If you love me, you’d never ask me run another non-profit raffle again

IMG_20130719_171856_480The other day it was hot in the Chicago area, and I decided to run to the grocery store to get some sugar-free ice cream for my diabetic spouse. As I trudged through the hot blacktop parking lot, I saw an unfortunate sight . . . a volunteer sweating his rear-end off standing behind a booth selling raffle tickets for the Knights of Columbus (see picture to the right). I was immediately reminded of a time not-so-long-ago when that used to be me.

The year was 2000 and I had just been hired as the new executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Elgin. Just the year before this organization attempted to run its first Duck Race special event fundraiser. Without going into the details, it didn’t make them money. However, I was young and dumb. I was an inexperienced and a newly minted executive director. I had seen a very dear friend run a Duck Race in a different community, and he had been wildly successful netting close to $100,000.

If he could do it, then I could do it. After all, how hard could it be? All it seemed to entail was:

  • selling corporate sponsorships,
  • standing in high traffic areas and selling $5.00 duck adoptions to people who want a chance at winning a new car, and
  • putting numbers ducks in the river and pulling the winners out of the water to determine who wins which prizes.

What was the big deal? OMG . . . I wish I knew then what I know now.

As I approached the poor hot and sweaty Knights of Columbus volunteer, all of the pain came flooding back to me:

  • Recruiting 100 volunteers to help with every aspect of the race (e.g. marketing, tagging ducks, putting ducks in the water, taking ducks out of the water, data entry, and not to mention selling duck adoptions),
  • Organizing countless teams of volunteers to sell duck adoptions and trying every trick in the book to create a sense of fun-excitement-competition,
  • Chasing down volunteers to sign-up for weekend sales shifts (standing outside of the same grocery store where the Knights of Columbus volunteer was sweating),
  • Spending the entire weekend driving from sales location to sales location to support the volunteers by replenishing petty cash banks, restock merchandise, and fill gaps in between shifts where necessary, and
  • Personally filling holes in the schedule . . . standing outside of the grocery store or hardware store or bank . . . yelling out your sales pitch at people leaving the store . . . getting scowled at by people who don’t appreciate the disturbance . . . selling an adoption to approximately one-out-of-ten people.

ducks2These five bullet points are just the tip of the iceberg. The fact of the matter is that we started planning next year’s Duck Race in the immediate days and weeks after wrapping one up. This special event raffle was a year-round affair.

For me personally, it represented an eight week period of my life every year when I worked seven days per week . . . 56 days in a row without a day off for good behavior. I did this for six years, and when I was weighing the options associated with another job offer, the Duck Race was one of the Top Five reasons I left for greener pastures.

As I passed by the Knights of Columbus booth for the refuge of an air conditioned store, I put my head down and refused to make eye contact with that poor volunteer (just like thousands of other people did to me when I was selling duck adoptions). The last thing that ran through my head was the promise I’ve made myself to never work for a non-profit agency that runs any kind of raffle. The following is a list of reasons for this decision:

  1. Raffles are nothing more than gambling and there are laws, rules and regulations that don’t seem to be worth the time, energy or effort.
  2. Raffles entice donors to make a contribution to your charity for reasons other than your mission and getting these donors to crossover to other campaigns or events is next to impossible.
  3. Raffles involve prizes which means you better not mess things up or you run the risk of being sued.
  4. The record keeping is overwhelming and can involve double and triple entry of financial data depending on how your donor database, financial management system and raffle software are configured.
  5. Opportunity cost and return on investment calculations point to greener pastures when you look at using the same amount of time in other fundraising efforts (e.g. annual campaign pledge drives, etc).

The bottom line for me is that selling raffle tickets and chances should be an activity that is beneath every non-profit board volunteer. Their time is too valuable to ask them to sweat outside of a grocery store selling raffle tickets $5.00 at a time. How many donors could they have sat down with in the same amount of time and asked for a $250, $2,500 or $10,000 pledge?

Here is another way to think about it. If you don’t have the type of volunteers who feel comfortable sitting down individually with important donors and if your volunteers are more willing to sell raffle chances, then you probably have the wrong people sitting around your boardroom table. Perhaps, these people are  well-intentioned fundraising volunteers, but they certainly aren’t good board prospects.

If this last revelation upsets you, please accept my apologies. However, don’t dismiss this thought too quickly. Like a good cup of tea, let this idea steep and then share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


  1. Your post today reminds me of a time when I was the development director for an nfp in the northwest suburbs. While it wasn’t a raffle that I was organizing, it was a street solicitation of drivers in a bunch of busy intersections in the Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates area. This event took an enormous amount of effort in the weeks leading up to the 2 day solicitation, the days of the “event” and the days following. I had to obtain permissions from 2 municipalities, create schedules, recruit and instruct groups of volunteers, and collect money from both days efforts. I also had to organize refreshment drop offs and all the minutia that went into the thing. Of course, the usual efforts regarding publicity, picture taking, etc fell into my lap.

    Meanwhile, the BOD who decided that this was an important event to do failed to sign up to help in any way. The ED “mandated” that direct service staff had to participate except for a very few who had to be available to respond to emergencies back at home. Doing so created a whole bunch of resentment between those who were back at the ranch and those who were out in the heat. A real no win situation.

    We did manage to get a number of volunteers who were stretched into filling longer shifts than they had signed up for because some folks didn’t show because of the heat. The final straw for me was the ED coming back into the office at the end of the event and unceremoniously dumping all the money into the “bucket” while I was sorting things out by “team”. Despite my attempts to tell her that people wanted to know how their teams did in relation to others, she blithely told me “Nobody will care!” and piled everything and took it into the bank.

    Of course, the following Monday, all the team leaders wanted to know how they did, what the results were and on and on and on…They were pissed to say the least. Because I tried to not throw anyone under the bus, the blame ended falling on me. And, you guessed it, the ED never took responsibility for her actions.

    This experience led to one of my vows to never to do that kind of fundraising activity again. The ROI was low. The organizational time was high. The learning was priceless.

    1. Oh Danise … don’t get me going on what some people call “can shakes”. OMG, I think you’ve just inspired another blog post. When I was younger I did some of those types of fundraisers for the Jaycees. You are sooooo right! Can shakes are as hellish as raffles. I hope your experience was only mildly scaring. 😉 Thanks for your comment and a possible new blog post. LOL

    1. Thanks, Dani. Like the person who followed me, you were a smart NFP CEO who killed a similar event in your community. Congrats on not taking as long as I did to figure it out. LOL Thanks for your comment!

    1. Ohhhhh Rose … I am sorry for laying the infrastructure for you to spend so much time after my departure focused on that raffle. Thank goodness you were smart enough to kill that event. 😉

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