Killing sacred cows

A few weeks ago, a dear friend of mine from down south sent me this message through LinkedIn:

“I would like to get your perspective on how to handle an advisory board that loves their special event (they gave birth to it), it costs $0.95 on each $1.00 raised and takes months of time and effort. “

My first thought here was: “WOW, it only costs 95 cents to raise a dollar with that special event?”

For those of you who are not familiar with Charity Navigator’s “2007  Special Events Study,” I strongly urge you to read it. They discovered that the average special event fundraiser (when considering direct and indirect costs) will cost a non-profit agency $1.33 to raise $1.00.

I wonder if the aforementioned 95 cent cost included indirect costs like staff time.

Not included in the study (because it would be impossible to do) is calculating the “opportunity cost” involved with a special event fundraiser. In other words, what other fundraising opportunity did we miss out on because we spent our volunteers’ time doing a special event? How much more money could we have raised (and at what cost) if we asked the same staff and volunteers to run an annual campaign pledge drive instead of that labor intensive gold outting?

Here’s the thing . . . volunteers LOVE special events because it is the least scary form of fundraising. They are out selling tickets and feel comfortable doing so because they’ve rationalized that their friend is getting something of value in exchange for their donation; whereas, no one is getting anything in return for an annual campagn pledge.

According to, a sacred cow is “an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning.” In my opinion, special event fundraising is likely one of the non-profit volunteer’s most sacred cows, and killing sacred cows is hard to do!

If you are determined to kill a sacred cow, then you only have one path to travel . . . it has to be the idea of those people who hold it sacred.

How can that be done? Here are a few ideas:

  • Engage your event volunteers in a post-event evaluation meeting. Share the Charity Navigator study with them. Calculate the event’s TRUE cost (direct + indirect) and share info, too. Ask them how they’d handle the same situation back home at their place of employment if a product or service was losing money.
  • Use your resource development committee, as part of your annual resource development planning process, to look at every revenue stream and its true cost. Engage them in reviewing your agency’s resource development policies. If you don’t already have policies setting ROI standards for events, walk them through that exercise.
  • Pull together a focus group of key donors. Share the Charity Navigator study along with your special event data with them. Ask them for their observations and suggestions. See where the conversation takes you. It might be very interesting! Make sure all of the focus group’s feedback gets shared with the event committee, resource development committee and board of directors.

It is important to remember that special events do serve a good purpose, especially with providing an opportunity to engage new prospective donors. It is never a good idea to just eliminate all events. A few well oiled special event fundraisers (with decent ROI) can serve an important role in your agency’s resource development program.

What advice would you give my dear friend? How do you keep special events from getting out of hand at your agency? How have you killed sacred cows without incurring your volunteers’ wrath? Please use the comment box below to weigh-in on this subject because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

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