Fresh Ideas for Special Events

At one time or another most nonprofit organizations organize special events to raise money, promote their cause, gather media attention, celebrate staff and volunteers, or garner corporate sponsorship. When determining whether to hold a special event, it’s important to be crystal clear and brutally honest in terms of what your goal is: is it solely to raise money? If so, how much and at what cost (what ratio of income to expense)? Do you expect to attract new, first-time donors? If so, how many and at what levels? Can you afford to simply raise awareness and educate people about your cause? What is realistic and achievable in your community?

There are four essential ingredients to any successful nonprofit event:

  • Human resources – Do you really have the staff and pool of volunteers to carry out the event? The hours over time (not to mention the day of the event) can be substantial, and this is an important consideration when you consider your whole program year and what else you need volunteers to help you with. Don’t deplete your “account” on this one “withdrawal.”
  • Money resources – How much will the event cost and do you have the resources to pull it off? How much money do you want to make (after all costs)? Can you raise sufficient corporate sponsorships?
  • Constituency/audience resources – Do you have the constituency or members that are interested in this type of event? Are they willing to pay or donate to this event? Is your network large enough to assure an audience at the event?
  • Timing – Do you have enough time to plan the event? Do you have to compete with similar events that are taking place at the same time? Do you have a suitable theme (such as a womens shelter doing an event around Mother’s Day)?

Remember that a traditional gala is not your only option. These events require a long lead time (at least six to nine months). They usually attract a large crowd but certainly require a considerable amount of up-front capital and volunteers. Such events may include awards, an annual dinner, a benefit concert, or a major sporting event. And of course, corporate sponsorships are critical in having a big ticket event succeed.

Here are some other event ideas to consider, from the conventional to the unusual:

  1. Educational events – These are events in which participants come to gain educational experiences, to learn something new, and to be intellectually stimulated. These events are designed to build credibility for your organization. The up-front costs are usually not significant and the purpose is not to make lots of money, but rather to gather people for a unique learning experience. These events can include bringing in a famous author who has just written a book, having a major speaker with a national reputation, or conducting a multi-media show or film festival.
  2. Non-event event – This was a popular idea 20 years ago that deserved to be dusted off and re-used. The printed or electronic “invitation” is essentially just a unique kind of donor appeal. Depending on your community, most people are tired of big gala events–some people will even pay to not have to attend! They buy a ticket to relax at home for the evening. The organization sells tickets and tells the person how much money the organization will save by not producing an event. Another theme is to call this a “fantasy” vacation event–for their reward for purchasing a ticket, you encourage them to imagine themselves on a warm beach under an azure blue sky (etc.).
  3. Honoree event – This is an event where you honor one of your key volunteers, graduates/alumni, or a philanthropist. This usually works with business leaders who invite their friends, family and business associates to purchase tables. Generally, corporate sponsorships for this event are required. This event also works with key religious and political leaders in your community.
  4. Poverty feasts – Most of the time when you have a special event, you provide a very nice meal. In this event, you serve rice and beans, or cabbage and potatoes. If you want to go big you could serve a bologna sandwich and water. There is a clear educational message to this event: hunger and poverty. The purpose of this dinner is to educate people and get them thinking–and talking–about your cause.
  5. Involve youth – If your mission involves teens or young adults, can they provide the music, take turns at the podium, showcase their writing or artwork, or even cook and serve the meal?
  6. The taste feasts – Restaurants, bakeries, wineries, or ice cream shops prepare their specialties for your event in a buffet setting. Your negotiate their hard costs as a significant discount or pro-bono in exchange for ambitious promotion and branding. These can be great fun. Ticket prices for this type of event can be high if the quality of the food is high.
  7. Message service – Remember singing telegrams? With a theme or timing that relates to your mission, you develop messages that people would enjoy sending to their loved ones, friends, and business associates in a humorous way. You could start with a holiday or seasonal theme. For a fee, imagine sending carolers-on-command in December, a living and breathing “card” on Mother’s Day, or as a “firecracker” on the Fourth of July. How about a singing birthday cake, a dance-to-the-beat “heart,” a “book” that espouses the joy of reading, or a singing “shamrock?” If you’re an arts organization, it can be a natural to use local singers and dancers. People will pay a fee for this message service, the recipient also gets information about your nonprofit, and your local TV station might well cover it.
  8. Sell everything at the event – In addition to the big ticket or honoree event, you sell or raffle everything at the event, such as the centerpieces, autographed books by the keynote speaker, original artwork from the population you serve, or a photograph with the honoree.
  9. A diet-or-quit campaign – This is another “non-event,” with the goal to get people to exercise more, read aloud to a child, lose weight or quit smoking. Your participants give you X amount of money per day that they don’t smoke or every week that they perform the new habit or lose a pound. Friends, family, employers, and co-workers can sponsor the participating person as well. This event can last months, can be promoted with both free and paid media as a way of educating about your cause, and does not require much in terms of hard costs.
  10. Clean-up days – These events are good for the socially responsible organization that is interested in promoting fitness, strengthening neighborhoods, or supporting the environment. The focus might be cleaning up a yard, building a trail, fixing up a playground, or de-littering the park. They can also involve building ramps for persons with disabilities or fixing up and painting a senior citizen’s home. Local businesses can provide supplies, snacks, and/or employees. Your donors sponsor people at so much per job or per hour, and everyone wins.