To fund a spiritual rest area for truck drivers, Father Adelir Antônio de Carli tied himself to over 1,000 helium-filled party balloons. After taking off in a chair attached to the balloons, he reached an altitude of 6,000 meters before losing contact with authorities.
Carli’s flight equipment included a parachute, helmet, waterproof coveralls, GPS device, mobile phone, satellite phone, flotation device chair, aluminum thermal flight suit, and at least five days of food and drinking water (Wikipedia).
In a few days, they found pieces of the balloons floating in the sea off the coast. Three months after Carli’s fundraiser, they found his body floating in the ocean.
Carli’s story is an extreme example of the high price of event fundraising.
An overemphasis on event fundraising can kill your major gift fundraising. Many major donors don’t give as they could to the causes they love because we do not ask them to. Instead of doing the hard work of identifying a donor’s interests and passions and creating an “ask” that is tailored to them, fundraisers will invite major donors to an event.
Then, they will spend a great deal of time and money organizing the event. A rousing program is delivered along with an activity or delightful meal. A celebrity (local or otherwise) gives an inspirational talk. The event comes off flawlessly with a return on investment (ROI) of about 1:2. That means that for every dollar raised, the true cost is fifty cents.
To raise $1 in a fundraising event, it will cost you $.50 to raise it.
After the event, the major donor goes home, and not much has changed in their relationship with the organization.
I am not saying that nonprofits should abandon event fundraising. I am saying that you should understand its true cost. Event fundraising can be a very important part of a full-scale fundraising program. Just don’t overemphasize them.
A few years ago, an organization hired me to help them with their fundraising efforts. Their biggest source of income was from an annual dinner. They always hired an in-demand speaker and caterer, sold tables, and rejoiced at the money that came in. Their second biggest source of income was an annual golf tournament where participants paid to take part. Everyone always had fun, and the money went toward their annual budget.
They hoped I would help them do more and better fundraising events.
When I probed them about the return on investment (ROI) for these events, they couldn’t see the proverbial trees for the forest. The only thing that mattered to them was that they made some money from the events. They couldn’t see how they were doing a lot of work for comparatively little money.
Planning this event for hundreds of people was gargantuan. For months, their already overworked staff slaved overtime hours over the details of the venue, catering, and ticket sales. Board members all took an allotment of table sales to their friends in the business community. It was a lot of work, but everyone knew the result would be $150,000.
I challenged them to be sober and understand that the ROI for most fundraising events is about 50% (read here). Every dollar raised costs 50 cents. After analysis, we found it was true for them; the cost of their annual $150,000 fundraiser was around $75,000.
They couldn’t see that they were on a fundraising treadmill built on scarcity. Hard to believe, but mediocre fundraising success can keep you from exceptional fundraising success.
They couldn't see that $75,000 was a little bit of money compared to what they could have been bringing in. Yes, $75K is a lot of money, but compared to $1,000,000, it is small.
The $75,000 this organization received from this event intoxicated them and kept them from seeing that, with the same amount of work, they could have been receiving much more. Their goal was to wear themselves out doing more $75,000 events.
Somewhere along the way, this organization began to believe that, rather than exciting people by talking about the awe-inspiring and important work of their organization, they should entertain people with some good food or a little fun in exchange for money. At some point in their history, they accepted the thinking that people won’t go for the serious conversations–that they would rather be entertained for an evening. And when some money came in, it cemented them into a non-stop treadmill of bake sales and black-tie galas.
With the $75,000 they spent to make money at that event, they could have hired an advancement director for an entire year. This advancement director could have shown up talking to donors and inspiring them through meaningful stories. And, following the strategies that I teach in the Minor Touches Major Impact Fundraising Method, the organization’s income would have doubled, tripled, or more.
To this day, the organization squeaks by on the $250,000 they get from events and some grant money. And you should know, they all live exhausted.
One more thing–they hate fundraising.
Some years ago, a headline told of three hundred whales that suddenly died. The whales were pursuing sardines and found themselves marooned in a bay. Frederick Broan Harris commented, “The small fish lured the sea giants to their death . . . They came to their violent demise by chasing small ends, and by prostituting vast powers for insignificant goals. (John Maxwell)
You’ve got to get this. Many nonprofit organizations prostitute their vast visionary fundraising abilities for short-term limited success. It happens all the time.
Think about it; the content of most events is geared toward the event and not the organization’s cause. It is about the run, or the golf, or something else. This brings the donor to the event thinking about the event, not the mission of the organization. And the event is geared toward a one-time small transaction at the event instead of a larger ask.
Your major donors are more likely to give less at your event than they would if you approached them face-to-face with a personal ask. Why is that? Because the group dynamic of your event diminishes the energy of your donor’s relationship with your mission. In a large group, your donor might think, “Look at all the people involved in helping this mission. They don’t really need me to engage at a high level.” Of course, the opposite can happen. They could get caught up in the energy of the crowd and decide to take part. Be aware.
The key is to be strategic in your event fundraising. The aim of your event is to provide content that matches your donor's interests and inspires them to donate more towards your mission.
Make your ask in a way that clearly communicates to your major donors how much you need their generosity.
Create an ask at your event that is big enough to cover the sum of individual asks you would have made to major donors. You are leaving money on the table if you present a $75,000 need at your event when the sum of what the major donors in the room could give is $250,000.