Gala FundraiserLast week I was excited to attend the national Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) conference.  There were a lot of great seminars. What I really enjoy most about going to conferences though is meeting others who work in the nonprofit world.

At the first morning opening session I struck up a conversation with someone who does an auction each year.  While she really enjoys planning it she’s concerned about the level of participation this year.  Some of the other conversations I’ve had recently have been along some of the same lines.   When I got home I picked up the The Nonprofit Times March 15th issue and saw the front page article was titled Unhappy Galas. This is beyond Deja vu.

I believe the first action to take to address a problem is to confront it.    Then work toward a solution. Perhaps we can find some best practices and creative ideas (like I mentioned yesterday) and all benefit.

So what is your biggest challenge with special events, especially dinners (formal or not) and auctions?

Leave a comment below... Feel free to vent a litte!  Get it off your chest.   I’ll bet there are a lot of others with some similar concerns.  Let’s discuss…

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Posted on 09 April 2009

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25 Comments For This Post

  1. Sherri says:

    Biggest challenge with events with chinese auctions – time. The time it takes to call out each winner and wait for people to go through all their tickets to check their numbers.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Too much work, not enough money made a lot of the time.

  3. Sandra Sims says:

    Agreed, a lot of work. So you definitely want to see a return (more money raised!) for all of the sweat equity that goes into an event!

  4. Karin A. Costa says:

    I am a fundraising auctioneer who trains development directors and volunteers, plans auction events and conducts financial audits of auctions. In general, financial disasters occur because: no cost analysis is perpared after an event; financial goal setting is haphazard instead of economically based; guest demographics are not considered in auction item selection and price point considerations; and guests/donors get weary with the same auction items and programming year after year that is not fun and unique.

    Often, fundraising auctions look like a commodities sale. Your donors/guests look at bidding on items (silent and live) as how can I get this cheap instead of how can I donate more. If you sell commodities (gift certificates, spa dates, gift baskets), you are not making money and taking lots of volunteer time and frustration finding vendor donations that don’t have a high ROI.

    Furthermore, many events forget to have additional revenue making opportunities to encourage more guests to donate during the gala. There is SO much more than silent and live auction items and raffles! In addition, you must make it fun, timely and involve all of the demographics, and encourage all age groups to become new members/donors. Fun, unique activities will make your gala fun for your guests and rewarding for you and your volunteers.

    Simplifying what and how you get auction items, having a computerized calendar with deadlines, and doing a financial and time audit after each event takes the stress away. Having an outsider look at what you are doing changes the perception, too. You may be training your brina to think only 1 way when other possibilities are more financially rewarding and easier for you to achieve.

  5. Jan Irwin says:

    I have a disabled grandson who has to go to Spain every year for follow up medical treatment (the treatment is not available in the United States). Since he was a year old, I’ve been doing ongoing fundraisers for him. We’ve had some excellent events, but getting people to come to them has been a real challenge. I’ve had articles in the local newspapers, he’s been on the news, and of course, we do emails and send out fliers. What do other people to to raise interest in their events?

  6. Philip Nagata says:

    Crab Feed Dinner, January 2009. Our crab feed has been a success each year. It generally mirrors all crab feeds, except our salads are gourmet and upscale, not just iceberg lettuce (we now have a reputation and following). We decorate well to include the dining hall and tables. We’re in wine country, so each table has wine with a centerpiece and veggie muchies. Our live auction is later in the evening after the raffle and silent auction and attendees have had their fill and are in a bidding mood!! Since there are many crab feeds in our area, it’s important to have yours early in the crab season before people are sick of crab!!
    We had a sell-out this year without advertising and people have already booked for next year!! We charge $40.00/person and have an open bar. We do all the work with volunteers except catching the crab and cracking them.
    Our “Who’s in the Doghouse” fundraiser next month will be more difficult because the amount of funds you will be able to raise will depend on who you are able to get into the doghouse (funds are pledged by friends and associates of whoever is in the doghouse) and you can’t use the same people from year to year. Usually we try to target high profile people in important places, like the mayor of the city or the chief of police. Getting people to agree to sit in the doghouse for an hour during the workweek is not easy. For the amount of effort to set up for this event, the amount of funds raised is very good, though!!!

  7. carina de la cruz says:

    hi, the biggest challenge back here in the philippines is change of mind set — that it’s unconventional for non-profit to profit. I’d like be one of the prime movers to change that thinking… that its ok to profit especially for sustainability…just funnel back the profit to your organization.

    i’d like start by organizing seminars here and distribute publication about fundraising and set a framework and best practices among others. thanks

  8. Sandra Sims says:

    Karin, love how you put this: “Often, fundraising auctions look like a commodities sale. Your donors/guests look at bidding on items (silent and live) as how can I get this cheap instead of how can I donate more.” How can we change this mindset? Different items? Display? Marketing?

    Philip, you make some good points about making the event unique. Sometimes special touches (like the salads) can make a big difference. It shows you care about the people who are coming to the event. A creative theme seems to really help with attendance too. What do you give the people who come to the doghouse? Do you pamper them: massages, drinks, food, etc. How can you entice them to come instead of having to beg them?

  9. Karin A. Costa says:

    Yes, Sandra, all of these. First, offer “items” that are unique, rare or scarce. That is, the guest can only get it at your event. Since 2006, the best selling items that achieve 75% to above 100% of value are unique experiences. Look at your guest demographics, your location and find out what would be fun to do. How about the mayor singing happy birthday to you? What about a party for 20 in a swanky penthouse suite, the towns’ gazebo, a ranch or airplane hangar? What about providing a personal shopper or someone to decorate your home for the holidays? Think outside the box to the ultimate request if you were a millionaire and money could buy anything–private valet and in-home hairdresser and masseuse. If your organization performs (theatre), offer private lessons or a private performance. If you are a cultural center, zoo, animal shelter or museum, offer a private tour, private party on the grounds, opportunity to work behind the scenes or have an honorary title for the year (Chairman of the board or name the lobby). If you are an animal shelter, athletic team or school, look to complimentary professions for demonstrations (K-9 unit, bat boy, groundskeeper, game announcer, private training lessons by coach or team).

    Display and marketing go hand in hand. Use your web site early with a catalog of the lots so your invited and RSVP guests can drool and plan their purchase before the event. Good photos and tantilizing, but not wordy descriptions–think Nieman Marcus or Rodeo Drive marketing–on the web. Carry photos onto a PowerPoint display for live items that flashes during cocktail time and as each lot is sold. Colorful, descriptive posters for each lot sell the package better than looking through celophane wrappers into gift baskets. Get with the new technology for every opportunity to market the event: text messages, blogs, web catalogs, private preview parties, Internet bidding, phone bidding, etc. so you attract and appeal to wide variety of age groups, but don’t forget the old telephone reminders, particularly when you know a package will appeal to certain guests or to encourage groups of people to pool their money to buy a group package (ex. dinner for 4 to 20). Sell, sell, sell the opportunity to donate, not “buy”. Make the event fun and exciting for the guests to donate and follow-up with thank-you’s (written and verbal).

  10. S. Pratt says:

    We (a community theater) don’t do special events, but want to do something big for our 75th anniversary season in 2 years. Our subscribers are primarily 55 and older; some 45 & up.
    We can’t afford too much; they probably don’t want to spend too much.

    Every charity, church and other organization do auctions, silent or not. I can see that as a minor part of the “event”– but am at a loss for the featured attraction. Dinners are pretty dull and can be costly. We would like to make some money if possible, but that’s less of a reason than creating a sense of belonging to the organization.

    We have no one who’s ever done an auction, which could also present problems.

  11. Sherri says:

    S. Pratt I have an annual fundraiser with the target group of 55+ each year. We have a fashion show lunch and they really enjoy it. The best is if you can have them as the models they love it and so do their friends. Along with the fashion show we have a bake sale, Chinese auction, a lottery tree (a tree with $50 of scratch tickets from the state lottery) We also sell all of our other fundraisers there. It is our most successful fundraiser. Another idea is a card party, that age group really enjoys them. Hope this helps with some ideas! Good luck and congratulations on 75 years!

  12. Sandra Sims says:

    I went to a style show that was all hats, which was mainly attended by 55+. Someone had an extensive classic hat collection and they had some new ones too. The models wore all black clothing to keep the attention on the hats. I surprised myself at how much fun it was. Doing something a little different, creative and attention getting each year will help keep up interest in the event.

  13. Andriy says:

    Small city in Ukraine have a problem of running fundraising campaigns. We always looking for people who may bale to assist us how to run fundraising events in small community. Thanks. Orphans’ Future Fund.

  14. Tony Onyema says:

    Thanks, Sandra.

    One of the major challenges we face is that invitees do not respond as much as we would want them to in terms of donations. Most often, you find that the money you raised is almost eaten up by your expenses. I would like to know about silent auctions so that I may try them here and see if they will make a difference.

  15. Karin A. Costa says:

    Dear Tony,

    Agreed that special events take a lot of time. First, determine if your donors and potential like that type of event. Choose ones that they do. Second, crunch the numbers to pre-determine your profit. Can you charge more? Many event guests, no matter the type of event, believe that their ticket is 100% donation.

    Third, silent auctions must be fun, not just the sale of gift certificates or gift baskets sitting silently on a table waiting for people to bid. Again, crunch the numbers before and after the event. If silent auction items return 50% or less of market value, your donors were shopping for bargains, not wanting to donate. You must have good items and GREAT people.

    Fourth, implement more fundraising activities during an auction event that create involvement, excitement, interest in your cause, express your mission and generate a return of 75% to over 100% of value, plus catch new, sustained donors. There are at least 9 tactics to get more money and donors at all giving levels at a single auction event. MOst of these tactics are easy and do not require a lot of time. Furthermore, the items that sell best at auctions do not require much time to gather.

  16. Juliet at Events says:

    S. Pratt,
    I am not in the non-profit arena (yet) but I’m from the media relations/networking event world. I always say “start with who you are.”

    You’re a community theatre and that’s why your donors support you. For your special event I see an elegant buffet set up and a chance for your donors to meet other theatre enthusiasts- specifically, if the event sponsors a group of young drama students by giving them season tickets, and at the event your subscribers can meet these young (possibly urban poor) theatre enthusiasts they are sponsoring, or helping to sponsor. This creates a sense of passing on their passion, and a chance for older subscibers to mentor and connect with your future supporters.

    Also, check your subscriber list for executives who can contribute a few really nice gifts (a golf or spa weekend?) that your 50 and older subscribers would love.

    Make sure the event is elegant enough to warrant party dresses and manicures. And especially … Talk, talk, talk to your subscibers. Events are a two-way interaction, a chance for you to get to really know the hobbies, passions, and wants of your most loyal constituency, and use that knowledge in your follow-up campaigns.

  17. Emmanuel KPETEHOGBE says:

    HELLO Ladies and Gentlemen

    This is an important opportunity to let you know dear Partners, that many people are waitng to do of their best to face challenges whenever an auction is announced. I would like just say my gratitude and my congratulations to Step by step founder Mrs Sandra SIMS and you, entrepreneurs and non profit workers… Have a sincere thank for all your donations, grants, giving or purchases.
    Emmanuel from Benin Republic.

  18. Jen P says:

    I have recently become Exec Director of a community theatre group. Every June we have a “Gala” with a silent auction. In the past the success has been mediocre.

    This year we are not only having a silent auction but a 50/50 raffle and a chinese auction.

    I am trying to determine the best way to get items in a timely manner. Does mail work? email? one on one? We do need more unique donations. Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

  19. Kathy Forrest says:

    Hi. Our organization is struggling with getting Board Members to ask people they know to come to our fundraising event. It is often uncomfortable for us to invite someone to an event where they will be asked to donate money. I need to put together some sort of script for them to use when inviting people, but I am not sure what that might look like. Do you have any ideas?

    Thank you.
    Board Member of SRC

  20. Sandra Sims says:

    Hi Jen – I haven’t found email to be that effective in getting donations unless you are sending to a list of warm prospects – people who already support your organization. Is the event focused well on your mission? Do your youth participants help with the event? These articles may be of help: Sponsor Focus & Creativity the Keys to Corporate Sponsorship Success and Youth Orchestra Fundraising Event a Success

    Kathy – is your event one where attendees pay for a ticket? or is it strictly an event where they are asked to donate? I attended a dinner and concert several years ago where the corporate sponsors underwrote the costs. I was given two free tickets. Donation envelopes were included in the program they handed out, there was a no-pressure ask toward the end of the night and a drop off basket was provided at the door. I was happy to donate b/c during the evening I had learned about the organization, supported the mission and had paid $0 for the ticket.

    I think people are more likely to not want to donate if they had to pay for tickets and/or if they didn’t know it was a fundraiser from the get-go. So when people invite their friends, they need to emphasize it’s a fundraiser and describe what to expect during the evening. This could also be taken care of in the wording of a printed invitation. Then those making the invitation just need to follow up by phone.

    Also help board members identify which of their friends, family or acquaintances are most likely to share their passion for the cause. So thinking about your suicide resource center, I have several friends who are counselors, teachers or have otherwise expressed concern about mental health issues in past conversations. These are the people I’d invite to such an event. On the other hand I know people whose passion is the arts. That’s not a good match.

    You may want to look at Morrie Warshawski’s houseparty book, which has examples of event invites and scripts for the actual ask that happens at the party.

  21. Pamela Grow says:

    What a fascinating discussion!

    I agree with Karin’s comments. Financial goal setting is OFTEN haphazard at best. Too many organizations produce mediocre fundraising events with no bearing on the organization itself (I once attended a golf outing for a woman’s organization – none of the board members even PLAYED golf & the event had no tie in with the organization).

    My experience as both development director and consultant to smaller organizations, has been that resources are best directed otherwise. I can spend 15 hours drafting grant proposals bringing in $250,000 as opposed to spending weeks pulling together an event that might net $5,000 after expenses.

    When I have planned events in the past four years, they have been low-key community-type events planned primarily for exposure, rather than revenue – or small introductory-type donor events held at someone’s home.

    I work solely for smaller organizations though and recognize the value of a marvelous signature event (here in Philadelphia we have a wonderful yearly event – Stop Child Abuse Now’s Scantastic, where the city’s restaurants band together and produce one heck of a fundraiser!).

  22. Pamela Grow says:

    Excuse the repost, but I just came across this post from Norm Olshansky relative to ROI and events – worth a read!

  23. Sandra Sims says:

    That is a great article. I really like seeing statistics and averages. The immediate ROI on events at 50% should be a strong indication that groups should see them as part of their long term relationship building strategy. If there’s no cultivation at the event or follow up after wards, that is a bigtime lost opportunity. Thanks for sharing Pamela!

  24. Juliet at Events says:

    Thanks Pamela, that was very informative. I’m taking your advice and others’ and working on a model that uses events as the “reward” for donations and major gifts. Newsweek reported that people donate more when they hear about positive results of non-profit campaigns, than when they hear repeatedly about the “dire need”. So your event needs to tell the STORY of the benefits to the cause (of your latest projects), whether completed or in progress.

    I agree that non-profit events should honor the demographics of the donors (no golf tourneys for ladies sewing circles?) and the event GOAL should be to galvanize the supporters and volunteers, inspiring further involvement and contributions.

    In retail it’s the difference between bullying the customer into a single immediate purchase (never to be repeated) or developing a go-to relationship with the customer. The event itself is not your biggest revenue generator, but if done right, could be one of your biggest catalysts for community involvement and major giving.

  25. Tony Onyema says:

    Dear Karin.

    Thank you very much for your explanations. But I still would love to know how silent auctions are conducted because I want to try it out here. I would also like to know some of the “9 tactics” you mentioned. Your help will be highly appreciated.

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