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Too Many Orgs Fail To Utilize Their Special Events Committee

If you gather a group of 10 development professionals in a room, my experience tells me 12 of the 10 will utter – at minimum – a guttural groan toward special events.

Might even be more than that, but this is an unscientific count, after all!

What I can say for certain is that an alarmingly high percentage of nonprofits significantly underutilize their special events committee. This tends to stifle revenue potential from a special event. Or said another way: They’re leaving fruit on the vine!

Whether the underutilization is due to a lack of clarity surrounding the committee’s purpose, or perhaps a significant failure to plan far enough in advance, most special event committees have additional resources that are not being tapped to make the fundraising event more profitable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that, generally speaking, we tend to lean away from special events for many organizations. Studies show that a commitment to building an individual giving program – and more specifically on growing your major gift program – yields a remarkably stronger ROI than does any special event.

Going back to our observation that most nonprofits fail to utilize their special event committee as fully as possible, we’re sharing these brief points for you to consider at your organization:

  • Working ahead, working sooner: I’ve never heard an organization get to the day of their special event and exclaim “well, I’m sure glad I don’t have a few more days to prepare!” Instead of starting your committee work 12 weeks in advance of the event, why don’t you start it 50 weeks in advance, thus beginning your committee work 2 weeks following “last year’s” event? And, nobody said the committee has to meet monthly for the first few months. Consider this: Meet every-other month for 6 months (3 meetings), monthly for 4 months (4 meetings), and then bi-monthly for 2 months (4 meetings).

  • Committees are often too small: For the typical mid-size nonprofit wanting to attract 300 people to your special event (i.e., breakfast, a luncheon, a gala, an awards banquet, etc.) we might encourage a committee of 15-30 households and businesses being represented. A ratio of 1 committee member for every 1-2 tables to be sold often works well recognizing committee members bring different things to the table.

  • Committee roles are unclear: Why are you engaging your committee in things the staff should do? There’s no reason a menu, logo, event theme, napkin color and script should be established by committee. Those are staff tasks. Instead, a committee should be focused on broadening the reach of the event throughout the community; by selling tables, by opening doors for staff to solicit businesses for event sponsorships, by buying and/or filling a table themself. Consider a clearly stated, written committee charter.

Practically speaking, an effective event committee should amplify and elevate relationships throughout the community. Activate your committee to do different tasks at varying points leading up to (and following) the big day.

  • 90 days out: Each committee member makes 10 phone calls to people who received the “save the date” as a follow-up, simply saying they wanted to make sure you received the “save the date” given your special relationship with the organization. (Note: This wasn’t a solicitation, so even committee members who are not willing to solicit can make this stewardship-focused call.)

  • 60 days out: Who hasn’t bought a ticket or table yet? The committee can call those individuals and business, identifying themself as a member of the committee who is going to be at the event, and graciously hoping that they will be at the event as well. (This could be repeated 30 days in advance of the event too.)

  • 1 week out: If you want to steward your donors and prospects like never before, have your committee call all of the ticket and table buyers with a word of thanks. No ask, no pitch. Simply a preemptive moment of gratitude for their plans to be at the event next week. Seriously classy.

  • 3 days following the event: What a night, what an impact we all collectively made! Using your database or event software, divvy-up the list of attendees, donors and sponsors giving your committee a handful of names/numbers to phone (plus a brief 3-sentence script). Saying thank you – and even more powerful, a thank you from a peer in the community – goes a long way.

One final thought: If you don’t have an effective post-event strategy to convert all of the special event attendees into annual fund donors, you may want to seriously reconsider your event. Special events are most effective at growing your contributed income when a clearly defined post-event conversation strategy is close at-hand.

Michael Pettry

Cape Fletcher Associates

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