Just say “no” to cookie-cutter, same-as-everyone-else’s nonprofit fundraising events!

Back in May, I shared on my podcast that I was starting to plan an event for my family, and it was going to be very different from the typical event. I was planning my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, on a timeframe (around 6 months) and a budget (don’t ask!) that was atypical at best, and laughable to some. I realized that there were lessons here for many of my nonprofit clients, especially those that are smaller organizations and don’t have big budgets or tons of staff support for their events. Here’s the key takeaway:

Don’t plan an event that looks, feels, and unfolds like every other organization’s event, just because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do. If you plan an event that looks and feels like YOUR organization, you can come away with some extraordinary results.

First, a caveat: I’m not a huge fan of fundraising events.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think most nonprofit organizations do not use their fundraising events to their best advantage. They sink enormous amounts of time and money into these events, but they fail to ask for donations, do not ask for enough, and (most tragically) do not follow up with event attendees throughout the year, cultivating them and making them feel a part of the organization’s family. Once you add in the costs of the event and the value of the staff time that has been put towards the event, many fundraising events do not actually make money. There are exceptions to the rule, and I’ve written about my favorite fundraising event of the year, Connor’s Heroes Art Ball (there are some great lessons to be learned from that event).

All that said… some organizations still will, and should, do fundraising events. Sometimes, the event is an expected part of the community calendar, and there are organizations that really use these events to their full potential – securing gifts and sponsorships, cultivating new donors, and maintaining relationships with attendees. If your organization is doing a fundraising event this year, I can share some lessons I learned from our recent event that could be valuable for you. Some of my podcast listeners asked me to report back after our event happened, so here’s what I’ve got to share with you!

Build an event that looks and feels like you.

The Connor’s Heroes Art Ball integrates the people the organization serves (children with cancer, and their families) and some of their healing modalities (the art itself) into the event. On my podcast, I talked about the Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy’s Adult Spelling Bee, a fun, high energy event that sets the organization apart and builds upon the organization’s literacy focus. These events distinguish themselves in their communities, and attendees walk away feeling energized and inspired.

How did my daughter and I plan an event for our family that looked and felt like us, and how can some of our tips apply to nonprofit fundraising (or other) events?:

We started with our values: We value community, creativity, learning and fun. We started with the notion that these would be part of our event.

We thought about what we like: We like hanging out with our friends and family. We like arts and crafts. We like pancakes, and all sorts of diner food.

We kept our eye on the prize. Bat Mitzvahs can become more about the party than the real the meaning of the day. We always prioritized the learning and preparation for the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and our focus on the values and meaning of the day was felt both in the ceremony and in the party.

I compared lots options, but set a date to pull the trigger. I came up with a few party options that would fit with our timeframe and budget, and instead of giving myself endless time to hem and haw, I set a date to make the decision, and I just decided by that date. Once I made the decision, I could move forward with the rest of our plans.

THIS ONE IS BIG: We ignored most of the “you have to” comments. You have to have a professional photographer. You have to have a DJ. You have to have a bar. You have to have printed invitations. You have to order flowers. You have to have a videographer. Nope. Nope. Nope… we didn’t do any of that stuff. Saying no to the “have to’s” gave us space to open up to the “we want to’s.”

We let our imagination run wild. What if we invited lots of family and friends to participate in the ceremony? What if we had a crazy pancake buffet for dinner, with all sorts of fun toppings? What if we could do arts & crafts at our party, and set up a whole arts & crafts bar? What if we made our own music mix to play for our friends and family? What if we collected items to donate to foster kids (my daughter is a former foster kid)? We did all of that stuff! The ceremony was incredible, with 20+ friends and family playing roles and a speech by my daughter that left not a dry eye in the house, and for our dinner and celebration we rented out a local pancake house for a pancakes and arts & crafts party!

We called in reinforcements when we needed them. My friends offered INCREDIBLE advice and support in planning our event. We had amazing teachers helping my daughter and I prepare for the ceremony. And, while I did not depend on a party planner for our entire event, I did use a party planner for day-of support, once I realized that I could not possibly be in two places at once; I needed a party planner to set up our party at the same time that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was happening at a different location. I didn’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish – it was worth it to spend the money to make sure the party was being set up properly while I was focused and mentally present at the ceremony.

I believe that any of these guiding principles could be applied to a nonprofit fundraising (or other) event, making your event memorable, unique, and engaging. Build and event that feels like you, and is grounded in your organization’s values, and your guests will walk away smiling and inspired.


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