February 09, 2005

Tips for Creating a Fundraising Gala for the 1st Time

In the Trenches

In the seven years it has thrown a swimming-pool party to raise money, National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities, a charity in Atlanta, has been plagued by erratic luck.

It started out strong: In 1998, the party, held in conjunction with the city's Black Gay Pride events, raised $5,000 after expenses. But subsequent events haven't gone as well. In 2003, for example, rain contributed to a meager turnout -- only 75 people -- and meant that the charity ended up with a net loss. Last year, the event was more successful, but had its own share of problems. It drew 900 participants -- while another 3,000 stood outside the park where the event took place, enjoying the music, even though they hadn't paid the $15 admission fee. The result, says Rudolph H. Carn, the group's executive director, was an enjoyable party that broke even financially but did not raise any money for the charity, which runs on an annual operating budget of $1.5-million. Still, he says, the group plans to keep sponsoring the event, a cornerstone of its fund-raising efforts, and hopes to build on what it has learned in the past few years. 

While charities often hold special events to make money, they also use them to spread the word about the mission and goals of their organizations. However, preparing a successful event can be difficult for small groups that do not have sufficient staff members, volunteers, and resources to devote to an event. People who have run special events offer the following tips on how to avoid some common pitfalls:

Form a committee. Committees should be formed as early as possible, and should include people who have large networks of friends and professional associates, as well as experience in planning events, experts say. Nine months to a year in advance is a good time to form a committee, particularly for an event a charity has not previously tried, says John Paul, a partner at Association Works, a fund-raising consulting company in Dallas, who also spent 25 years working for the American Heart Association. In most cases, he adds, seven people should be enough to get the job done.

Mix trustees with staff members and rank-and-file volunteers, suggests Mr. Paul. The combination is a good way to get a diverse mix of people involved, he says: "You really need people who are going to do the actual event. You'll need workers, not just planners."

Members should be committed to the cause, and have a passion for telling others about it, says Mark Minick, associate vice president for community and church relations at Lutheran Social Services, in Austin, Tex., whose "Make a Difference" dinner and dance gala raised $95,000 last year. To plan events, charities "want folks that are good donors, that have been volunteers in the past, and have connections with potential sponsors and folks who can donate items and can also bring people to the event," Mr. Minick says.

Choose an event, preferably one related to the group's mission. For example, the National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Awards ceremony has become a staple since it first began seven years ago, says Alice Smallwood, director of development at the museum, in Memphis. The event, which raised $380,000 in October, honors national and international civil- and human-rights figures, such as Bill Clinton, the former president. "We've never strayed from our mission when we're picking honorees, and that's very important," she says. "It's a way for us to educate our audience about some of the things they've done."

A charity's locale and its ties to community groups should also play a big role in what sorts of fund-raising events a group sponsors, says Shannon Gilbert, director of development at the March of Dimes, National Capital Area Chapter, in Arlington, Va. For example, Ms. Gilbert's group has decided to start a new fund-raising event next month, "Baby's First Step," a step-dancing show featuring black college fraternities and sororities, because many of the college groups' members volunteer with the March of Dimes."You want to make sure you have the volunteer support to make it grow," she says. "You have to take a look at your community and find out what they'll support and what your volunteers can support."

Weigh the costs against potential earnings. Research is important when choosing a fund-raising event, say fund raisers and consultants, to determine an event's costs, feasibility, and likely success. Although a fund-raising consultant may help answer these questions, says Mr. Paul, in many cases charities that have volunteers with experience in running events won't need one. Events that feature entertainers or other celebrities are often money losers, says Mr. Paul, because such people generally charge high sums to show up at an event and make expensive demands about transportation, lodging, and backstage catering. "What most organizations are not very good at is selling tickets, and they have to sell a lot of tickets to see any revenue," he says. However, he adds, events that honor a prominent local leader generally make money, as long as expenses stay lean.

Budget carefully. Experts suggest establishing a budget for the event before doing anything else. Start with the biggest expenses, such as food and beverages (including caterers, waiters, and bartenders), rental fees for the place where the event will be held, and advertising. Also, depending on the event, other major costs may include transportation, security, parking, and hotel fees for special guests. Watch out for hidden costs, say experts. Many organizations, for example, forget to include the time charity workers put into an event as an expense, says Ms. Smallwood of the National Civil Rights Museum.

At some locations it is mandatory that charity groups hire particular companies, such as a caterer, that may be expensive, says Diana Sanson, director of development for the Rainforest Action Network, in San Francisco. "Ask about all the required services you're going to need in order to contract with them as well as their rates," Ms. Sanson says. Sometimes, she says, deals can be struck to have the required services donated.

Reserve a location well in advance of the event. Space should be booked six months to a year in advance, preferably as soon as the organization is certain that the event is going to happen, say fund raisers and consultants. Some charities have persuaded theaters and other event facilities to donate the space by asking as far ahead of the event as possible and relying on personal contacts that trustees or volunteers have, says Ms. Gilbert. Sometimes, says Ms. Sanson, an event facility has needs that match well with those of the charity: "If it's a new space in town, they may be looking for the publicity, and it's a great way to get space donated."

New or popular places, such as a recently opened hotel, can add glamour to an event, suggests Bruce E. Whitacre, executive director of the National Corporate Theatre Fund, an umbrella group for nonprofit theaters in New York. He advises searching for an unusual space that people will enjoy for its own sake, such as a park, historic home, or television studio.

Delegate intelligently. Some tasks are ideal for volunteers, such as stuffing envelopes, checking arriving guests into an event, selling raffle tickets, and preparing gift bags, says Mr. Whitacre. Staff members, he says, are best suited to chores requiring greater accountability, like following up with key supporters and managing the charity's donor information.

Consider seeking sponsorships. Corporate sponsorships can help defray the cost of the event. Ms. Gilbert says it is best to start figure out what support will be easiest to obtain and work from there. "We try to ask who our committee knows and have them set up meetings and ask," Ms. Gilbert says. "It helps if you already have a connection."

Nonprofit groups have to make it clear to the sponsor what benefit the company will receive, says Ms. Smallwood. "They should always underpromise and overdeliver," she adds. "You should always give the sponsor a little bit more than what they were expecting." For example, she says, a sponsor who is promised tickets to a private reception with winners of her groups' Freedom Awards is also surprised with a chance to be photographed with the honorees.

However, Terry Axelrod, a fund-raising consultant in Seattle, also warns against having too many sponsors. Charities, she says, "are too anxious to please the sponsor sometimes, and they're not selective and take on too many sponsors for some events, which means they don't get some of the limelight. They should focus and choose one or two sponsors who will give them more money and believe in their mission." (To learn more about negotiating a corporate sponsorship and the ethical challenges such relationships can present, see this previous Philanthropy Careers article.)

For similar reasons, charities should not try to work together on an event, Mr. Whitacre says, not only because it means a charity would have to share attention with another group, but also because "you run the risk of losing donors to the other organization."

Spread the word. Charities often get free publicity by persuading local newspapers to put announcements on their event or society pages. In addition, posting information about the event on the the charity's Web site and sending invitations to supporters are ways to make sure people who are most interested in the organization know about an event, says Ms. Sanson of the Rainforest Action Network.

Charities may be able to negotiate free advertising, says Courtney Fink, executive director of Southern Exposure, a nonprofit art gallery in San Francisco. Even when free ads aren't offered, it is important to give the news media plenty of notice about events that they may choose to cover: Her group sends out news releases at least one month before its events.

Expect the unexpected. Even after all the planning is done, don't get complacent on the day of the event, Mr. Whitacre says.

"Have people available to handle last-minute changes and be really thorough in planning how that day works so that you won't be doing too much at one time," he says. "Everything tends to happen very quickly, and you need to think through each step as much as possible."

A week or two before an event, Ms. Fink and her colleagues compile a list of what needs to get done. "Confirm volunteers, make phone calls," she says. "Plan ahead and get things set up the day before and not the day of."

Of course, the best-laid plans can still go awry. Be flexible and expect some glitches, suggests Mr. Minick, of Lutheran Social Services. "The first time you do something, there are going to be things unknown to you," he says. "You're going to have to experience the first time to understand."

Remember the mission. Taking time during an event to remind everyone about the charity's mission will make the occasion more meaningful, says Ms. Axelrod. "If their event is mission-focused, there will be a moment in the event where everyone in the room will be connected to the mission," she says, "and that is the moment that the fund raisers need to savor."

Give thanks. Some groups throw a small party for those who helped plan an event; other charities simply thank helpers and supporters by phone or send out gifts and cards. But the goal is the same: to let donors, staff members, and volunteers know that their dedication and support is appreciated.

"The follow-up after the event is the most important part," said Ms. Axelrod. "It's the most fertile period for cultivating who attended and thanking the people who helped put the event on."