I sat in bed an hour and a half before my alarm was supposed to go off.
I was physically still tired, but my mind was racing. Sleep was no longer an option. The prior evening I had just helped put on the first major fundraising event for a nonprofit of which I am the executive director.
The night was exhilarating and the culmination of a flurry of activity over the previous two months. While I have planned many other events (mainly watch parties for Hoosiers and V for Vendetta), I had never tackled anything on this scale.
As I was going through this process, I kept notes on some lessons I learned to share with you to help your nonprofit plan its next big event. Use these tips to help you when you’re planning your next nonprofit fundraising event.
Surround Yourself with a Stellar Support Team
While I was the point person for this operation, I was by far not the only one who made the event happen. Initially, I did the research on venues and on which caterers we could use, but once the big picture decisions were made, we began moving forward quite quickly with the details.
This is where I first began to feel overwhelmed. The details were plentiful and expansive. In order for the event to happen, and at the level we wanted, I needed to get other people involved. I quickly delegated the decorations, the takeaway items, informative presentations, video production, photo booth and raffle operations to other people. With these things off my plate, I focused more on the big picture items such as ticket sales and sponsorships.
Another key to our successful event was that we had a great group of volunteers that assisted with the recruitment. We provided form letters and emails they could personalize themselves and send along to potential attendees.
The Lesson: When you are planning your own event, be sure to spread the workload. It can be tempting to keep the planning group small to ensure everything gets done, but the more people that are involved, the better the end product and result. Identifying one point person helps make sure tasks get done and people remain accountable, but by no means should that point person do it all.
Find Branding That Works and Own It
One of the toughest decisions we had to make early was what to call our event. We could have gone with a formal name, but we wanted to be more than just a typical fundraising dinner. Plus, we wanted to introduce our organization to a wider audience. In the end we chose to go with a name (Fire and Fuzzies) that captures the essence of the organization’s mission and was catchy. These two concepts are main tenets to what are taught at our services. We try to teach students to catch the fire through finding their passion to make a difference and sharing warm fuzzies (which take on the physical shape of a cotton ball with googly eyes as seen above in super-sized form) by making other people feel good and valuable.
We then turned to one of our volunteers who is a designing wizard. She developed the invitation and basic graphics. We then took those graphics and incorporated them into the program, name tags and all emails.
In the end, everything tied together. From the name of signature cocktails (The Warm Fuzzy Navel), to the design of the raffle item description sheets, to the props at photo booth (a giant warm fuzzy, again see above) everything was on point and tied the experience together.
The Lesson: The branding is what makes your fundraising dinner different than all the others out there. Almost no other organization could host an event called Fire and Fuzzies, so find a theme that is unique to your organization and run with it. The more cohesive and comprehensive the theme is the better the evening will come off. Own your theme and elevate your event.
Design a Program for the Unfamiliar
The key to success for any fundraising program is to put together a program that is a mixture of entertaining, educational and inspirational. It should give time to a variety of voices, but should not be a rotating turnstile of talking heads.
In hindsight, I think our event struck a good balance between all three areas listed above. After a social hour and dinner, the entertainment kicked off with an entertaining (and hilarious) performance by a comedian/performer who is a long-time supporter and volunteer with our organization. We then switched to an award that honored a community member for their contribution to leadership development, before honoring a few of our volunteers for their long-term contributions. The evening closed with an inspirational speech from a board member who articulated our story and our vision for the future perfectly. Between these elements we added testimonial videos that captured the impact on parents, teachers, volunteers and students.
The Lesson: Have a mixture of elements included in the program. Know what you want to accomplish with the evening and put the pieces together to make it work. Who is your audience? Figure that out and base everything on their level of familiarity with your organization, whether it is none or intimate. Always try to cater to the lowest denominator. Finally, use video to provide other voices the opportunities to be heard. This will provide transition from people speaking at a podium and also allow you to do some cool editing and effects.
The Event May Be Over, But the Work is Not
The main reason my mind was racing when I woke up was that the work for the event was not over. Task number one was to send out an email a few days after the event thanking everyone for attending. The email also included links for the videos at the production as well as calls-to-action to engage the organization further.
It doesn’t stop there. We still need to write thank you notes to the donors and do a full evaluation at our next board meeting. In addition, we need to send tax information to our donors and the people and businesses that made donations. After that meeting, we will begin our next project and put the plans for next year’s banquet in motion.
The Lesson: After the event is over don’t go on cruise control. Keep working with the same passion and fervor that carried you during those last few hours before the event. Allow yourself time to celebrate and enjoy the accomplishment of hosting a fundraising event, but don’t forget the follow through and build off the momentum from your successful event.
The fundraising work for nonprofits never really stops, but with the proper support, theme, program and follow through, you’ll be sure to sleep a little bit better as you work on your next nonprofit fundraising event.