Planning Your Special Event

Almost any organization seeking to raise dollars from individual donors sooner or later realizes that it needs to have one or two special events every year. There are dozens of different types of special events, ranging from walks, runs, dinners, annual meetings, parties, etc. The key is to be very clear as to what goals you want to attain from your special events.

When planning a special event, it’s important to strategically CHOOSE an event that matches your goals and is appropriate for your type of organization. If you’re lacking volunteers, DON’T select an event, such as a walk or run, that requires extensive volunteers.  If you don’t have a lot of front-end capital, don’t hire an entertainer or keynote speaker that’s going to cost $6,000 (unless you can get it underwritten first). If you want to attract “high level” donors, make sure you have an event that they’ll get excited about and that fits into their vision of the nonprofit. Sometimes TIMING of an event is important, so if you’re working with homeless women, an event around Mother’s Day might hit the spot.

Here are our top 10 tips for special event planning:

1.  Have clearly defined goals. If you’re looking for visibility make sure you have an event with movement and action such as an outdoor event or something to which the media would be attracted. If you want to bring in potential new donors, have an event that is accessible and relatively inexpensive. If you’re attracting large donors, keep the event rather intimate and unique. Some events are designed for visibility, others for credibility, others to have fun, and others to make money. Your goals must be clear.

2. Organize a special events committee.  It’s critical to involve as many volunteers as possible to work on the special events committee. Make sure you first select the committee chair and involve them in selecting the rest of the committee — the more credibility the chair brings, the better.

3.  Try to select a draw or celebrity that will attract people to attend. Consider inviting the mayor (as long as he/she is popular), famous authors who are in town already for a book signing, or a professional athlete that is an inspirational person. Some organizations have annual dinners where they honor a leader in the community that will be a draw to get all of their friends and business associates to attend the dinner.

4. Carefully develop a budget for the event that accurately reflects all of the costs and expected revenue. Try to get a large number of the costs donated such as food, venue, special “favors,” wine, etc.

5.  Cover as much of the front-end costs with corporate sponsorships as possible. During the past five years, philanthropic dollars have either decreased or remained essentially flat, but corporate sponsorship dollars dramatically increased. Make a list of businesses and corporations that might underwrite some of the costs of your event and approach them at least four-six months ahead of the event. Make sure you offer the company benefits in terms of visibility in the event’s marketing materials and at the event. Write a nice thank-you letter to the company after the event.

6. Plan ahead. Usually, you should allow at least six months to plan an event with over 100 people. Develop a calendar with tasks listed and then look at the timelines for delivering on the tasks.

7.  If you’re having an event with large numbers of people ( say 300+) you might consider hiring a special event coordinator. A special event coordinator will handle all of the hundreds of details involved with a huge special event, leaving time for the leadership and the special events committee to focus on the strategic directions of the special event including recruiting volunteers and obtaining corporate sponsorships.

8.  Recruit as many volunteers as possible. The more volunteers you have involved in the planning and execution of the event the more likely you will end up with a successful special event. Use your special event to engage new volunteers and deepen the understanding and commitment of existing volunteers.

9.  Remember to collect email addresses of everyone that attends your events. This is the cheapest — and many times — the most effective way to keep in touch with and organize your potential and existing donors.  One technique that has worked is to get a few door prizes and raffle items and ask people to give you their email addresses when signing in to win these prizes, then follow-up within a week of the event with an email thank-you.

10. Evaluate the event within two weeks after the event. Get the special event committee together for a party at a leader’s living room and evaluate and critique the event. Make sure a staff member takes notes for the next special event.