Raising Money from Special Events

By Nancy Quinn

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Once upon a time, dance companies could crank out government agency applications and foundation grant proposals day in and day out, and the results could keep them afloat for decades. Today, with declines in all categories of support, dance companies have to be more enterprising. Producing special events is one way to bring in extra cash.

The very term “special events” used to conjure up “rubber chicken” affairs in drafty hotel ballrooms. Today, even if the food is somewhat better than it used to be, the trick is designing an event that people will actually attend. Bay Area theatre and dance companies have risen to the occasion, creating events that are fun, affordable and contribute to the bottom line. Here’s how it’s done:

Form a Committee and Create a Concept:
Start a year before the event, but you can start later for smaller, less complicated events. The bigger the event, the longer the lead-time needed. There is a reason why the Black & White Ball only takes place every two years.

Brainstorm:
To determine what kind of event you want to have, think about what you are trying to achieve. Is it to thank donors? Attract new prospects? Get publicity? Or just make money? Be very clear about what the goal of your event is. Donor recognition events are typically pretty simple wine and cheese receptions; to attract new donors you may have to come up with something more elaborate, or involve a high profile guest of honor. Fundraising events can be just about anything, from bowling tournaments to wine auctions to Oscar Night parties.

The second part of the “what kind of event” question may be answered by looking at your organization’s capacity. For example, if you don’t have a large volunteer pool, a 5K race probably isn’t right for you. Also, budget and cash flow limitations may be a factor, particularly if what you’re thinking of involves significant up-front costs (deposits for space rental, printing, etc.).

Finally, whom do you expect to come? Board members should be obligated to come, but who else? Subscribers? Parents of participants in a youth program? Donors? Major donors? The event needs to be attractive to the target group, e.g., a picnic for youth program families, a wine-tasting for major donors.

Consider linking the event to your current season. If you’ve got a show that is about the environment, make your event a hike with a picnic at the end. That way you get double duty: raising funds and promoting your show.

Before going any further, present the committee’s idea to the full board, and make sure you’ve got buy-in from everyone. This is absolutely key, because you need board members to serve as volunteers, buy tickets, bring their friends and take pride in the event’s success.

Make a Plan
Figure out what you will need to make the event happen. How many volunteers need to be recruited? How will you promote the event? Direct mail? Posters? What mailing list will you use? Most companies have a large mailing list for marketing their season, but wouldn’t really want to send out 10,000 invitations to a black-tie optional Oscar party—segmenting your mailing list to target the specific group you want to participate is essential. Is there special equipment you need, like a big screen TV? What about materials? Besides invitations (with Evite you can avoid paper invitations altogether), do you need sponsorship or silent auction forms? Donation envelopes?

Make a Budget
This isn’t much different from putting together a production budget for a show. The main thing is be realistic. Over-estimate expenses, under-estimate income. If it’s a new event, put in extra for marketing and promotion. Itemize everything: artist fees, rentals, food and beverages, paper goods, flowers, print materials. Watch for hidden costs: staff time, delivery costs, piano tuning.

Figuring out income can be trickier. Generally, a gate fee of some kind (even a nominal one) should be charged to ensure buy-in from participants. But how much? One good way to set prices is to consider what your board members would pay: $10? $25? $75? The price needs to be affordable to your target audience and also reflect value for the kind of event that you are presenting. Hot dogs and popcorn might be fine for a $10 per person picnic, but not for $50 per person Tony Awards screening. Once you’ve settled on a ticket price (and the board members are prepared to pay it), be conservative when estimating attendance.

Oh, no! Expenses are greater than income! How did this fund-raiser become a fund-loser? Time to tweak expenses, not pad income. Which expense items can be donated? Lots of retailers will contribute food and beverages for nonprofits, just ask. What can’t be contributed may be found at reduced prices. Some wineries, for example, offer a 2-for-1 price for nonprofits. You shouldn’t have to spend much on food— few items from Costco, plus some things brought by board members, arranged on nice platters make a very nice buffet (and no one will know you did it on the cheap).

Finally, consider finding a sponsor. Think of a business that has some promotional tie to the event and that also would benefit from exposure to the participants: a pet store, if you’re doing a dog show, for example. Also consider your organization’s vendors and other business ties, a board member’s company or your bank.

Make a Timeline
Details! Details! Include everything: when the mailing labels have to be ready, when the invitations drop, when the e-mail reminder goes out, when sponsorship and in-kind requests go out, etc. Assign tasks: who is going to Costco, and when? Who’s arriving early to set up, and who’s staying late to clean up?

Have a Good Time
You’re well on your way to a successful event. Report on progress at each board meeting, and make sure board members have bought their tickets and are bringing friends. Then have fun. At the heart of any successful event, no matter how big or small, is that people had a good time.

That said, don’t forget the business of the day: to raise money for your company, to increase public involvement in your work, to thank donors. Whatever your goal was, don’t forget it. If you’ve decided to make a pitch for contributions (which you can only do if the event was free or the gate fee nominal), be sure you have assigned someone to make the ask, and that you have two or three individuals ready to write checks as soon as it’s time. Have donation envelopes and pens ready, and a basket for collection.

Acknowledge and Thank Everyone Involved
After the event, acknowledge volunteer efforts with thank you notes and little perks. Send pictures, press clippings, and thank you letters to sponsors and donors. Give kudos for special efforts at the next board meeting. Add guest names to your mailing list. Reconcile income and expenses. Hold a post-mortem meeting of the committee to talk about the highlights and/or challenges of the day. Did you make your goal? If not, why not? Most of all: congratulate yourselves on a job well done.

Special events are a great way to engage and involve people in your company’s work. But more than that, events represent an essential tool in any organization’s fund-raising kit, and one that will help sustain your company over the long haul.


NANCY E. QUINN is a Bay Area fundraising consultant whose 27-year practice has focused on nonprofit arts organizations in all disciplines.

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