Beware of Fundraising Zombies!

I’ve finally had my fill of special events ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

In my hometown of Elgin, Illinois, the city will host a “zombie-themed” Halloween event for adults on October 29, 2011. It is being promoted as “Nightmare on Chicago Street“. While this sounds fun and I am sure it is a great idea to entice people to visit our starving downtown merchants, I was shocked and disappointed when I heard that city staff, council members and our newly elected mayor were promoting this as one of their strategies to help area non-profit organizations during tough economic times.

Here is the back story in a quick nutshell.  The City of Elgin is facing tough times (as are most municipalities) and is projecting a $4.5 million budget deficit next year unless belt-tightening occurs. There are some who want to cut city spending to support non-profit organizations that align with key community strategic priorities. Please understand that the story is much more complicated than this quick synopsis, but let’s start here.

With non-profit organizations starting to light their torches and grab their pitchforks, someone at city hall came up with the genius idea to sell this event to non-profits as a way to make some money. Again . . . here it is in a quick nutshell . . . non-profits have been given 100 tickets on consignment, they sell tickets for $5.00 each, and they get to keep the profits (aka $500.00). In exchange for the city’s incredible generosity, participating non-profit organizations are supposed to rally their volunteers to help out on the day of the event.

Hmmmmmm? Where do I start?

  • Wow, really? An opportunity to net $500? Thanks! Let’s get real . . . weeks of ticket sales and a bushel basket of volunteer hours all for a $500.00 return on investment is paltry. In fact, a good non-profit agency can sit down with an individual donor and walk away with a $500.00 pledge to their annual campaign with a simple one-hour investment of time.
  • The ONLY reasons that intelligent non-profits organize a few well-run annual special events is to: 1) raise awareness of their brand and 2) create a venue for new prospective donors to join the party and get to know the charity in a fun atmosphere. This city event accomplishes neither of these goals for any of the participating organizations.
  • Most importantly, when will ANYONE out there read the “2007 Special Events Study” commissioned by Charity Navigator? Special event are a terrible way to raise money. The study found that the typical non-profit organization ends up spending $1.33 to raise $1.00 (looking at direct and indirect costs) with a special event vehicle.

My advice for Elgin area non-profit organizations — act like Nancy Reagan and “Just Say No!” Stop selling your tickets. Turn your tickets back into the city. Don’t recruit your volunteers to work this event. It isn’t worth it, and more to the point . . . you are being poor stewards of your organization’s resources if you go down this road.  Frankly, I can’t think of a bigger non-profit sin.


My advice to the City of Elgin (or any city doing this kind of thing with their non-profit sector) — do this event and do it in style. The downtown merchants are in desperate need of your help. You need to drive traffic downtown. However, you need to stop exploiting your influence with non-profit organizations. It just isn’t cool! You know non-profits will jump through any hoops you put out there for them because they mistakenly believe that currying your favor might lead to city grants or government funding. Start partnering with non-profits by reaching out to those who align with the city’s strategic interests. This collaboration could include any number of things: helping identify grant opportunities at the state and federal level, partnering on grant writing,  and providing access to key city resources including your employees (e.g. volunteer opportunities, etc).

My advice to donors — Go to the Nightmare on Chicago Street or whatever your local municipality is organizing. We need to re-ignite our collective sense of community during these tough economic times. With regard to Elgin’s event, DO NOT purchase tickets from your favorite non-profit organization. You are doing them a great disservice, sending the wrong message, and enabling bad fundraising practices. Instead, pay the extra $2.00 at the door and send a personal check to the charity you would’ve bought your tickets from (because a direct donation to a non-profit’s annual campaign is the least expensive way for an organization to raise funds). As a matter of fact, I encourage donors to go a step further . . . send a message to those non-profits who are selling tickets by boycotting all of their events for the next year. Whenever you get an event invitation in the mail, just send them the money you would’ve spent. If no one shows up to their events, non-profits will stop organizing them and you will have more time to spend at home with your family.

OK . . . there are lots of people having fun with the Nightmare on Chicago Street (and countless other special events being organized in other communities) as evidenced by this YouTube video on Elgin zombies and this YouTube video of pumpkins and ghosts on Chicago Street. Have a ton of fun, but join me in sending a strong message to non-profit organizations about being more attentive to concepts like “return on investment” and being “good stewards” of their agency’s resources.

Where is your organization regarding the question of special event fundraising? How do you perceive the government funding trends? What are you doing to insulate your agency against city council and city staff belt-tightening initiatives? Please weigh-in using the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847|


  1. Love it Erik! You tell it like it is! While we are trying to get our nonprofits to stop the small ticket sale events (and as many others as possible), something like this undermines the message. GREAT job!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Karen. You wouldn’t believe how many emails I have received this morning. People love their events, but non-profits need to know where to draw that line. Why can’t NFPs understand the ROI concept better like their for-profit cousins? It is confounding!

  2. Hallelujah on this incredible post!
    I feel like a special event zombie right now!

    Organizing a 29th Annual Dinner & Auction for one organization on Nov. 19

    Writing sponsor proposals for another organization for a 3rd Annual Dinner & Auction on Nov. 17

    Rallying some friends for a very small, fun event to raise awareness and money for my own 3Day walk on Oct. 22nd.

    While i do 100% agree with your entire post, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed…
    All three are doing less than two special events per year, and placing a major focus on individual giving, so in a sense…it’s logical…the community expects them – just two per year I agree with as you said for awareness and community stewardship/cultivation….

    anyhoo….my nine cents worth.

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