Fundraising Event MUSTs (and must nots)

Written by The Society Guide Co-Founder, Amanda Pagliarini Howard

Having worked at one of the best event planning firms in Charlotte (high five to TCG Events) and now being in the business of connecting donors and nonprofits, I admit I experience and evaluate fundraising events differently than your average attendee.

Post fall 2017 and spring 2018 event season (19 events for me), a few notes I feel compelled to share, in no particular order… 

1.     If you are having a cash bar, you must communicate that in advance.

2.     If you have a ticket price of $200 or more, you cannot have a cash bar.

3.     Throw a fabulous event where attendees have fun, you will attract a heavy attendance of fabulous people.

4.     Heavy attendance of fabulous people = ability to attract great sponsors

5.     Notice #3 comes before #4.

6.     What makes a fabulous event where people have fun?

-       A high energy band playing high energy music that crosses generations

-       Open bar

-       Minimal remarks and interruptions

-       Any sort of quality theme that drives the dress code. It doesn’t have to be kitschy. Just anything that makes getting dressed up a bit more fun and makes the room look prettier because of the attire filling it. Most people like to be permitted to get creative and then come see how others interpret the theme in their attire as well. Those that don’t, will come as they please.

-       A beautiful atmosphere

7.     What makes a beautiful atmosphere? Small details. And they don’t have to break the bank. 

-       Lighting, lighting, lighting. Uplighting in color makes a huge difference. Just make sure to have enough to saturate the room.

-       Scrap fresh centerpieces and make an investment in reusable centerpiece décor that you own and can use in different ways year after year.

-       Open space, changes in configuration. I went to an event this year where the stage was moved to the center of the room. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. And, it just looked different, which was refreshing.

-       Back to theme and dress code. What guests wear really contributes to the beauty of the room/event. Want to make your room and photos really pop? List the attire as Bold & Bright Black Tie or Any Color Under the Rainbow Cocktail.

8.     Give guests a way to connect to one another. I went to an event where the seating cards had spouses separated, which forced us to talk to our neighbors. By the time we left we all had bonded as a table, which I’m not sure would happen had we be positioned next to our spouses. Those who are uncomfortable not sitting with their mate will move the cards. Also try different tables and seating. Who says you have to have rounds of 8 or 10? Hotels and banquet spaces have rectangular tables, which make for more intimate conversation. When guests connect with each other, they are more apt to come back next year.

9.     On the topic of remarks… Executive Director OR Board Chair, choose one.  Whoever speaks, know that no one will actively listen past the 3-minute mark. Save the thank you’s for donors who volunteered to make the event happen and sponsors. Also, consider an unexpected MC. A donor with a big personality or a popular business or social influencer will command the attention of the room just as efficiently (and occasionally, more so) than a “professional” MC or news personality.

10. When thanking sponsors, tell the audience what your sponsor’s business is and when they might use them. Ex. “Thank you to 123 HVAC. Next time your air conditioning or heat is in need of repair, we hope you’ll remember their support of our organization and call them.”

11. Feed people. I cannot tell you how many times I have left an event early with a group of fellow attendees to go to a restaurant after a three leaf salad, dry piece of chicken half the size of my iPhone, three carrots, and a golf ball sized dollop of mashed potatoes.  It will also keep people from getting sloppy drunk. (It might seem like this inspires generosity, but more often it causes personal embarrassment and next day regret, which you don’t want associated with your event.)

12. Serve average wine. Good wine is too extravagant. Bad wine (especially paired with little food) will make people feel like garbage the next day. When they think of your event, they will only remember how bad they felt afterwards.

13. Even more on remarks… think of the recipients of your organization as your children. The organization is the parents. This event is your child’s graduation party, bar mitzvah, wedding, etc. If you, the parents, get up and talk about how much you’ve done for your child, how hard you‘ve worked to help them succeed, how successful you’ve been at getting them where they are – no one cares. You’re just interrupting their evening.

The focus is the child (or, in this case, your recipients.) People will give a little to your organization to be polite. People will stop, look to their spouse for agreement, and open the floodgates of their wallet if you show them tangible, heart-tugging examples of people (or animals, trees, etc) who desperately need help. Attendees give to support those you serve, not to support you.

14. Just a bit more on remarks (can you tell yet how important this is?)… Say very little and let a powerful, emotional, SHORT video do your talking for you.  The video should be easily visible for everyone and at high volume. Make it difficult for someone to have a conversation over your video, not the other way around. If it’s short and your remarks are brief, the room will give you their attention. 

15.  Truth dropping time: As unfortunate as it might be, about 75% of your attendees are there more for the social benefit than for your cause. To use a sports reference, your event is not an NFL game where the majority of the crowd is passionately engaged and invested in you. Your event is the Kentucky Derby. For everyone except the trainers, owners, and heavy gamblers, it’s more about the outfit, the cocktails, and the party. The horses are just the backdrop.

But those attendees’ money is green too. And if you show them a fabulous time, they will come back and buy tickets and give the polite contribution year after year. If you play your cards right in terms of how your present your recipients, make an emotional appeal, and keep your remarks to a powerful minimum, you might even convert them to become passionate attendees.

16. Finally, you have to spend money to make money. If the energy and spirit around the event is ‘spend as little as feasibly possible’ you will get the same from your guests in return.