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The Magic Touch

Special events - a way to celebrate, to bring people together, and to raise money, all at the same time. What's not to love?


But time and again, special events seem to lend themselves to a special kind of nonprofit "magical thinking":


"If we throw a really fabulous party" ...


   "If we get just the perfect auction prize" ...


      "If Oprah serves as our honorary benefit chair"...


         "If Janet Jackson shows up to sing" ...


            "If people learn we're celebrating 50 years of service" ...


....then we'll sell hundreds of tickets/dozens of tables/secure a big name sponsor that will bring us to our (probably inflated), nice round-number of a goal.


Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. And this kind of magical thinking keeps event planners (board members, committee chairs, staff) from taking the hard steps necessary to realize the kind of revenue that might actually be raised - not just this year, but over time.


What's at stake?


First, why people don't come to nonprofit special events.


Fabulous Party - most likely, for the same ticket price as our nonprofit fundraiser, someone could throw a pretty swanky gathering at a very nice place, even in New York City. That's why nonprofit events are fundraisers, in fact - because we hope to pocket some of the dollars raised (hopefully at least 50%!) for our causes.


That Very Special Auction Prize - again, if someone has $1,000 burning a hole in their pocket, they can order an Apple Watch more easily than keeping an eye on the bidding at your event. Sure, we can put together "priceless" packages assembled from their connections, but realistically, that's not why someone will reserve a Thursday evening in June for us.


A Chair in Name Only - event chairs who lend only their name but not their energy are great and may get some people to open the invitation ("Oh look, Oprah thinks this is a worthwhile cause") but it is not likely to sell many tickets. People understand that it's a meaningful gesture - but not a heartfelt commitment (and you won't likely see those big names at the event!)


Janet Jackson - that hypothetical someone with $1,000 to burn is likely to be able to get box seats at the Barclay Center, or in other ways buy their way into the circles in which they want to socialize or network.


The Big 5-0 -Anniversaries are important to you, and to the people for whom your organization already matters. Sure, people will raise their gift level for an anniversary year if they were already planning to attend, and you may get some beyond-the-usual attendees (based on the fact that they don't have to come back for another 5-10 years), but an anniversary celebration in and of itself is not a draw if a connection's not already there. 28,000 nonprofits in New York have anniversaries, and yours is likely among dozens of anniversary invites received by a single event-goer in one year.


What's the Real Reason?


If people don't come to events for all the reasons mentioned above (plus the fact that we live in New York City, where there are 100+ incredible (often free) things to do on a given Thursday including relaxing at home); what does get them out of their loungewear and into your seats?


Obligation and Commitment - to those who invite them, and/or to your cause.  Of course, any of the factors mentioned above can help someone fulfill this social contract more or less joyfully - but, really, it's who invited them that's the single most critical factor in filling your room with paying guests.


What's the Answer?


Building up your core of inviters - and putting the pieces in place so they're inspired, even driven, to reach out for you - is the key to increasing the take from special events.


A motivated honoree, workhorse committee chairs (focused not just on the menu but dollars in the coffers and the right people in the room), enthusiastic committee members, pull-out-the-stops board members - can all turn a disappointing result into a reason to pull out the champagne at the end of the night. (See Get Them Asking! Emboldening Your Event Solicitors Tip Sheet for some suggestions on how to motivate askers to greater heights.) 


People, people, people. Events are inextricably based on social connections being called upon for your cause. That's the bottom line.


Even securing spiffy auction items - so often a distraction for committed volunteers - doesn't do the trick unless you have people in place who can and are primed to bid.


Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and nonprofits excel at thinking they will always be the exception (but our cause is so important!). And of course it is - but that is not what fills seats. Time and again, who does your inviting has proven to be the most significant aspect in transforming an event from a repeat of last year (or worse) to the game-changer your organization deserves.


 If you concentrate on building that - they will come.

Tales of Special Event Success:  
Read Ahead
Cause Effective client Read Ahead promotes children's literacy in the New York metropolitan area through a reading-based mentoring program that matches over 1,000 corporate and community volunteers each week with struggling readers in nearby elementary schools.


Read Ahead's Pages of Success gala took a big leap ahead this year, netting 17% more than last year ($431,000) and, most encouragingly, increasing the take from the live pledge at the event by 75% (from $47,000 to $82,000). How did they accomplish this? Through "more effective driving of board engagement and accountability," according to Julie Allen, Read Ahead Board Fundraising Chair.


The board set interim goals - 5 tables by December, another 10 tables by the following month - so that people could shoot for something readily achievable and celebrate success along the way.  "Momentum and success breed more success," reflected Ms. Allen.


Board members were not simply asked to buy a table, but "to think more strategically about who they brought to the event," described Ms. Allen.  Julie Cerf, Read Ahead's interim executive director, explained: "The idea was to invite people who would be interested in raising their hand for the live pledge, future board members, people who were interested in our cause."


Staff also stepped up their support of board member solicitation, providing templates for emails, letters, reminders, and other ways to make it easier for board members to do their job.  Expectations for Read Ahead board members have been lifted overall, remarked Ms. Allen: "We keep challenging board members to do more."  Now the message is: "Tell me how you want to ask, and who - but you have to ask!"  

Cause Effective Can Help

We work with boards, staff and volunteers to realign event expectations, right-size event goals, and put the building blocks in place to make the most of a nonprofit's special event potential.


Drop us a line, and we'll be glad to strategize with you on how to change up your event to produce more for your cause.

Judy Levine 
Executive Director  
Cause Effective Around Town
Our 2014 Program Report, Hints on Board Management, CE Client prize, and more...  
Cause Effective 2014 Program Report
Read about Cause Effective's work with our incredible clients!
Thanks for an amazing year!
Check it out HERE.
From the Cause Effective Blog:
Using Your Outside Voice

"I don't get it."  


If a board member is allowed to say those simple words, that can push us to clean up our language, describe our programs (and most importantly, our impact) in ways that those outside the inner circle - who truly do want to understand - can grasp. [more]

From the Cause Effective Blog:
Supporting from Behind

It takes time - coaching board members instead of doing it yourself.


To nurture board members who understand the principles of board management, who've internalized the key strategic issues of the organization, who talk to each other without everything coming through the ED... It takes enough time that it's all too easy to give up and go back to getting it done yourself.


But that would be a mistake. [more]

Cause Effective client Afropop Worldwide wins Peabody Institutional Award!  
Afropop Worldwide celebrates the contemporary music of Africa and the African Diaspora. For over a quarter century, Afropop's radio program and online magazine have taken listeners to countries such as South Africa, Congo, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, Madagascar, Senegal, Nigeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Haiti and beyond.

Afropop has been selected as the winner of the 2014 Institutional Peabody Award, honoring its entire 27-year body of work. The Peabody Awards are the oldest awards in electronic media and are among the world's most prestigious and selective prizes. "Afropop Worldwide is an international icon," said Peabody director Jeffrey P. Jones. "The Peabodys are delighted to honor its ongoing ambition and influence."

Cause Effective is proud to have been Afropop's fundraising advisor for the past 8 years. Congratulations Afropop!

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For over 30 years, Cause Effective has strengthened the nonprofit sector by increasing the capacity of more than 5,000 nonprofits to build sustainable communities of supporters.  We provide carefully tailored counsel to help nonprofits diversify funding, raise more money from individuals, activate boards of directors, and get the greatest value from anniversaries and special events so they can achieve long-term, community-based change.

To learn more, please visit www.causeeffective.org.