Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising

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There has never been a greater need for raising the funds necessary to promote the causes that will help build a sustainable future. In Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising, veteran nonprofit executive director Rudolph A. Rosen lays out field-tested approaches that have been among those that helped him and the teams of volunteers and professionals he has worked with raise more than $3 billion for environmental conservation.   As Rosen explains, fundraising events can range from elite, black-tie affairs in large cities to basement banquets and backyard barbeques in small-town America. Money for the Cause runs the gamut, demonstrating methods adaptable to most situations and illustrating both basic and advanced techniques that can be duplicated by everyone from novice volunteers to experienced event planners. Each chapter begins with a pertinent, real-life anecdote and focuses on major areas of event fundraising: business plans and budgets, raffles and auctions, tax and liability matters, contract negotiation, games and prizes, site selection, food service, entertainment, publicity, mission promotion, food and drink service, and effective team building and use of volunteers. The author applies each topic to the widest possible range of events, providing practical detail and giving multiple examples to cover the differences in types of organizations and their fundraising activities.   Whatever the funding objective may be, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising is both a textbook and a practical reference that will be indispensable to anyone involved in mission-driven organizations, whether as a volunteer, a professional, a student, or an educator.

 

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1. Introduction

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Standing near the former president of the United States was a tall, handsome African dressed in a blaze of traditional Maasai red. Barely 20 years old, the young man was the son of a chief and in time would become a chief in his African homeland. But he was not with the former president because of politics or tribal status. He was a student whose education was being funded at a leading university in South Africa by members of the audience. He was among the “motivational elements” assembled at this international nonprofit organization’s premier fundraising event where more than 15,000 members had assembled for four days of fun and fundraising.

At one of the event’s several formal dinners, to be followed by a major auction, members heard the young African speak of his dedication to the cause of wildlife conservation. They listened intently as he told of his commitment to take what he had learned from members of the organization during his visit and go back to his country to use his new knowledge as a leader. The members were enthusiastic and renewed their commitment to fund education of young Africans at African universities.

 

2. Why Hold an Event?

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I had just completed a strategic planning process involving board members and staff, and the president had finished studying the strategic plan. He was not one to read a lot or put up with much process. He usually knew what he wanted and was known for getting things done, regardless of what might stand in the way. The plan included a series of goals, objectives, and actions to turn the organization around. Turnaround was among reasons I was hired. Problems left unsolved, lack of professional management of personnel, legal action against the organization, underperforming fundraising, bickering among staff and volunteers, and worse plagued the organization. The plan dealt with these problems.

So I asked the president, “Where do you want to start?”

He replied, “We need to do them all.”

I agreed and added, “We can’t do them all at once, there is too much to do, and some things need to be done before we can start others.”

He was insistent. “All are important; we need to do them all and do them all now.”

 

3. The Secret to Successful Event Fundraising in Good Times and Bad

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The economy cycles from good to bad and so does fundraising success for organizations that fail to discover the secret to successful event fundraising in good times and bad. One such organization helped pioneer effective auction-event fundraising techniques and, in so doing, built one of the largest nonprofit wildlife habitat conservation organizations in the nation. But when the economy faltered, their fundraising did, too. This organization failed to use more recession-proof techniques in auction-event fundraising discovered by other organizations with similar missions. Top-level staff responsible for event fundraising in this organization aggressively prevented anyone from bringing in ideas from outside their ranks. The only ideas for recovery had to be theirs and theirs alone.

Although their auctions always carried some “recession-proof” items, staff analyzing fundraising success just didn’t seem to understand the difference between fundraising in good times and bad. The organization’s auctions were loaded with items people didn’t really need, and probably didn’t want. These items produced decent revenue during good economic times, and even in the worst of times the items sold. I ascribe that to the dedication of the organization’s supporters and volunteers who, in their desire to shore up the organization, felt they had no option but to bid on items they really didn’t need or want. But there are only so many people willing to do that and for only so long, even in good economic times. So attendance, dollar spent per attendee, and revenue started a long downward slide that accelerated as the economy declined.

 

4. Organizing for Success

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This is a tale of two fundraising legends, each located in a coastal state but a continent apart. Both worked for chapters of the same organization. East and West, the chapters for which our legends worked thrived. With the blessing and oft-stated awe of chapter leadership, these two individuals assumed full responsibility for the annual fundraising events. Year after year, our legends managed the events from A to Z. Both worked hard and were successful. But that’s where the similarity ended.

Our legend in the East took control of the event in the most literal sense imaginable. He chaired every committee. He did every job he possibly could by himself. And in the few instances in which an activity was assigned to another, our legend chose his closest friends. Each assignment was divided into the most minute division of labor. The workers were expected to report progress or completion to our legend, then await the next assignment. There was no question that this was the legend’s fundraiser.

 

Part 1 Learning the Basics

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I recently attended an auction-event fundraiser where I was told a story similar to many I had heard before. An executive director of a nonprofit organization told me of a colleague in charge of an annual auction event that typically raises about $125,000. The organization holding the event was small, so $125,000 in event revenue sounded like a successful event to me. He said his colleague was frustrated with the event, because the net proceeds were only about $30,000 and the event was a lot of work. It was obvious why the event planner was frustrated. Spending $95,000 to raise $125,000 is not a very efficient way to raise money for a nonprofit organization.

Poor management of expenses at an event breaks faith with attendees who believe they are giving money that goes to the mission-related work of the host organization. Attendees took $125,000 out of their wallets and gave it to the organization during the event. They surely thought the dollars they spent would help the organization hosting the event. Instead, most of the money raised was used to pay expenses of holding the event.

 

Part 2 Creating the Perfect Setting

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Here I was, head of an organization poised to raise well over $500,000 from the people filling the auditorium, yet I had only a conceptual image of what was to happen next. No one had ever seen it. There was no way to have seen it, because there was only one opportunity to do it, and now it was time. The president of the organization didn’t have a clue what was going to happen, and he was starting to fidget. He would soon become upset. The invited guests were enjoying themselves—so far. Waitstaff were serving drinks, which was expected, of course.

I could hear the small talk starting. People were beginning to wonder what was going on. This event could be an absolute smash hit—at least in theory. We were assembled in an auditorium. Nothing was onstage. The nothingness was purposefully obvious. Looking onto the stage was like looking into a massive black hole. Nothing was in the seating area. Nothing was in the aisles. Nothing was anywhere and everywhere. A few people sat in the auditorium’s seats, but mostly they stood in small groups in aisles and just waited in the emptiness.

 

Part 3 Conducting the Fundraising

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The year our local area was in the grip of a disastrous downturn in the economy, our largest employer, the state government, cut salaries an effective 20% through Friday furloughs. Statewide, public works spending of $17 billion had been suspended indefinitely. These and other cuts had collapsed the local economy like a house of cards. My office staff hosted an auction event every year where we usually had about 120 attendees, with year-to-year differences of only about 10% to 15%. So it was with some concern that staff set about to plan an event in these troubled times.

Just a few weeks before the event date advance ticket sales began to indicate attendance was not going to be low. It appeared we might have solid attendance. Within a week of the event, estimates started indicating we would have an extraordinarily high attendance. A day or two before the event attendance was projected at 250. This was based on advance ticket sales and the fact we always had quite a few walk-ins who bought tickets at the door.

 

Part 4 Applying the Rules and Covering All the Angles

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A complaint was registered with the state’s attorney general that our organization was engaging in unlicensed gambling during its annual fundraising convention. The complaint was passed on to the agency having jurisdiction. Shortly after an inquiry, we received a cease-and-desist order. We learned of this a few weeks before the day the convention was to begin. The date and location of the convention had been set for at least three years.

The subject of the order was a series of raffles we ran at the event. Raffles had been run for years in the state with no problem. We had retained the services of counsel and thought we had been diligent in complying with all laws. No one suspected problems, but there it was: an order to halt all raffles until we applied for and received a proper permit.

We quickly learned it was a simple matter to receive a permit, which was required by the locality in which the event was being held. All we had to do was submit a proper application and pay a required fee, but given the length of time it would take to process the application, we had no choice but to cancel all raffles planned for the event.

 

Part 5 Honing to a Fine Edge

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No verbal abuse was too strong for her to direct at staff or volunteers. The highly placed officer of the nonprofit organization didn’t really care who was offended. This officer even boasted of her lack of tact. A small corps of people seemed to gain personal benefit in the organization under her shadow, but others were demonized.

Staff or volunteers who did anything the officer didn’t like became the subject of attack. In any conversation she was all knowing. Anyone with real knowledge quickly learned to shut up. She knew just enough to sound like she knew what she was talking about, until you listened long enough to realize she really didn’t.

None of that may have mattered if it wasn’t that this officer also drove away volunteers, donors, and staff. How much her inappropriate actions cost the organization in lost volunteers and investment in staff is hard to say. It’s hard to believe some organizations tolerate such toxic influences, but they do. This is not a story about one person. In my time serving nonprofit organizations, I have met several of these venomous people. They have been shes and hes, officers, spouses of officers, and members of the board. Such people persist in influencing nonprofit organizations because the leadership of nonprofits often function much like a family, with members establishing close, long-term relationships with each other. Families tolerate, forgive, and often turn a blind eye to their dysfunctional members. Many nonprofit organizations do, too, large, small, and in between.

 

Nonprofit Resources for Nonprofits

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The following nonprofit organizations, media, and agencies provide support and offer resources such as books and training to support nonprofit organizations’ fundraising and other essential functions, for example, board support, membership, administration, and general management.

Alliance for Nonprofit Management, San Francisco, CA
http://www.allianceonline.org

American Society of Association Executives, Washington, DC
http://www.asaecenter.org

Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, Indianapolis, IN
http://www.arnova.org

Association of Fundraising Professionals, Arlington, VA
http://www.afpnet.org/

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
http://cppp.usc.edu

Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN
http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Washington, DC
http://philanthropy.com

Council on Foundations, Arlington, VA
http://www.cof.org

Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI
http://www.gvsu.edu/jcp/home-45.htm

 

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