Sand Trap

A riddle:

Q. “What are the three scariest words in the English language?”

A. “Charity golf tournament.”

I confess that I have a deep aversion to golf. I expect that when I’m buried I’ll have the distinction of being the world’s only fundraising professional never to have set foot on a golf course. But even when dealing with nonprofit special events that center on activities I do like, my reaction is to approach with caution. The majority of special events are simply not worth it.

Board members love to suggest special events, which more often than not arise from their own interests and hobbies. Without discipline, a nonprofit can find itself juggling a full schedule of events without ever consciously deciding which are worth doing, and why. The special event winds start blowing, you tentatively hoist a sail or two, and before you know it a gale is hurling you into some very rocky shores.

Allow me to dispel three myths about special events:

Myth 1: “Special events will raise your visibility!”

Maybe. But probably not in a useful way.

If your nonprofit puts on an antique car show, you may get known as, well, the organization that puts on an antique car show. But you probably won’t become known as the organization that provides services to needy families or whatever it is that you actually do.

Myth 2: “People who come to the event will become donors to the organization!”

That hasn’t been my experience. Golfers go to charity golf tournaments to golf, and in nearly every case they consider the entrance fee their contribution. End of story. Same with concert-goers and tri-athletes and fashion show patrons. You can (and should) speak at the event about your cause – but be forewarned that nobody will be listening.

Remember that not-very-good Jennifer Aniston movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You”? A good title for a movie about people attending nonprofit special events: “They’re Just Not That Into You.” (Sorry to be the one to tell you. I do it because I’m your friend!)

Myth 3: “This will be run by volunteers. It won’t be a big drain on the staff.”

I have yet to find a special event that is not a big drain on staff. Period.

 * * * * *

So can special events serve a purpose? Absolutely!

I support special events that accomplish one of two things: deepen relationships with donors or raise real money.

When contemplating a special event, decide in advance if the event is a fundraiser or a “friend-raiser.” I have seen a lot of successful friend-raisers. The simplest is an annual celebration. Traditionally organizations have a big annual meeting, open to the public. The annual celebration is similar, but more focused and on message. Annual meetings tend to get clogged up with votes accepting minutes of the last year’s meeting, electing new officers, adjusting by-laws, and similar items that are important for governance, but totally uninteresting to the general public.

An annual celebration is just that – a celebration of the accomplishments of the organization. Annual celebrations can serve the same purpose as national political conventions: to excite the base of supporters, to educate the public, to attract new donors, and to give a human face to your work. A good annual celebration features beneficiaries talking about the impact the organization had on them. It might debut a video about the organization’s work. It shares the nonprofit’s most important news and plans. It absolutely has to have a reception hour where staff, board, donors, and beneficiaries can mingle and connect.

Don’t expect to make money on a friend-raiser, You might even make it a free event, or you can charge a nominal amount, but mostly you want to get people – the right people – in the door. The point is to broaden and deepen your relationships with donors and the community. The money will come later.

As for raising real money, if you have an event that can do that, then go for it! If you’re an organization with a million-dollar budget, and you have a gala dinner that can net you $250,000 – by all means hold the gala, whatever the drain on resources. And if you do it right, you can also make it a friend-raiser – reinforcing the message of your organization, bringing in new supporters, and setting yourself up for additional donations after the fact from attendees.

But if you have to spend $30,000, plus untold and unrecorded hours of staff time, to run an event that grosses $35,000, this is no fundraiser. Instead, it’s an event that’s bleeding you. Not only are you not making much money from the event, but there are huge opportunity costs. It’s keeping you from doing other things – visiting donors, writing grants, polishing up your annual report – that would accomplish much more for the organization in the long run.

During the dreadful drought that’s hit most of the U.S. this year, I’ve often heard the line that farmers are the most optimistic people in the world. They always think that next year will be better.

I think the same can be said about people who advocate for special events. They’re optimists, in the worst of ways. A few weeks after the event, they forget the overwhelming effort that had gone into putting the event together. The see the meager results on the bottom line and convince themselves that next year will be better. All it will take is better weather, or an extra sponsor or two, or, or, or….

Don’t believe them.

Go ahead, call me a skeptic. I accept that label. In fact, you can call me whatever you want – anything, please, but “golfer.”

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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