How to Make Your Special Events Special

Special events oftentimes fizzle even with the best of intentions behind them. Have you ever been involved with a special event that cost your organization more time, work, and energy than it was really worth? Many organizations plan special events without a real goal in mind or an accurate assessment of the organization’s ability to host a successful event. They assume the special event will generate public awareness, new donors, and a decent pot of cash. Unless the organization has a realistic financial goal in mind, the staff needed to plan and implement the event, enough time to effectively pull together all of the necessary elements and an understanding of the keys to success, many events do not produce the desired result.

While special events are fun and volunteers, board members and staff like to work on them, the truth is they aren’t always necessary, 20 percent of the people always end up doing 80 percent of the work and a poorly planned and executed event can end up costing the organization money, volunteers and potential donors. Only the most organized groups who have a specific special event goal in mind should attempt to pull one off. That being said, with a lot of enthusiasm and some careful planning your organization can host a successful event. Please be sure to read over this week’s tips on how to plan a special event so it is, indeed, very special.

1. Establish clear goals for staging the special event. Why are you holding this event? How much money do you need to make?

2. Do you have access to appropriate attendees, sponsors and underwriters? Many groups OVER estimate the number of people who will attend a special event for their organization. Another common mistake is scheduling too many events in one year.

3. Pick an event that can meet the goals and reach the targeted market. There are many tried and true events that can be customized. Save the invitations from other organizations’ events and make a few calls. How successful was the event? How does the size/donor base/volunteer corps/group-served etc., compare to your organization? What improvements/changes would the other organization make? It is okay to borrow ideas and event templates from other organizations.

4. Pick an event that is appropriate to your organization’s goals and mission. For example, if you service alcohol and substance abusers, you might want to think twice about hosting a wine tasting.

5. Do you have enough people to staff the special event? This is crucial. As with any fundraising effort, you want to minimize your expenses by securing enough volunteers to plan and host the event. This does not mean that staff should not be involved, but it does mean that the organization’s staff resources should not be dedicated to an event. It is simply not cost effective to utilize staff time in this manner. (Obviously, the smaller the organization, the more involved staff will be, but be creative about finding reliable volunteers.)

6. Is the projected budget aligned with your goals?

7. Are there clear expectations of the work for the event required by paid staff and board members? Create a timeline and stick to it! It is essential to have a written schedule of activities so that responsibilities and deadlines are clear.

8. Will the event have a planning/oversight task force or steering committee including appropriate representation from the staff, board and volunteers? Ideally, your event chair people will be volunteers and you will have at least one board member and a staff member who are involved to some degree. Board members should be aware of the organization’s expectations regarding their level of participation. Are they expected to purchase and fill a table at the dinner/dance? Are they expected to underwrite the band? Is each board member expected to be on a committee for the event?

9. Be sure there is adequate time to prepare for the event. Most events require a MINIMUM of six to eight months to plan. If it is the first time an event will be held, err on the side of caution and give yourself a year.

10. Will the benefits of this event or activity be worth the time and effort put in by staff and supporters of the organization? If a major event (200+ guests) does not NET $50,000 after the first two to three years, it is not worth the staff, volunteer, or financial resources of the organization. Smaller events should still net twice the cost of the event at a minimum.

11. What opportunities exist for underwriting all or a portion of the event? Again, the ideal event costs the organization as little as possible. Look for any and all underwriting opportunities that might be available for your event. Ideally, a corporation will underwrite the event through a sponsorship package you set up with them.

12. Sometimes the purpose of the special event is NOT to make money but to reward volunteers, ‘position’ your organization with the media and key constituencies, to celebrate, etc. Be absolutely clear on the purpose of the event and then budget your expenses and time accordingly.

13. Special events are not really designed to make money, but to PROSPECT new donors.   Make sure you get all of the names and addresses, especially email address of attendees and build in a follow-up thank-you letter or request for money within 14 days of the event.