Q: I’m on the board of a small nonprofit and we recently decided to establish an annual special event to raise money, gain members  and just let folks know we’re out there doing the work we do.  Do you have any tips for what we should take into consider when planning this event?

A:  That’s a great question! Your instincts are right: a signature event can do a lot to gain visibility for your organization and it gives you the opportunity to meet and talk to people who might be interested in volunteering, in being on your board, and yep-- funding for your organization.

However, a common misconception about events is that they work really well as fundraisers, where in fact, the average nonprofit spends about $1.33 for every $1 brought in by an event.  Other methods of fundraising like major donor asks and special appeals cost way less--around $.13 on the dollar.  
So, events are a classic example of that old “you gotta spend money to make money” proverb.  To get people to your event you have to make it worth their time to come, which means you either have to get VERY creative or you have to spend a lot of overhead on staff time, food, space rental, entertainment—all the stuff people like.

Here are a couple tips for making sure you keep your costs down while putting on a party people are going to want to come back to year after year:

In-kind contributions
Special events are the perfect times to call in favors or just ask people you know for stuff.  If you’ve got a friend who’s a musician or a cousin who’s a caterer, they might be delighted to help you out while keeping your costs down. Also, businesses will often give one-time contributions for events even if they’ve never heard of you before.

The more businesses, individuals and other organizations you can get to sponsor your event, the better.  Not only will they increase the income from events, they lend some validity to your project, so don’t be shy when displaying sponsor logos on event materials.  Sponsors love to see their names and logos in print! This is actually where all the money gets made at special events.  

Silent Auctions
If you have the time and man-power to collect auction items (which can usually be donated by local retailers, artists, hotels, outfitters—the sky’s the limit!), you can auction them off at the event. People love buying things at an event—it makes them feel like their supporting you and also getting something they like out of it.  So it’s fun for them, and it brings in more funds for you!

Special events are a great opportunity to use those nice folks who are always asking what they can do to help.  They can help you plan the event itself, secure sponsorships, collect auction items, sell tickets….  So, whatever you’ve got on your task list, think about what jobs you could possibly pass off to a trusted volunteer! It’s also a really good idea to have a volunteer host committee that plans the event, gives lists of people to invite, maybe even find the space, decorates, finds the caterer—that kind of stuff.

Good luck, and don’t forget to invite me to your party!