Accretion Happens

So why does your organization hold a charity golf tournament? Probably because it’s something you’ve always done.

My guess is that if you looked into it, you’d find that fifteen years ago you had a board member – now long passed from the scene – who loved to golf, and who saw a golf tournament as a way to get his friends connected to the organization. You’ve been doing the tournament ever since.

Every year you review the numbers. You see the fairly decent gross revenues, and the fairly small net revenues. Undoubtedly your budget fails to account for the staff time that went into finding those final three foursomes, nor does it quantify the stress of negotiating with the caterer or worrying about the weather. You also overlook the opportunity cost – what it was that you didn’t do because you were focused for three months on the golf tournament. And yet you convince yourself that next year will be easier and more profitable because you have a new committee chair, or you’ll be moving to a different time of the year, or you’ll be shifting to a new, popular golf course.

And did any of the golfers transition into donors, as was the original hope fifteen years ago? Nah – probably not. But you think that next year might be different! So you send out the save-the-date cards for next year’s tournament, hoping against hope that the work will be easier, the stress will be lighter, and the financial results will be better.

Same with the art auction. And the fashion show. And the 5-K race. And the benefit concert. You do them because you do them, and you keep doing them.

There’s an old line that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I don’t think nonprofits clinging onto their special events are necessarily insane. I think they’re cautious. They’re stressed. They’re worried about how to replace the revenue. They don’t want to offend volunteers and board members for whom the golf tournament or auction is a social highlight. They might even enjoy the routine of the events – better the devil you know, and all. Or they see the success of other charities raising huge money doing similar events and draw the wrong conclusions. They notice that St. Grottlesex Academy raised $250,000 at their auction – and they want to get some of the action, ignoring the fact that the fancy prep school has an audience full of very wealthy donors eager to bid on two-week vacations in the Greek Islands, while their auction features items like $25 gift certificates at the local bike shop.

Look – I know I’m getting a reputation as the consultant who hates special events. I’ve taken a swing at golf tournaments and charity auctions in the past, and I imagine this post won’t be my final word on the subject. I’ll even admit that there is some value to special events above and beyond the money raised – they bring people together, they connect them (sometimes) to the cause, they raise visibility, and they are fun, which is no small attribute in the sometimes grim world of nonprofit fundraising. But in almost every case special events are inefficient at best, a huge time sink, and a distraction from much more effective activities.

Here’s the question you should ask yourself: if we weren’t already doing a particular event, would we choose to start doing so now? Knowing the time and cost and effort and benefit – would it be worth it? Or would we go a different route?

Special events pile up on a nonprofit’s calendar like layers of paint and varnish. They accrete. You forget the original goals and rationale for the events. You just keep doing them, and you try earnestly to do them a little better each time. And in the process, you crowd your schedule so that most of what you’re doing in terms of fundraising is event planning. (“Antique car show? Great! Bring it on!”)

And what aren’t you doing? You aren’t going out and visiting your donors. You aren’t calling them and asking them to visit your new facility. You aren’t getting back to them several months into the new year to tell them how you used their gift, and letting them know what a difference their gift made. In short, you’re not undertaking the single most important activity in nonprofit development: building a strong personal connection with your donors.

And why? Because you’re trying to find prizes for the winners of the golf tournament, or you’re negotiating the charge for the linens at your gala dinner, or you’re going door to door on Main Street begging merchants for gift certificates for your silent auction.

So pause and think. Remember that the single most important resource you have is the time of your staff and your volunteers. If you decide to use up that resource planning a golf tournament, that’s your choice. But don’t keep doing an event simply because it’s what you did last year.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Next target the trip to the ball park? Has the world gone mad!? On a more serious note, I believe the “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it” holds true. Every action an organization takes needs to be reviewed on a yearly basis. Your reputation is mostly intact. I would polish the word “hate” some and say, “recommend against.” Always giving us things to think about. Thanks.


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