Whoa! Special events and individual giving

We ended the last week with a close-up look at what many non-profit organizations are doing to adjust to a restriction in government funding. Click here to read the post titled “Sir Isaac Newton was right about nonprofit organizations“. I ended Friday’s post with a promise that we would look at individual giving strategies from different angles this week. Today, we will look at special events as an individual giving strategy.

I thought it might be fun to look at individual giving through the eyes of those Disney characters from the movie “Finding Nemo”. Why this movie? Because this movie was all about a father who in his search for his lost son learned how to take risks and also discovered his son is capable of taking care of himself. In some ways, I think that individual giving for non-profit agencies kind of follows the same storyline.

Let’s take that scene in the movie where Marlin (the father clown fish) is talking to Crush (the turtle) about Marlin’s experience with jellyfish:

  • Crush: “Oh, I saw the whole thing, dude! First, you were like, whoa! And then we were like, WHOA! And then you were like, whoa.”
  • Marlin: “What are you talking about?”
  • Crush: “You, Mini-Man! Takin’ on the jellies. You got serious thrill issues, dude.”

LOL . . . I think special events are a little bit like this scene from “Finding Nemo”. They are fun. They are not for the faint-of-heart. Too many might actually be dangerous for your organization. However, they are something you probably need to do if you want to “find” donors.

As we talked about on Friday, there are many fundraising volunteers who are fearful about asking friends to make a direct charitable contribution. However, special events feel different from asking for direct contributions because there is a trade involved — you give me $50.00 and I giving you a ticket to a dinner. Quid pro quo.

Unfortunately, there are too many non-profit organizations who just kept adding more and more events to their resource development plan every time there was a shortfall in revenue. Now, they have an unbalanced resource development program, and much like a car with unbalanced tires this can be a recipe for danger.

I won’t go into a long diatribe about how special events aren’t a very efficient way to raise money from individuals. This is a well-worn path, and you can find countless blog posts from me on the subject. However, you may want to click here to read Charity Navigator’s study on special events and how they cost (direct + indirect costs) the average non-profit agency $1.33 to raise $1.00.

All that being said, every non-profit organization needs to have one or two well-run special events built into their annual resource development plan because:

  • They will bring in some money for your agency (if you factor out indirect costs like staff time),
  • They are a soft way for new prospective donors to learn more about your agency,
  • They are a fun way for your agency to engage new volunteers, and
  • They have a cultivation and stewardship effect for many prospects and donors especially if the event has a “mission-focus”.

However, please keep in mind that too much of a fun thing is never good for anyone.  I recent had an opportunity to interview more than 40 donors. I asked the donor if they prefer to make a charitable contribution using an event vehicle or a direct solicitation from a friend armed with a pledge card.  In EVERY interview, the donor came back and said without hesitation that they would prefer the friend and the pledge card.

Remember . . . events have their place. Keep them to a minimum, but do those few events very well. Keep the event mission-focused with an eye to introducing new prospects to your agency and demonstrating to existing donors that their contributions are making a difference. Most importantly, keep in mind that special events are only one of many solicitation strategies you will employ in your efforts to secure more individual giving to compensate for the receding tides of government funding.

How does your agency ensure its special event program doesn’t get out of hand? Do you evaluate every event? If so, what metrics do you use?

Here’s to your health!

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


  1. This is coming right on time. I have my first big resource development project: basically, starting from scratch. And I know that it is easier to get people committed to an important mission with a strong tactic to achieving it… But how do you get started when it seems like you need donations to raise money for donations?!

    A warm list of people we could pledge directly to is best?

    1. A short little comment that in reality is a very BIG question. I suggest keeping this in mind . . . there is no greater, more effective fundraising technique than face-to-face solicitation with an individual (not a company or foundation). So, keep it simple! Put together a list of prospective donors. Assemble some inexpensive materials that talk about your cause. Call the donor, schedule a meeting, sit down with them, and ask them for a contribution.

      The materials can be inexpensive (e.g. a few sheets of paper from a copy shop). You can literally raise thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars if your prospect list is sizzling hot) with an investment of just a few dollars.

      When speaking with your prospective donors BE HONEST. Tell them what their money will be used for, and promise that you’ll come back in a few months to update them on how their money had been used.

      Don’t get overly wrapped up in process questions at this stage of the game. Remember that there is such a thing as the “paralysis of analysis”. AS things progress, commit yourself to “learning by doing”.

      I hope this helped.


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