Making your fundraising event a success

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

It seems that spring brings us an even greater number of nonprofit events – plant sales, 5Ks, galas, golf tournaments and teas – with many including silent or live auctions as part of the activities. Board members play a significant role in the success of these events, from soliciting sponsorship support to designing invitations to serving as the cleanup crew. These are all important activities, but the board’s involvement must begin long before the event is even scheduled to ensure its success.

Events have a greater level of unpredictability associated with them than other fundraising methods. The weather, national and local events, and even people’s moods can dramatically affect event revenue. Yet, despite their risks, fundraising events seem to remain popular with all types of organizations. So how can the board help organize a successful fundraiser that meets its financial goals, shines the best light on the organization and builds stronger commitment among its supporters?


No sacred cows

Too often, organizations present an event because that’s what they’ve always done. Without careful evaluation, a fundraising event can become enshrined as part of an organization’s regular activities, long after it has lost its effectiveness.

As it sets its annual schedule, the board should objectively review the event’s purpose and if it has historically met its financial and attendance goals. The board will want to consider if the event promotes visibility, understanding and the reputation of the organization and its work. If the event’s success has been declining, the board should consider gracefully retiring the activity, replacing it with more effective means to promote and raise funds for the organization.


Consider capacity

Events are a high-cost, labor-intensive approach to fundraising. A board must examine an event’s direct costs, its indirect costs (typically staff time) and the opportunity costs to determine if the return on these is justified.

The board should also make sure that it has the right team to plan and present the event – that includes people with marketing capabilities, operations experience, financial expertise and volunteer management experience. It’s not enough to simply have these people around the board table; the team must be committed to the time and work required to develop and present the event.


Consider the environment

In scheduling and designing an event, the board must find a time and location that does not conflict with other community activities that will interest the organization’s target participants. In addition to avoiding scheduling conflicts, the board should aim to design an event that has distinct appeal to its potential audience. That might mean finding an unusual location, presenting an inventive program, or bringing in a popular speaker or performer to help boost attendance and visibility. Finding unique and unusual ways to highlight the work of the organization will help the event be distinct, appealing and memorable.


Make the connection

An event’s success is not only about the dollars raised, but about the connections made and strengthened with those who attended. The board should ensure that the activities make a memorable connection to the organization’s work. Attendees should be able to recognize what organization is hosting the event and be able to tell what the organization does.

The event’s plan should include a process to follow-up with attendees within a couple weeks after the event. That follow-up should help connect attendees to something larger than the occasion itself by re-emphasizing the connection between the event’s success and the organization’s ability to do its work in the community. Without emphasizing this connection, a fundraising event is little more than a party – fun, but not necessarily the best use of a nonprofit’s resources.


No magic bullet

Although it can be tempting, organizations should avoid becoming overly reliant upon event revenue. Even organizations that are able to produce successful and popular events should use a diversified approach to raising funds and increasing visibility. Objective analysis and careful planning can help ensure that events are financially successful and keep the organization’s work at center stage.

Savvy boards recognize that good events are not only fundraisers, but also ‘friend-raisers.’ Organizations that build upon these connections are much more likely to be successful and experience long-term financial sustainability.




Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit