The American people are, and will continue to be, among the most charitable people on the planet. Through good times and bad, Americans have shown an amazing willingness to support those in need, as well as to sustain the institutions and causes they care about.
Of course, when times are tough, everything takes a hit. When costs are up and profits are down, there’s less money to spend on basic necessities, life’s little luxuries, and on gifts to organizations working to make our communities healthier, safer, and stronger.
Your nonprofit is doing great work—important work—work that needs to continue, no matter how high inflation goes or what economic downturns lie ahead. That’s why we launched this “Fundraising when times are bad” series, and published a brand new ebook by the same name.
Wherever the economy takes us, it’s important that your nonprofit does not stop fundraising. During times of financial stress, you should tweak your development strategy to acknowledge that new reality—but your baseline should be to keep doing what you’re doing, unless there’s an intelligent reason not to do so.
Good fundraising requires consistent action, and those organizations that put the brakes on fundraising during difficult times will have an incredibly hard time maintaining their revenue and restarting activities when good times return.
These basic truths apply to all aspects of fundraising, including events. In this article, I want to help you think through your current event strategy to see what (if any) changes need to be made as we go through our current economic crisis.
When thinking about your event strategy, it’s important to delineate between fundraising events and cultivation events.
Fundraising events are events where the primary aim is to raise money. Sure, there may be relationship-building opportunities and public relations goals for these affairs, but what makes an event a fundraising event is that its success is determined by the amount of money raised by the end of the night.
Cultivation events, on the other hand, are events where the primary goal is relationship building. Generally, there is no cost to attend these events and no ask is made (or the ask is an afterthought). The success of a cultivation event is based on the number of new donor connections made and the number of current donor relationships strengthened at the event.
This distinction is important because, as my colleague Austin Detwiler noted earlier in this series, donor acquisition matters, even when times are bad. Organizations that want to be successful should not let up on acquiring new donors, no matter the economic outlook. If your nonprofit is using cultivation events to bring in new donors (or to retain and upgrade current donors), you should continue to do so during the current recession. But that doesn’t mean nothing should change.
There are some things you can do to cut cultivation event costs, if necessary. For example, you can experiment with moving some cultivation events online, rather than renting event space or flying staff to a distant event. But generally speaking, if you’re successfully using cultivation events, now is not the time to stop.
True fundraising events, on the other hand, pose a different challenge because of the expense and time required to host the average nonprofit gala. For fundraising events, the most important question to ask is . . .
Fundraising events are by their very nature an expensive way to raise money. Not only is there the cost of the event venue, entertainment, invitation mailing, and more—but events also take up an immense amount of staff time and other office resources. That’s a cost of both staff time and opportunity cost.
That being said, events are nearly ubiquitous among American nonprofits, and they are one of the most common ways that organizations raise unrestricted funds to support their work.
For this reason, it is essential that your organization understands the return on investment you are making for each of your fundraising events. Many nonprofits never undertake an analysis of their event ROI, including staff time. Now is an excellent time to perform just such an analysis.
If your nonprofit relies on fundraising events and is seeing a high ROI from this strategy, then you should continue to focus time and resources on your event program. As my colleague Doug Schneider noted, “in uncertain times, it is best to stick with the tried and true.” If you perform an ROI analysis and fundraising events are working for you, then you should keep on doing them, looking for ways to increase your revenue and maximize your investment (more on that below).
If, on the other hand, you realize that fundraising events aren’t producing the results you thought they were (perhaps you weren’t taking into account the amount of time and energy that goes into each of your events), then now is an excellent time to reevaluate whether you should be holding those events in the first place—or whether now might be a time to pause those events and redirect staff time. When the economic outlook stabilizes, you can reevaluate the best use of staff time and other resources.
One way to focus this decision is to ask yourself how much money you could raise if you invested your time and bandwidth in other fundraising strategies. For example, if you find that you are spending 200 staff hours to put together an annual event that nets $75,000 for your organization, ask how much you would be able to raise if you invested the same 200 hours in major gift cultivation or foundation fundraising.
If events are your nonprofit’s primary fundraising strategy, continue investing in them. But if your analysis shows that you could be raise more money through another strategy, now is the time to start moving in that new direction.
As your organization continues to face the challenges of an economic downturn, it’s important to focus on event fundamentals. Adding innovative event technologies and new fundraising strategies may be worthwhile, but for most organizations, the best way to increase your return on investment is by focusing on the following tried-and-true concepts to multiply your event revenue.
Concentrate on Event Sponsors and Leadership Gifts
Sponsorships and leadership gifts should drive revenue for most fundraising events. This means that your organization should be raising more money from event sponsors (both individuals and businesses) than from event ticket sales and ancillary revenue like live and silent auctions. If that’s not true for your fundraising events, it’s highly likely that you are not maximizing your sponsorship revenue the way that you could—and not generating the ROI that you should.
This is doubly important when times are bad. During economic downturns, it is far harder to get 100 new people to buy a $50 ticket to your event than it is to get one $10,000 sponsor to increase their gift to $15,000. Focus your efforts on upgrading your current sponsors and finding new sponsors (including individuals) to make leadership-sized gifts to support your event.
Build Deeper Relationships with Event Sponsors
There’s a well-known maxim in fundraising that your best prospects are your current donors. Yet many nonprofits place their event sponsors in a silo and only approach them once per year as gala time approaches. This is especially true for corporate event sponsors—and it is a big mistake. It is imperative that your organization treats its event sponsors like all its other major donors, seeking to cultivate, retain, and upgrade these donors over time.
This is especially true during economic downturns, when acquiring new donors and sponsors may be harder. Your current sponsors know and support your work. Now is the time to build better relationships with them (relationships that transcend transactional event sponsorships) and move them towards multiple gifts per year. Not all sponsors will want a deeper relationship with your nonprofit, but some will, and they will become an important source of revenue for your organization.
Put All Event Attendees into Your Cultivation Stream
Finally, be sure to put all of your event attendees into your nonprofit’s donor cultivation stream. Many organizations add ticket purchasers to their donor communications programs, but they leave off everyone else who attends events.
Are you capturing the contact information for everyone who attends your annual gala? Do you have the names, addresses, and emails of everyone who came as a +1 or who used the tickets given to event sponsors in return for their donations? At many nonprofits, the answer is “no.” Gathering—and using—this information is especially important when times are bad. These are people who attended your event, heard from your staff, learned about your mission, and now make excellent prospects for your future fundraising efforts.
Remember, the most important thing when times are bad is to continue to focus on and invest in fundraising. Events can be an important part of that strategy, provided that the return on your investment of time and money makes the events worthwhile.
Now is the time to review your event ROI and tweak your event strategies to focus on the things that will supercharge your event program.
Want to learn more about fundraising when times are bad? Download a free copy of Jeremy Beer's ebook, Fundraising When Times Are Bad, and stay tuned in here for future advice! Drop your comments, questions, and ideas below.