Nonprofit Fundraising that may kill you

Okay, okay. It may not kill you, but it won’t sustain your organization or you for that matter. Don’t go there. Go somewhere else.

It was June 15th, 2015. This was THE day the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup AND tornado sirens went off throughout the city and its suburbs. Chicagoland experienced some of the most severe weather and naturally, the whole city was obsessed with their beloved hockey team.

Oh yeah… It was also the very same day the nonprofit organization I worked for held its largest fundraising event of the year, in a geographical location that wasn’t particularly easy to get to in the best of circumstances.

(And due to excessive rainfall the roof was leaking in the entryway of the venue.)

You may be thinking that this event, (which even had an outdoor food truck as one of its vendors), was a total flop.

Nope. It wasn’t.

So, I am not a huge fan of the overuse of the fundraising gala. I am careful in how I state this, because there is a time and a place for a fundraising gala in SOME, but not ALL organizations.

As the Director of Organizational, Institutional Advancement, Development, blah, blah, blah, I have always enjoyed taking risks with fundraising events. (and other things too.) My avoidance in spearheading galas started when I listened to countless constituents say how much they absolutely hated them. I asked myself and others,

Why are we doing something that people hate and doesn’t remotely fit with our brand? How would a gala move our mission and organization forward?

It’s not as if galas have some sort of airtight formula for success. If you don’t get the right honoree, or the right chairs, or the right keynote, your gala may only produce rubber chicken, a need to wear Spanx in a dress that you hate with shoes that hurt, and most of all, may lead to attendee confusion about your mission. Furthermore, if you get an honoree that will raise a lot of money, are you going to be able to convert these incidental donors into committed donors? If the honoree, event chair or speaker are the reasons funds have been raised and not inspired by your organization’s work, how will you get people invested? How is that right in sustaining your organization?

I think these are all questions that need to be asked before any move, whether it be an event, a marketing campaign, or even a correspondence with a donor or donor prospect.

On June 15th, when we embarked on implementation of an extremely creative event concept, we’d already procured ample sponsorship before the event, we knew those who could actually attend would have a great time, and we had a myriad of in kind donations and discounted vendors, so our expenses were exceedingly low. (Thanks to extensive work on creating a thoughtful, “What’s in it for me” package for our vendors and sponsors.)

There was no keynote speaker. There was no honoree. While it felt risky, it was a calculated risk that paid off. The organization’s work, its programs and initiatives were highlighted in different areas of this hip (leaky) venue. It empowered the attendees to go where THEY wanted to go and also created an intimate setting for us not to overgeneralize our work. It was a fundraising event full of conversation, education on our programs, with a side of  incredible food from top chefs and diverse restaurants throughout the city. (People even walked out in the pouring rain to the food truck.)

Now, I work for ORT Chicago. After a year and a half, I will be the Executive Director on September 1st.

I love ORT for too many reasons to list here. Historically, ORT Chicago has been very event heavy. There are beloved events for a very devoted, social constituency, but events are a tactic for outreach and community building more than anything else. They will not sustain us.

Don’t worry. We will still do events here. People love them. What we can’t do is suck the life out of our resources. Events can do that to the best of us.

So, don’t just do galas because they’re galas and that’s what nonprofits do to raise money. Don’t just send e-blasts because you think you need to promote something. Seriously. Ask key questions before you do anything:

  • How will this move our mission forward?
  • Is our messaging clear,100% authentic and does it relay an inspiring story?
  • Is it donor-centered? Saying how great we are isn’t inspiring and isn’t about the donor, right? What’s in it for them?
  • Do we have a retention plan in place BEFORE the fundraising event?
  • How will we develop leaders? Where do they want to go? What is our call to action and will it match with our constituency?
  • Are we having fun?

If all of these questions have been honestly answered and you still believe your organization should do an expensive gala, there’s a good chance that your gala is going to rock as it raises gobs of money. This is my hope for you and your nonprofit.

Just please don’t invite me unless you can hook me on your mission first.

Author: PKW

Writer, Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer, Fundraiser, Strategist, Listener, and Lover of Humans. My love for humans and relationship building are a part of every single thing I do, except for maybe using the bathroom.

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