Weaning off Sacred Cows: A New Approach to Special Events

| by Derwin Dubose
For my first PhilanthropyBiz post, I’m going to make a bold confession: I don’t like special events.

Last weekend, that sentiment helped a client think through big issues.  I helped lead a board retreat for a nonprofit whose reliance on special events is putting the organization at risk.

Special events take a lot of work.  This board and its staff spend hours, days, and months planning the details of more than 12 special events each year.  Board meetings focused on tablecloth colors, check-in table locations, and program printing. Board members felt that the pace of discussions were always “frantic,” focusing on the next event rather than long-term strategy.

They can’t abandon fundraising events, though.  To many, events are go-to solutions for nonprofit fundraising, and some signature events have become key parts of the organization’s brand and culture – “sacred cows,” according to the board chair.

After a great retreat, this board made a series of decisions to wean itself off of events and move toward major gift fundraising by:

  • Selling annual memberships instead of event sponsorships. Rather than asking donors to commit to several small event sponsorships during the year, this organization has committed to asking major donors for one large gift at the beginning of each fiscal year.
  • Using events for recognition rather than pure fundraising. In return for a major annual membership, donors will get tickets and recognition at multiple events.  They’ll still sell tickets for non-members, but members will get a red carpet experience.
  • Separating fundraising events from program events. The board is committed to having regular events and information gatherings that promote the organization’s mission in the community, but will focus on having a set number of fundraisers each year that actually raise money.
  • Delegating event management. The board has made a clear decision not to micromanage events.  The staff and special event committees will be responsible for event details, and the board will focus on revenue from a broader perspective.

These steps are going to help the organization grow by nearly 40% in the next five years, and I look forward to working with them as they retool their special events to take the organization to the next level.

Armstrong McGuire is excited to welcome Derwin to our team.  We look forward to sharing his talents, experiences, and  creativity with our clients.  Email him at derwin@armstrongmcguire.com.  


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