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  • Debra A. Gill

Pandemic Silver Lining

Now may be the time to move permanently away from special events.


I cut my teeth on special events at my first fundraising job. A-thons, auctions, fun runs, you name it, and we did it. The whole time I was collecting pledges made to the runners, walkers, and readers I thought I was a successful fund raiser. It wasn’t until I spoke with one of those pledgers and was asked what our organization did that I realized they weren’t donating to us, they were donating so their friend could run, walk, or read. I had so much to learn and learn I did.


To this day I am known for being somewhat evangelical about focusing on major gifts rather than special events. Most not-for-profit organizations have – or had pre-pandemic – a long list of annual events. Golf tournaments, auctions, races, even non-event events are sprinkled throughout the calendar year. Employing dedicated event specialists is not uncommon. In addition to staff, a legion of volunteers is likely involved in helping to execute these events.


Don’t get me wrong, I like events. But in the scheme of things, it is essential to be clear about the intended outcome. Is the event a friend-raiser or a fund-raiser? Many will say it is a little of both and while I agree that events can bring people closer to organizations, there is rarely a clear strategy for truly engaging event participants after the fact.


Almost without fail, when assessing the cost per dollar raised (CPDR), there is a realization that once staff time is factored in – which it must be for an accurate calculation – most events barely break even. While return on investment (ROI) isn’t the only measure of success, it is an essential one. National standards indicate that event spending should be in the range of .25 - .35 cents to raise a dollar, including staff time.


The following are a few questions to explore when assessing event outcomes:

  • Are event participants learning more about the mission of the organization?

  • Is the relationship between the organization and the donor or a third party?

  • Does the event measurably impact donor acquisition and retention?

  • Are your key constituencies engaged and participating at maximum levels?

  • What is the average gift amount per participant?

  • Is there a demonstrated growth trajectory?

  • Does the event attract those with the discretionary income to become major gift donors?

  • If the event went away, could you engage donors – including sponsors – in other more meaningful ways?

For many not-for-profit organizations, events are so ingrained in the culture that it is difficult to imagine not doing them. Events that have been in place for decades are the hardest to sunset. As disruptive as the pandemic has been, a silver lining is that organizations have been forced to change their event mindset. While extraordinary efforts have been made to salvage events through virtual means, it is unlikely that this will be sustainable.


Now is the time to step back and assess outcomes. Now is the time to calculate event ROI and CPDR. Now is the time to be frank about the amount of time staff and volunteers are dedicating to these events and ask the key question: What if that time was redirected toward major gift efforts?


The ultimate question is, will the event bring donors closer to your organization and inspire them to make a charitable investment that is significant to them? If the answer is yes, keep on keepin’ on. If the answer is no, now is the time to move in a different direction.


Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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