Fundraising events -

Fundraising Events


Events Fundraising

In this chapter we explored the role of fundraising events within an overall fundraising strategy. We identified four key categories of fundraising event and described what to expect from each. We also explored event planning logistics and how to evaluate the performance of each category of event.


Why Conduct An Event?

Why conduct a fundraising-related event at all? While the answer may seem obvious, this is not a simple question. In fact, misunderstanding an event’s purpose has led many organizations to spend valued resources foolishly, risk public exposure of failure, and exhaust and dishearten many volunteers.

Within a comprehensive fundraising strategy, there are four primary reasons for an organization to engage in fundraising events:

  • fundraising;
  • identification of prospects;
  • education and cultivation; and
  • appreciation/recognition

While the purposes of these events are not mutually exclusive, identifying the primary objective of an event prior to planning and implementation will determine its success.

The first and most obvious reason for holding a special event is to provide a social opportunity for participants to make a monetary gift. However, anyone who has developed or participated in special events knows that the raising of funds through special events is frequently the highest cost per dollar raised. Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule, but they are just that—exceptions. Events rarely offer a high return on the fundraising investment.

A second type of fundraising event is organized and implemented to attract individuals, corporations and foundations to participate who have a particular interest in the cause. Examples include a gala, a run, or a fishing tournament. The purpose of this approach is the identification of prospects.

The education and cultivation of supporters is the purpose of a third category of event. These events are designed to provide individuals with an increased understanding of the impact of the not-for-profit and thus its case for support. Events in this category include a tour, an open house, or a neighborhood gathering.

Finally, the fourth and perhaps most important is the recognition event. This event might acknowledge leadership voluntarism and/or the giving of significant funds. It is a vital aspect of the fundraising continuum and is often associated with awards ceremonies, dedications, the unveiling of donor walls, private parties with special guests, and the like.

Other authors have their own perspectives on how to classify fundraising events, but they broadly agree with our typology.


Categories of Events

1. Fundraising Events

If raising funds is the immediate goal, ideally the event will be one in which people make significant contributions while the organization incurs relatively low cost. Depending on the prominence and significance of the organization, virtually any type of special event could meet this qualification. A walk for breast cancer in a community in which breast cancer has an historical pattern of volunteer involvement and awareness could raise significant funds. After all, a t-shirt costs very little and walking is free.

However, if there is no appropriate media sponsor, community support, volunteers, and benefits such as prizes and recognition, what might at first glance appear to be a low cost fundraising event might raise only a few dollars. A classic example of this might be an organization that seeks a neighborhood captain and asks them to solicit their neighbors by passing an envelope from one neighbor to the other until proceeds are collected.  While very inexpensive, generally modest returns are yielded since there is little motivation for gifts of reasonable size, little or no education about why the funds are needed, and virtually no recognition for participation.

At the other end of the spectrum, an auction with a combination of unique auction items and the attraction of people of means to a nice environment can yield substantially larger gifts. Of course, these successful special events don’t just happen. They are successful when an appropriate environment is deliberately created, socially competitive and motivated guests attend,  good food and relaxing beverages are provided, and an auctioneer is selected who knows how to use their energy to build excitement.

Fundraising Event Illustrations


The Seattle Furry 5k is a fun-run with pets which to raises money for the Seattle Animal Shelter. The 2009 event raised over $120,000 for the shelter.


The Greater Bay Area Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International hosts a variety of fundraising events as well as events focused on education and/or advocacy.


The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago hosts a variety of creative events, including “Flirting for Disaster”, a series of social mixers aimed at young professionals. They also offer such participatory events as the Red Cross Classic annual golf tournament and Run Red Team, during which participants take part in a local marathon or other race.

2. The Identification Event

An event used for the identification of prospects may have no direct fundraising element to it at all. In fact, developing events of this type may involve a nonprofit in considerable net expense. The goal is not to make money, but rather to identify a significant number of additional new prospects, typically for major gifts or significant volunteer leadership positions.

Mirroring a discussion we had earlier in the context of direct mail, a good source of prospects is typically a pool of individuals who were engaged in the past, so the focus need not be on completely new supporters. For example, volunteer leadership cycles through an organization as priorities shift and attention wanes. An identification event might therefore take the form of an open house for past board members or volunteers. The reengagement of these individuals can be critical in advancing the fundraising mission of the organization. Other nonprofits use events to try and avoid this disconnect from occurring in the first place. If an event is held when new officers are inducted and a gavel is passed ceremoniously from past officers to new ones as names and service dates are read, a continued commitment can be reinforced every year. Other examples of groups of individuals frequently in need of resuscitation are retired employees, spouses of retired employees, current employees, neighbors or vendors.

3. Education and Cultivation Events

Special events for educational purposes are generally geared toward a smaller, highly qualified audience with the capacity to be supportive of the organizations goal’s and mission. Educational fundraising events can be designed for as few as two or several hundred people, as appropriate.

Educational events can usually be charged for, with prices varying substantially by the form that the event will take. They might vary between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars with the goal typically being to cover the cost, although this need not always be the case. There can be great value to an organization in enhancing donor understanding of the service being provided, so an initial up-front investment can pay dividends in the medium to longer term.

An education event can also produce internal and external momentum for a cause or organization. Well-produced and promoted education events can develop a perception that the hosting organization is at the cutting edge and moving its agenda forward. Key messages sprinkled in this social environment can build genuine excitement and enthusiasm.

Additional information on cultivation events and case study illustration can be found at the Public Broadcasting Major Giving Initiative.

4. Recognition Events

A recognition event celebrates significant participation, volunteerism, and support, but it can also fulfill many of the earlier three functions too. Aside from those being honored, those in attendance may represent families, friends and acquaintances who may all have a personal interest in supporting the cause. A joint goal of identifying prospects could therefore also be satisfied. Depending on how the event is orchestrated and performed, a greater understanding of the goals of the organization might also be accomplished.

Recognition Event Illustration


The Volunteer Breakfast with the CEO of Make-A-Wish foundation of Southern Florida was an opportunity for volunteers and supporters to get together and celebrate the accomplishments of the organization.


Anatomy of an Event

Kilkenny (2006) highlights a range of issues that event managers must typically consider.

  • Objectives – it is essential that the objectives for an event are agreed upon from the outset.
  • Participants/Attendees – the selection of attendees will flow logically from the event objectives. If it is a recognition event, the senior management team, board members and volunteers will all be invited together with the donors to be honored , their families and perhaps other donors who the organization hopes to inspire. If the event is designed to fundraise it will be essential to ensure that an appropriate list of potential donors is drawn up well in advance. House lists may be employed, but equally the organization may want to reach out to the wider community to raise awareness of the cause and engage with new supporters.
  • Site Selection – event organizers have also to think through where the event will be hosted. This might take place in someone’s backyard, or it might require an arena! Event organizers need to maintain a file of potential venues in their area, together with details of the facilities, contact details and prices.
  • Promotion – for invitation events a nonprofit will want to send out save the date e-mails and/or cards around 7-10 weeks before the date of the event. The invitations themselves should go out around 4-6 weeks before the event (Freedman and Feldman, 2007). For other categories of event it may be necessary to work with the local media to attract the necessary participants.
  • Timeline – event planners will also want to map out in detail a timeline for the planning of their event. Gantt chartsallow fundraisers to make a visual representation of the actions that need to be taken and the dates by which each action must be accomplished. Organizations running many different events in the course of a year may find it helpful to invest in specialist event planning software that enables the user to generate Gantt charts and other resources that will automatically adjust all other events if a deadline is missed. Equally, smaller nonprofits may get by perfectly well with a table on a sheet of paper or an Excel spread sheet.
  • Agenda – an agenda is a detailed outline of the event itself which illustrates the timing of different activities.  It logs what is happening from hours before the participants arrive to the follow-up when the event is complete. It tells people where they need to be and what they need to do. One is provided for the use of guests and there are usually a number provided for the individuals who will be managing the event.
  • Food and Beverage – Most events require the planning of some form of food and beverage service even if this is a simple as providing a pitcher of water and some mints at a seminar. More sophisticated events may require the selection of a complete menu of food items and beverages. Thought needs to be given to creating something that is nutritionally balanced and appropriate for the time of day. Care must also be taken to provide guests with vegetarian options and to ensure that individuals with a need for special diets are identified in advance so that appropriate arrangements can be made with the caterer (Craven and Golabowski, 2006).
  • Transportation – larger events may also require the events team to provide transportation for guests from hotels to a venue. For smaller events it may be necessary to purchase transport (flights etc) and accommodation for guest speakers or to arrange airport transportation and other facilities for VIP guests. These arrangements may be handled by the events team themselves or, particularly in the case of air-travel, outsourced to a specialist agency.
  • Staffing – staffing requirements will obviously vary with the nature of the event. The nonprofits own employees/officers may run the entire event, or it may be necessary to rely on volunteer assistance. Volunteers may be found who can help with many common functions including acting as hosts, caterers, clean-up crews, florists, valets, ticket takers and security.
  • Budget – a budget for an event should be based on the event objectives, target audience, type of event and location. In putting this together it is important to think through all the items that might have costs. Not all these costs need be met by the nonprofit. Some categories of events offer sponsorship opportunities and individuals and/or local businesses may well be willing to lend their support by paying for particular items of expenditure or sponsoring the event itself. These sponsorships might take the form of cash donations, but they can also be given in the form of in-kind donations such as discounts on goods and services. On the income side every possible source of income should be listed. It is important to be conservative about the estimates here. Past experience and networking with other local fundraisers should provide a realistic assessment of what might be achievable. Finally when the income and expenses have all been listed it should be possible to arrive at a figure for the projected profit/losses for the event. This should be consistent with the original objectives.
  • Ticket Pricing – finally, as they develop their budget nonprofits will have to decide what they will charge as an admission fee to the event. If the nonprofit already has a sense of how many participants are anticipated then setting the price is a relatively straightforward process. It is important not to undercharge. Nonprofits have been known to have lengthy debates about whether to charge $35 or $50 to attend an auction. The reality is that guests who cannot afford an additional $15 to attend will probably not spend much at the auction either, so such discussions are frequently unhelpful.

Good quality online resources that would assist in the planning of fundraising events are unfortunately rare, but we do like the following:

The Institute of Fundraising in London have produced a code of practice for fundraising challenge events


Online Tools

Many organizations now elect to manage participation in their events online. There is a wide range of software that may be used for event registration and management. We include some illustrations below, including a link to Blackbaud who offer an additional module in their Raiser’s Edge Software to manage events.

There are also online tools designed to help donors raise money for their favorite nonprofits online. Users can create their own pages and encourage friends and relatives to sponsor them as they complete some challenge or event. These include:


Evaluating Fundraising Events

As with other forms of fundraising, careful evaluation is essential. This will flow logically from the original objectives. As we have highlighted there is nothing wrong with not making money at a fundraising event. It is only unfortunate if the goal was to make money. The organization should thus review the success of the event against the original objectives and make no attempt to post-rationalize failure.

The following ten criteria may be used to evaluate whether an event has been successful or not.

  1. Has the nonprofit achieved the financial goals decided on from the outset?
  2. Were the costs of the event minimized and the revenue maximized? Were there any deviations from the original budget? Why did these occur? Are there any lessons that can be learned as a consequence?
  3. Were the right pool of prospects invited and did they attend?
  4. Given the nature of the event, did the nonprofit provide an adequate level of understanding of how the contributions solicited at this event would be used? Could the case for support be strengthened in future?
  5. Did the nonprofit have the right ratio of volunteers and staff to the number of participants? Did everyone received the right level of attention and interest?
  6. Were the logistics, information and materials provided, creative, innovate, and relevant to the purpose of the event?
  7. Were there means provided for participants to interact and express their own personal testimony and support for the event’s cause?
  8. Following the event, was there ample time for cataloguing, referencing, recording and filing appropriate information gleaned from the volunteers and staff assigned to the event?
  9. Can the information gathered be systematized and stored for later use in the prioritization of the prospect pool? Was the right information captured?
  10. Did the event result in the narrowing of the prospect pool to an appropriate number that can subsequently be managed by fundraising staff and volunteers?


Recommended Reading

Test your knowledge with our Quiz: Events Fundraising

We don’t work in the non-profit sector. We work in the for-change sector!