What to Do About Your Fall Fundraising Events

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COVID-19 shook up our plans this spring in a big way, and it will continue to affect our daily lives and work for months to come. As states have begun to re-open, they have adopted new measures to limit crowds, maintain social distancing, and keep people healthy.

These changes—and the impossibility of predicting exactly how they will impact individual behavior—are causing many nonprofits to ask: What should we do about our fall fundraising events? If your organization relies on fall events to generate revenue, now is the time to create a plan.

This means choosing between three pathways:

  1. Moving forward with an in-person event that will inevitably look and feel different from past years, with a contingency plan to go virtual on short notice if necessary
  2. Proactively moving the event to a virtual platform
  3. Canceling the event and identifying another means for securing the needed revenue

Read on to learn about three steps we suggest you take before deciding on a pathway and review a list of considerations to guide you once you’ve chosen.

Revisit Your Goals

Even if—no, especially if—you’ve been hosting your event for decades, take some time to make a list of all the goals your event is designed to achieve. This might include:

  • Gross and net revenue
  • Number of attendees and/or tables
  • Number of sponsors
  • Number of new major gift prospects identified
  • Donor and sponsor cultivation, including through awards, that leads to upgraded giving
  • Engagement and awareness building

Make sure everyone is on the same page about which goal is your primary goal. For example, is the most important outcome of the event the money raised? Or is it the new prospective supporters you can add to your database?

Determine ROI

Once you agree on the goals of the event, it’s time to assess whether or not you have been meeting them and at what cost. In other words, what is your return on investment? Consider:

  • Cost Per Dollar Raised (CPDR), which is your total event cost divided by the amount raised. Look at your average CPDR for the event from the past three to five years. National CPDR averages for fundraising events are around $0.50. Compare this to $0.20 for direct mail to prior donors, and $0.05-$0.10 for major gifts.[1] The higher the CPDR, the harder you should think about whether it’s worth the effort.
  • Staff time. Some organizations factor in staff hours by multiplying the number of hours worked by the respective employee’s hourly rate and including the product in their event costs.

    You might do this or choose to simply consider how much time might be freed up by cancelling or transforming the event. Could your team members spend that time making solicitation or stewardship calls? Researching new prospects? Or hosting a series of small group cultivation events for high-capacity donors?

Involve Important Stakeholders

Once you’ve analyzed goals and ROI, you will likely find yourself gravitating towards one of the three pathways we mentioned above. Now is the time to call in reinforcements.

It goes without saying that your Executive Director or CEO should be involved, as should your board members, who likely play a critical role in the success of the event. You should include board members in any conversations about the level of risk your organization is willing to take on.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your event sponsors and volunteers as soon as possible. Call your past event sponsors. Depending on which way you are leaning, talk to them about whether they would consider giving at the level of their previous sponsorship if the event were virtual or supporting another program if the event were canceled.

Go through the same exercise with your current and past event chairs and committee members to gauge their appetite for helping to plan and execute the event or campaign—even if it looks completely different.

If your event typically includes a live or silent auction, consider if and how you should modify it. Often, auction items and packages are procured from small businesses, many of which have been severely affected by the pandemic. Additionally, some auction packages might include airfare, trips, and vacation properties—items that may have less value in the coming months.

This might be the year to eliminate or significantly reduce the size of your auction. Consider focusing more on a paddle raise or fund-a-need, communicating this opportunity to your supporters in advance of the event. Pre-soliciting gifts at key levels to build momentum is the best way to ensure the success of your paddle raise.

Pick Your Pathway

You are now ready to pick your pathway! Planning will look different for each one. Here are the key considerations to keep in mind:

Reimagined In-Person Event with a Contingency Plan

Guarantee you can implement social distancing. Consider what implications this has for the venue, activities, and the number of tickets and tables you can sell, and adjust your revenue projections accordingly.

Explore opportunities to broadcast the event or allow people who are unable to attend or uncomfortable attending in person to participate in certain elements remotely. This might include configuring an online auction or live streaming a portion of the program. These event features may also serve as a contingency plan.

Know the key dates and terms of your vendor contracts. When you sign contracts with caterers, venues, A/V, and rentals, try to negotiate terms that give you as much flexibility as possible. Familiarize yourself with the 180 days-out, 90 days-out, and 60 days-out milestones that signify higher levels of non-refundable financial commitment, and decide what level of risk you are willing to assume. Continually monitor state, county, and city policies as they evolve to help you determine when to make difficult decisions.

Create a communications plan to keep table captains and other lead donors and volunteers informed about event planning and safety measures. Poll them about their level of comfort and excitement, and use their responses to help make decisions. Make sure they know how their role will shift under a contingency plan.

Virtual Event

Start by considering the overall atmosphere of the event and the moments that make it special. Think about how to recreate these virtually. It might not be possible to inspire all the same feelings in attendees, but you should identify the non-negotiable takeaways from the event and ensure that attendees leave with them.

For example, if a hallmark of the event is a mission-centered performance that leaves attendees raving, can you offer that through a video program? Or, if attendees love the chance to mingle with each other, can you use virtual breakout rooms before the main program begins to simulate a cocktail hour?

Be conscious of how long people want to engage online. Your in-person event may have been two or three hours, but a virtual event needs to be concise. How long will you ask your audience to sit in front of their computers? 

Decide how much time and money you can put into production, keeping in mind the event budget and target ROI. This will help you determine whether the online experience should be pre-recorded or live.

A live event may require more time and effort because you need to prepare everyone with scripts, props, graphics, and a detailed run-of-show. A pre-recorded, on-demand event might get you a more polished experience with less stress.

Choose a platform. If interaction and discussion is important, a platform like Zoom that allows for breakout rooms might be best. If the online auction is a key feature, look at solutions like MobileCause or Greater Giving. If you have a younger audience that is often on social media, you might consider Instagram Live.

You can also think about mixing and matching platforms—maybe the event becomes a several hours-long or days-long series of activities that participants can engage with on Zoom, your website, and various social media channels.

Create a communications plan that breaks down all messages to be shared before, during, and after the event and includes details on:

  • Segmentation
  • Messaging
  • Channel (email, social media, personal outreach)
  • Responsible party
  • Timing/due date

Non-Event Strategy

Determine what alternative initiative(s) will allow you to achieve your event goals without hosting the event. Some examples of this are:

  • A mini-campaign involving a high level of one-on-one communication to make the case for support and solicit gifts from a small group of high-potential donors
  • A stretch ask to a small group of core supporters, whose funds can be pooled to create a challenge match to incentivize giving to your annual campaign
  • A crowdfunding or peer-to-peer campaign
  • A series of less-produced, more intimate virtual events that leverage your program staff and behind-the-scenes opportunities and could be offered at a higher price point, or as a special benefit/cultivation touchpoint for donors giving at a certain level

Review the list of past event participants, paying special attention to those who only support your organization through the event. Identify natural partners within your organization (staff or volunteers), and make plans to engage these past guests one on one.

Proceed with Flexibility and an Open Mind

Once you make your decision and begin developing plans, don’t look back. Engage your donors, sponsors, and volunteers wholeheartedly and with a spirited commitment to your chosen path.

At the same time, continue to monitor the state of the world and your community, and be ready to communicate quickly and with transparency if your plans need to change. Remember: your donors love your organization and its mission. If you are honest and clear about obstacles and what help you need to overcome them, they will pivot with you and emerge feeling even more like insiders.

For more guidance during this uncertain time, check out our COVID-19 resource page


[1] Greenfield, James. Fund-Raising: Evaluating and Managing the Fund Development Process.

Fundraising Tips, Fundraising, Blog

Erin Culbertson and Kelsey Nelson

Erin Culbertson is a Senior Consultant, and Kelsey Nelson is a Consultant at Campbell & Company. They work with organizations across the nonprofit sector to refine their development processes and grow their fundraising programs.

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