considered successful if it “only” cost 50 cents to raise a dollar.

Some reality checks for the board

Here are some ways to help your board focus on effectiveness.

  • How much are they willing to lose?
    If the board is insisting on another event, find out how much they want the event to make. $10,000? $100,000? And then ask them if they’re willing to invest half of that to make the event successful. The math isn’t perfect, but it drives home the point that events are not free.
  • Stop excluding salaries from event expenses
    One reason nonprofit board members think that events are a great way to raise money is that they aren’t getting the full picture. We report on the cost of the venue, the mailings, the printing, and the food, but we never factor in our salaries and those of our staff. Start telling your board the truth about how much these events really cost. And figure out what it will cost to add yet another to the mix.
  • Copycatting rarely leads to fundraising success
    Another reason nonprofit board members turn to events is that they’ve heard of a wildly successful one. So they want to have that success for their nonprofit too. That is wonderful, but successful fundraising rarely happens that way. Rather than trying to copy the #icebucketchallenge or creating yet another golf tournament or blindly posting to a crowdfunding page, do what is proven to be effective fundraising: focus on major gift asking.

Events have a place

At the start of my career, I tried to put fundraising events out of business. I saw too much emphasis on “event” and not enough on “fundraising.” These events were little more than parties at the nonprofit’s expense. In my experience, you can raise more money at much less expense using a major gift fundraising plan. Even a simple one.

Over the years, I have learned that events can be good ways to involve volunteers, get media attention, and help provide “social proof” – showing supporters that other people like them support your nonprofit. As long as fundraising isn’t your only purpose, events might be a good fit.

But if you are sick and tired of going to the local businesses again for yet another silent auction donation, here’s a 3-step process for you:

  1. Thank your board members for their enthusiasm and passion for seeing your nonprofit fully funded.
  2. Ask one of them, or a staff member, to do a study of fundraising events in your community or space. Have that person call each nonprofit it can and find out when they do events. A former boss had me do this in a rural community and we found there were golf tournaments from April through October. In Maine! I made the columns be the months and the rows be each nonprofit. This showed us what months were crowded and which events were saturated. And it led us to an event that is still successful for that organization 10 years later.
  3. And while that is being done, ask them to review their copies of 21 Ways for Board Members to Engage in Their Nonprofit’s Fundraising and commit to doing #1 – making their own gift – and one other.

Their commitment to being strategic representatives of the nonprofit will yield for more fruit in the long run than just randomly adding another event. You’ll have a much clearer sense on what events are happening around you. And who knows, maybe you’ll find that a new event allows you to weed out some of the other 10 that are underperforming!

What would you have said?

Special event fundraising is an important part of a healthy breakfast…a healthy fundraising plan. But not when it’s the only plan for fundraising!

What would you have suggested Stressed in San Diego should’ve said to her nonprofit board?

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