Small Potatoes

Back in the Soviet Union, you had to stand in three lines to buy potatoes.

I know: I stood in those lines. I spent a semester in 1980 as an exchange student in what was then Leningrad (since rechristened St. Petersburg). I have a lot of memories from those days, none clearer than how people bought their vegetables.

Of course, back then and under that system, there was no guarantee that much of anything would be available for sale. So when you went to the store, first you stood in a line to see what was available and how much it cost. Usually there were potatoes and onions and cabbage – not much else.

Then you stood in a second line to pay for what you were going to buy. You’d tell the cashier that you wanted two kilos of potatoes, you’d hand her some rubles, and she’d give you a receipt.

Finally you stood in a third line. (Each of these lines, by the way, was truly a line – ten or twenty people long.) When you got to the front, you’d give the clerk your receipt for the two kilos of potatoes; he’d turn a wooden handle that would pull the potatoes up from the basement on an ancient conveyor belt; the potatoes would tumble out onto an old-fashioned scale; and then he’d pull a lever to send the potatoes racing down a shoot through a hole in the front of the counter into your waiting canvas bag. (The first time I went shopping, I didn’t know about needing to bring a bag. Thereafter, I never forgot. They call that “experiential learning.”)

I thought of the Soviet grocery store the other day when I was at a very nice and, by most standards, successful special event for a nonprofit I support. There were tons of silent auction and live auction and raffle items on hand, and people bid enthusiastically and generously. But I thought to myself: this kind of fundraising is a lot of work! It’s harder than it needs to be! Here, too, there are three “lines”!

The first line: The staff and board have to go to dozens of businesses and individuals to get commitments for auction items. It’s a significant undertaking.

The second line: The staff and board have to work really hard to get people to buy tickets and attend the event. Fancy invitations. Email reminders. Follow-up calls. Cajoling. Pressure.

And the third line: You have to get an auctioneer to inspire those people to actually bid on the items. (And I suppose some might say there’s a fourth line, too: collecting the money.)

Isn’t there a simpler way? Sure! Just go directly to those people – the ones who have the money to bid on fancy items – and ask them for a contribution. No event required. No caterers, no bartenders, no decorations, no seating plans, and no auctions. Check or credit card or securities, all gratefully accepted.

Most importantly: only one line. It’s much more efficient.

Now, agreed, I get a bit grumpy, sometimes irrationally so, about special events. (Don’t get me started on golf tournaments!)  But let’s be honest: many, many special events fit this pattern, where there’s an extraordinary amount of work involved in order to get the eventual contributions. And if you calculate the staff salaries dedicated to this effort, and particularly if you consider the opportunity cost – what’s not getting done because the staff are busy arranging the bouquets and dealing with the sound systems – then you might well decide to jettison fundraising events completely.

I suggest you try to develop a different kind of event, where you get people together (house parties, or annual celebrations, or a few people over lunch) and talk about the organization, your goals, and how their contributions will make the difference. No auctions. No gimmicks. Very direct.

All of that said, there are organizations and places where special events work well. I just read about how New York’s Lincoln Center runs no fewer than ten galas a year, and the biggest one netted over $9 million the other night. OK: if you can inspire that kind of giving, then go for it. But most of us can’t. I remember many years ago seeing a sign in a hockey arena proclaiming “Ten rules for hockey parents.” The notion was to encourage parents to calm down and stop screaming at the refs and coaches and kids. Rule number one on that sign: “Your child will not – we repeat, WILL NOT – play in the NHL!” Perhaps the rule for nonprofit staffers thinking about special events is: “You do not – we repeat, DO NOT – work for Lincoln Center!” And since you don’t, you should think about how hard you work to get a $50 gift certificate from a local restaurant that will then net you $32 at your silent auction. Really, you could be using your time in a better way.

There are many explanations for why the Soviet Union collapsed. The people’s irrepressible urge toward democracy. The collective disgust at the corruption and hypocrisy. The overwhelming expense of the arms race. The collapse of the centralized economy. The demand for consumer goods. These last two can be reduced as follows: People were tired of standing in three different lines to buy potatoes.

And you, my nonprofit friends, will get tired as well. I say that you shouldn’t run yourselves ragged in a multi-line system that makes little sense. Remember: you’re running a nonprofit organization, not an auction house or a party venue. Use your time wisely. Get to know people. Build relationships. And go out and raise money – without the auctioneer.

But, again – I’m a grouch about special events. I welcome you to offer some different perspectives. Please do!

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • If the event is strictly a fund raising event, then I might agree with you. In fact, about 20 years ago I worked for a social service agency whose most successful annual fund raising was the “non-event.” We’d take a photo of one of the town’s prominent couples, in their jammies in front of a fireplace, and create invitation that said something like this: “Jane and John Doe invite you to stay home on December 15. Don’t get dressed up, don’t call the babysitter, and don’t come to their house. Stay home and enjoy the fact that you HAVE a home. And please contribute to XXXXX. Consider: Cost of a new dress – $100, which could outfit a kitchen in the transitional living program; Cost of a babysitter – $32, which could provide a week-long scholarship for after-school care to a needy family….” And so forth. You get the picture. We always raised money doing this, and it was always easy. BUT (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) I think you’re wrong to overlook the other, less-tangible benefits of throwing a gala event. Camaraderie is important. Seeing who else supports the same organization you do is important. If you get a large turnout, that tends to encourage people to become more engaged with your organization. And remember – not every gala is about raising money…. some are about raising volunteers.

  • You are a “man after my (fundraising) heart”! And, to Jocelyn’s point, I have seen the non-event angle work effectively.
    Being strategic about events, particularly when you have limited staff capacity (and don’t we all) yields great results. I too have been quite blunt about my opinion about golf tournaments and the like. In addition to not being the “Lincoln Center,” most of us don’t have the fundraising engine behind major disaster relief organizations or the reach of non-profit media outlets. I am going to save this email for the next time a new board or staff member brings up the subject of a “signature” event!

  • Jim Galbiati
    May 22, 2013 10:06 pm

    I’m with Jocelyn. The value of the special event is it’s ability to bring people together. I’ve played all the roles at these – host, volunteer, donor and guest – and I’ve always had fun meeting the other people that make the organization.

  • Thanks for all the comments!

    Some really good points! I agree with Jocelyn and Jim that you need to have room in nonprofit fundraising for celebration and camaraderie: it’s absolutely important to give people a sense of being part of something larger and something that’s fun. That builds connection to the organization and gives the volunteers some energy. I only question the need to tie those social interactions directly to traditional fundraising events. You can have events that are very social and tell the story about the organization and set the tone for later visits and requests for money — but that leave out the fundraising special event-type activities. Have an annual celebration/meeting, for sure. Have some house parties. Use those events to connect people to the organization and to build commitment to the cause. “The ask” can come later, without the auctioneer, etc.

    I also got an off-line comment from a friend:

    “I have a different perspective on silent auctions.

    “With silent auctions you are gathering ‘easy pickings’ from people who might not give you cash but who will give you something of value (an hour with a massage therapist,or a camera that is ‘dead inventory’).

    “But there definitely are two sides, gathering and selling. Twice I have been part of organizing events when we did a terrific job of planning and scheduling an event, gathering items,….. but a terrible job of getting people to show up.

    “I always remind people about the importance of recognizing both sides of the equation.”


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