Most of us like to believe that we’d give to charity purely out of the goodness of our hearts. It’s also what we’d hope to be true of our donors.
100% altruism. Philanthropy without expectation of reciprocation.
But the world doesn’t work that way. That’s why, as fundraising professionals, it’s a large part of our job to entice donors and incentivize giving.
And the best way to get people excited about doing something is to entertain them. And how do you entertain dozens or thousands of people at once?
With a fundraising event, of course!
To make the actual planning and execution of a fundraiser a little more smooth and manageable, I’ve compiled a step-by-step guide to planning and pulling off just about any fundraising event.
Curious about the steps before we dive in? Here they are, all 10 of them:
Step 1: Decide the type of event that’s right for your nonprofit.
Step 2: Gather together committees, staff, and volunteers.
Step 3: Choose a date, time, and venue for the fundraising event.
Step 4: Secure a sponsor or sponsors for your event.
Step 5: Promote your fundraiser online and offline.
Step 6: Send out formal and informal invitations.
Step 7: Perform prospect research on event attendees.
Step 8: Do a practice run-through on the day of the event.
Step 9: Enjoy the fruits of your hard work!
Step 10: Follow up with and thank your attendees.
Looking for a little more in-depth information about fundraising events and what you need to plan your own? Take a peek at this helpful guide.
No time to waste, friends! Let’s go ahead and get started.
Before you can start calling caterers and stressing out about deadlines and invitations and donation receipts, take a step back.
The first item on your long to-do list is to decide the type of event that’s right for your organization.
According to research conducted by a third party, 82% of nonprofits host the traditional fundraisers such as fun runs, galas, and golf tournaments.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going the traditional route. In fact, it might actually be beneficial to stick to the status quo.
People love things that are familiar to them. That’s not to say that you should host a stale gala with no point of interest.
That wouldn’t help your organization or your donors.
While it’s crucial to have some element of recognizable structure to your event, it’s also incredibly important to get creative with it. (If you want some ideas for spicing up your event and raising more, check out NeonCRM’s creative ideas).
The second piece of the puzzle is to choose an event size that matches your nonprofit’s present capabilities.
Keep in mind that elaborate events may have large returns on investment, but the initial investment is also quite sizable.
Smaller events, like fun runs (ones that don’t require road closures or special permits) may not take as much planning or cost as much to pull off, but they also might not help you reach your loftiest goals.
Therefore, the first two things you’ll need to decide are:
- What is our budget?
- What are our goals?
From there, it should be clear the range and scope of events you should host.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: Do you know what kind of event you’re going to be hosting? Make sure it’s in line with your budget and your fundraising goals.
With a firm, clear idea of the type of fundraiser you’re hosting, it’s time to rally the troops.
But who exactly do you need?
Great question. Let me break down the answer into three easy parts:
I’ll explain a bit more in the following sections:
First things first, let’s take a look at what the planning committee does, who comprises such a group, and when they come into play.
What they do: The planning committee is largely responsible for the actual organizing of the fundraiser. They are in charge of details such as:
- Where the event is held,
- Who caters it,
- When the event is,
- And more.
In essence, they’re the movers and shakers behind the scenes. They’re the ones that make all of the tough decisions— and a few of the fun ones, too!
Who they are: Depending on the size of your organization, your planning committee may actually comprise just one, brave soul. If, however, you have more expendable resources, the planning committee could consist of any number of staff members, volunteers, and board members.
When they come into play: Because they’re in charge of all of the major details of the event, they’ll be the first ones to get things going. From day one, they’re your go-to team.
Once the planning committee has passed their torch off, it’s time for the event or host committee to take it all the way to the day (or night) of the event.
What they do: The event committee’s primary responsibility is to raise money by selling tickets and securing sponsorships before the event.
Who they are: Your event committee should comprise anyone who can fundraise on your behalf as well as anyone able to reach out to a ton of different people.
When they come into play: These champions ride into town around the same time that the planning committee has finalized the basic decisions, such as venue, time, and date. As soon as they know the details of the fundraiser, they’ll be primed and ready to start talking to potential donors and sponsors.
Throughout the entirety of your event, both in the planning and in the execution phases, staff and volunteers are critical players.
What they do: Technically speaking, they do just about everything. They’re members of the other two committees, and they do anything and everything that the fundraiser requires.
Who they are: They’re your greatest advocates; they’re a part of your core team. Your event volunteers can be just about anyone. And your staff are your staff, of course.
When they come into play: There’s never a time when they’re not involved in some way.
In addition to these three committees, board approval is also a key component for any fundraising event’s success. That being said, your event absolutely can’t happen without the involvement of your staff, volunteers, planning committee, and event or host committee.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: Once you’ve assembled your committees, received board approval, and you have ample staff and volunteers to help you out, you’re ready to move on.
The best venues fill up quickly.
If you’ve ever tried to host an event that requires a lot of planning before, you know this is undeniably true.
That’s why it’s important to start planning your event at least 6-8 months in advance.
Not only will you be more likely to land the venue that you’re after, you’ll also be less stressed out about:
- Meeting deadlines for paperwork,
- Sending out invitations,
- Securing caterers,
- And all the rest.
Speaking of sending out invitations, there’s another great reason for planning your fundraising event at least 6 months in advance.
Especially if you’re trying to host an event during the busy holiday season, you want to make sure that people have your fundraiser down on their calendars as early as possible.
You can either have your heart set on a date and then backtrack at least 6 months so that you have enough time set aside to plan— or you can start planning right away and choose a date at least 6 months in the future, whenever that may be.
In either case, it’s equally important to choose a day of the week and a time of day that work well with your venue (most venues charge more for weekends) and the type of event you’re hosting (5Ks work best during the day; galas dazzle most at night).
As soon as you’ve decided on a few dates that would work well for your organization, it’s time to start looking into venues.
You’ll want to be able to be a little bit flexible when it comes to your dates and times, so come prepared with a few options that suit you.
Where you don’t want to be too flexible, though, is your budget.
The whole point of the event is to raise money, not spend it all on a fabulous location. Your event venue will likely be the largest cost, so plan accordingly and don’t budge or bend if you don’t have the room to do so.
In the end, the time, date, and venue will be major determining factors in the success of your event. Thus, choosing an appropriate (yet still cost-effective) location could make or break the fundraiser. As could picking the proper time and date.
For example, if you’re hosting a fundraising carnival, you don’t want to choose an abandoned parking lot that’s inconvenient to most of your donor base. You also wouldn’t want to try to host it in the dead of winter to cut costs.
It’s all about finding a happy medium.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: If you have a time, a date, and a venue all set, then you’re officially equipped to court some sponsors!
Simply put, a sponsorship is not an act of charity. A sponsorship is a deal.
Your organization receives funding and support for your event, and the company that’s sponsoring you, in turn, receives marketing opportunities.
They get exposure in front of your donors and the positive press from being associated with your nonprofit.
And that basic principle is precisely how you land a sponsorship. It’s all about knowing who is looking for some positive marketing and what you have to offer them.
Do you have the type of audience that a certain business is trying to entice?
Are they looking to add a more philanthropic spin to their branding?
The art of the deal rests on what each party has to offer one another.
Thus, the first step is to suss out businesses in your area that have sponsored nonprofits like yours in the past— but currently have no other obligations that might overwhelm them.
You can check out resources, like LinkedIn, that can give you insights into businesses’ philanthropic interests and affiliations.
Next, you’ll want to figure out their marketing objectives. It helps to know someone on the inside, so if you have any connections or any strings to pull, now is the time to pull them.
If you don’t have anyone you can ask directly about a company’s marketing objectives, you can make an educated guess based on their current marketing tactics.
Once you’ve figured out what it is they’re looking for, you must then decide how you can fulfill it.
Package up what you can reasonably offer potential sponsors, practice your pitch, and be prepared for some of them to say, “Yes! We would love to sponsor your event!”
But also be prepared for some rejection.
In any case, make sure you thank all potential sponsors for their time and consideration.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: Have you secured at least one sponsor for your event? If so, you’re good to go — to start promoting your event!
In this day and age, it’s almost unthinkable to promote anything without at least considering social media.
Gone are the days when you could get the word out about your event solely without the use of the internet.
But that’s okay. Because, as you may or may not be aware, email marketing is 245 times less expensive than direct mail.
When you employ online marketing tactics, you’re effectively increasing your return on investment for the whole event.
That’s not to say, though, that you shouldn’t use any offline strategies. It’s about striking the proper balance between offline and online promotion.
For online, you might consider trying out:
- Creating a Facebook event,
- Registering an event hashtag,
- Launching an Instagram campaign,
- And sending out email blasts to your mailing list.
As far as offline promotion, you may want to look into:
- Placing an ad in the local paper or magazine,
- Telling key influencers about your plans,
- Passing out flyers around town,
- And making press release.
Whatever tactic you choose (or rather, whichever combination of tactics), be sure that you keep your branding consistent and let people know the most important details, like:
- And cost.
If they’re aware of those key facts, they’ll be more likely to take a peek at their calendars (and pencil you in!).
How to know you’re ready for the next step: Promotion is an ongoing activity. You’ll only really be done once all of the tickets have been sold and all of the attendees have been confirmed. But if you’ve got a plan for promotion in place, feel free to move on to the next step.
You may be in the midst of promoting your event, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still send out invitations.
Depending on the kind of event that you’re hosting, you may want to send out both formal and informal invitations— meaning paper invitations as well as e-vites.
For instance, if you’re hosting a gala, you’ll definitely want to send out nice, formal invitations.
Be sure to include a way for invitees to RSVP, purchase tickets, or make a donation.
If you want to expedite that process, you can always send out a follow-up email that provides a link to your donation and/or registration page.
The key is to make it as easy as possible for potential attendees to respond and donate.
When do you send out a formal invitation? And when do you send a follow-up message?
Fantastic questions! The simple answer is: give your recipients more than enough time to respond— but not enough time to forget.
The most common best practice is to mail invitations 6 to 8 weeks before the event.
A month and a half to two months will ensure that guests have enough advance notice to tack their invitations up on the fridge, make arrangements to be there, and send back their replies and checks without having to sweat about postage time.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: As soon as the responses start rolling in, whether they’re electronic or paper, it’s time to start performing prospect research.
In the grand scheme of things, major donors are unquestionably the most important donors your organization has.
Major gift donors provide roughly 80-90% of most nonprofits’ funding, and they only comprise 10-20% of most donor bases.
But how exactly do you know which 10-20% they are?
The most straightforward answer is: prospect research.
For those of you who may not know, prospect research is a technique used by nonprofits to learn about donors’:
- Past giving habits,
- Philanthropic tendencies,
- Wealth and willingness to donate,
- And overall capacity to give a major gift.
Most nonprofits that conduct prospect research do so using online tools.
As you’re receiving RSVP’s, you’ll want to start mining that data for potential major donors. Input the names of those who have confirmed their attendance into whichever tool or tools that are most pertinent to your organization.
Keep in mind that philanthropic indicators are just as important (if not more than) as wealth markers.
So while a donor may have millions of dollars in the bank, it won’t make any difference to your nonprofit if they have no history of charitable giving.
That’s why it’s crucial to conduct thorough research and make sure you touch on multiple indicators of major gift affinity.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: You may not find any major gift prospects in your invitee pool, but then again, you might find several! In either case, the way you’ll know that you’re ready for the next step is when you feel satisfied that you’ve turned over every stone.
It’s finally the day of the event.
Before you can relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor, you must first do a final practice run of your event proceedings.
Of course, this will look different for every type of event. If you’re hosting a 5K, you don’t actually have to run 3.1 miles in preparation (although, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to warm up!).
But for something like a benefit concert, you’ll definitely want to test out all of the equipment and run through all of the staging and processions.
Leave enough time to fix any issues and work out any kinks.
There’s nothing worse than a technical glitch in the middle of an awesome, inspiring concert. It can really take donors out of the mood.
Don’t let that happen to your fundraising event attendees.
To prevent this kind of eventuality, you can employ an event checklist, one that will remind you to:
- Check the sound system and speakers,
- Run through the main event at least once,
- Ensure that volunteers know what they’re supposed to do,
- And generally double-check every last detail of the event.
As you’re running through the event and checking items off your checklist, it’s important to keep notes so that you can make any last minute changes.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: You’ve practiced running through the event at least once, and you’ve worked out all of the little issues that arose. Now all that’s left to do is have fun!
This may seem like a fluffy step. Something to round this list out to 10 steps.
But trust me, whether you realize it or not, your donors are looking to you for how they should be reacting to any given moment during the event.
That’s why it’s paramount that you make a good show of how much you’re enjoying the event.
Of course, you should also try to actually have fun— and why not? You’ve spent upwards of 6 months planning and sweating and stressing out; you deserve to let loose and get your groove on.
To encourage more giving during the event, you should be actively participating and engaging with attendees.
If they see that you’re off in the corner, biting your nails and worrying about whether or not the event is being pulled off without a hitch, you can guarantee they won’t leave thinking it was a success.
They’ll leave with the impression that your organization:
- Doesn’t know what it’s doing,
- Or doesn’t believe that the cause is worth giving to.
Alternatively, if they see you jumping in, having fun, and talking passionately about your organization, they’ll walk away thinking:
- “I should be that passionate and involved.”
- “How can I make a difference?”
When you express your joy, it’s sure to spread. Which can only mean positive things for your organization.
How to know you’re ready for the next step: The event has ended, and you’ve had a great time— and so have your supporters!
The event itself may have ended, but your relationship with your attendees has only just begun.
In the 48 hours following a fundraiser, your event attendees are expecting two things:
- Acknowledgement of their attendance and contributions. A thank you, essentially,
- And some kind of record of their donations, like a donation receipt.
On that second point, donation receipts are essential to fundraising event success.
Not only do they afford your donors the opportunity to write off their charitable contributions in the coming tax season, but it also helps your organization keep track of donations over $250.
While donation receipts are crucial for tax and record-keeping purposes, it’s the acknowledgements that will make all the difference in the end.
- The difference between a major gift and a hard pass.
- The difference between a lifelong supporter and a one-time donor.
- The difference between funding a great project and scrimping for operational costs.
The point is: it never hurts to thank your donors and event attendees.
Thus, in the two days following any fundraising event, it’s crucial to send out a thank you, whether it’s:
- A quick “Thanks!” text,
- An email thank-you note,
- Or a formal acknowledgment.
It could even be a combination of all three.
You can never say thank you too often or too fervently.
Now that you’ve reached the final step: It’s time to do it all again. A fundraiser’s job, after all, is never done!
From beginning to end (and beyond), we’ve explored the steps it takes to plan and execute a successful fundraising event.
Regardless of the type of event you choose, it’s important to keep in mind that the best and most successful endeavors are those that come from the heart. The ones that are centered around passion and attainable goals are those that have the most lasting impact.
Here’s hoping you all find that kind of success in whichever events you choose to host next!
For beginner's look at special events, check out the "Special Events 101" training over in The Nonprofit Academy: https://thenonprofitacademy.com/vault/special-events/