Even though this is what I consider my downtime during the year, the truth is I’m just as busy as I usually am. The difference is instead of my time being spent on stage or on the road, it’s being spent in my office. My days are filled booking private events, preparing for my summer tour, researching and writing, and doing all the other administrative things that make my job as a mentalist, magician, and entertainer keep chugging along.
This is also the time of year where I get a good chunk of my fall and winter bookings, and good number of them are for fundraising events: fundraisers for charities, fundraisers for animal shelters, fundraisers for non-profit organizations, fundraisers for local community groups...the list is endless. And a lot of the time, the people putting on these events are old pros. They’ve got years of experience putting together these events, and have everything planned out to the last detail, things booked months in advance, and the whole process is one big self-working machine.
But every once in a while, I find myself working with a first-timer. It’s either their first time putting on an event, or their first time doing an event on this scale, or even their first time setting foot in a gala or fundraiser, let alone planning one. And not to say that they can’t do it; a lot of the time these first-timers do an amazing job. But sometimes, planning these events can leave you pulling out your hair in frustration. And whether you’re a first-timer or an old pro, there’s a few things that can help make putting on these events not only a little less stressful but make it the talk of the town.
So, I've put together a step-by-step guide on how to put on a night that will make you look like a fundraising pro.
Step #1: Make A Committee
Don’t do all of the work by yourself. Form a committee right away. Now this shouldn’t just be you and your best friend from the office. This committee should ideally include a wide range of people with a vested interest in the event and the cause. Staff members, trustees, volunteers...a good cross-section of people interested in your event, your mission, and your cause. Why? Because if the people involved are truly invested in what you’re fundraising for, they’ll be willing to put in the work (and work together) to make the event shine.
Not only that, but the outreach your committee has regarding the event increases with every added member. Instead of just one person trying to raise awareness for the event, your entire committee (who has a vested interest, as mentioned above) has family, friends, business associates, and more that they can talk to about the fundraiser, not only to support the event, but even help out through donation of time, sponsorships, or more.
Once your committee is all sorted out, delegate accordingly. There’s strength in numbers. Split up tasks and let your committee work together to tackle the event one piece at a time. Many hands make light work, as they say.
Step #2: Figure Out Your Event
This may seem like an obvious thing, but surprisingly, people do miss the mark on this.
Make your event appropriate for your resources, for your organization, and for your cause.
Only have a staff of three and a budget of a hundred dollars? Probably not a good idea to put on a two-thousand-person black-tie gala.
Looking to fundraise for an animal shelter or humane society? A fur-coat-auction might not be best idea.
Want to support a local humanitarian or VIP? Having the event in a city five hundred kilometres away is a good way to get a bad turnout.
I’m sure at this point, you get the picture.
Finding ways to make everything about your event click together can be tough, but it makes a world of difference. Remember what your organization is, what your mission is, and what you’re fundraising for. Not only does that ensure success, but it makes the event much easier to plan and execute. By having these guidelines, you instantly know what ideas are great and what can get kicked to the curb.
Step #3: Get Started EARLY
For a lot of you reading this, getting started early should seem like the obvious thing to do. However, you’d be surprised how many people leave planning events down to the wire. And it’s not because someone is lazy or a habitual procrastinator. It’s just the nature of the business.
Most venues, caterers, entertainers, and suppliers have different recommendations on how far in advance to book their services. And this can change depending on the kind, size, and date of your event. If it’s a Christmas event, start planning at least six to nine months in advance, while off-season times require less. A weekend is going to be busier than a weekday. Summer can afford you more venue choices (indoor venues are booked less, and there are more outdoor options in better weather), but that can also leave you with other challenges to face (for example, an audio system or tents for an outdoor venue). By getting ahead of the game and starting the planning process earlier, a lot of these kinks can get worked out way ahead of time, and ensure that you get your venue, your date, your caterer, your entertainer, or whatever else you need for your event.
Depending on what your event is, the general rule of thumb for planning an event is about nine to twelve months of lead time. But this can vary if you have a great committee, and you have a solid idea of what kind of event you want to have. And, even if you’re way ahead of schedule, that means you have time to figure out any roadblocks you encounter along the way rather than scrambling in a panic to make a last-minute fix. And, there will be last minute fixes. Things will go awry. It does happen. But having a plan laid out in advance means that you’ll be able to handle whatever comes at you.
Step #4: Cost Vs. Profit
No matter what, it’s going to cost something to put on an event. But remember, this is a fundraiser. The whole goal is raise some money.
This is where the planning itself gets tricky. If you spend too much, you wind up negating all the money you make for your organization by hosting the event. If you don’t spend enough, you wind up with people attending an event they won’t likely support again, or worse, don’t go to in the first place.
Because of this, weighing the expected profits versus the costs of the event are paramount. And this isn’t just money. All the time and effort to put on your fundraiser are also investments you need to consider (see that whole “committee” thing). But, the more you have at your fundraiser to draw people in, the more likely you are to increase your profits. And not only do you raise more money for your cause, but you have the option of expanding the event in the coming years.
Step #5: Budget Accordingly
Ah yes, the dreaded B-word.
Being on top of the budget for the event can be a daunting task. But it can be done. Obviously, the first tip is to have a budget in the first place and stay within it. And while creating and maintaining a budget is worthy of a whole blog itself, there are a few tips as to what to budget for.
Venue costs are obviously a number one, because if you don’t have a venue, it’s really tough to have the rest of the event. And, being smart with choosing your venue can go a long way. Instead of getting a high-society fancy ballroom, it’s probably possible to secure something like a community hall with the same capacity for a fraction of the cost, and find ways to decorate, modify, or otherwise fancy up the venue (and likely still be under the cost of the fancy ballroom). But again, this is all in conjunction with your event (see Step #2). If you’re having a black-tie gala, maybe that fancy ballroom is the perfect choice.
But when it comes to the services for the event (such as the venue, entertainment, catering, etc.) do prepare for a higher-priced budget item. Why? Because of experience.
Your sister may be an amazing home cook, but she lacks the experience of creating meals for hundreds of people. Your friend from the office might be a really funny guy on Open Mic Night, but he doesn’t know how to set up, troubleshoot, and present a high-quality performance like a professional does. The reason why these people are worth the cost is because they’ve had years of experience doing quality work that they can draw on to make sure their part of the event (and by extension, the evening as a whole) goes as smoothly as possible. That experience is what makes your guests talk about the event for days after and come back again the following year.
Essentially, you get what you pay for.
That being said, don’t go crazy. Spend within your means. But, go into making your budget knowing that a large draw for the patrons attending the event is going to be things like the food and entertainment, and plan accordingly. A cheap, last-minute hire might actually tarnish your event more than you realize. Speaking of entertainment…
Step #6: Be Entertaining
I’m going to lay a little truth on you.
Fundraiser events don’t work just because they’re for a good cause.
Fundraiser events work because they’re fun.
Novelty is a huge advantage. There’s a reason why events have themes like black-tie or masquerade. Or why they have a mentalist or magician or comedian or musician as a headlining act during the evening. Or why they have dinners and dances. Or why they’re based around things like games, challenges, or mascots. It’s something novel, fun, and unusual that your supporters don’t often get a chance to experience. And because your event is giving your guests a unique experience, human nature makes them more likely to reciprocate and give something back. They want to support you, because you gave them something of value first.
Obviously, I’m not saying to forget your message or mission that your event is about in the first place. That is just as - if not more - important. However, if your aim is to entertain your guests, you’ll have an easier time selling them on your purpose for having the fundraiser in the first place.
Step #7: Sponsorship Can Go A Long Way
Getting sponsors to help with your fundraiser can be an enormous help towards the success of your event.
Obviously, there’s the direct approach of looking for a large donation from a big sponsor. In a perfect world, this would help put a huge dent in your fundraising income, which means you can relax a little and stress less. But this isn’t a perfect world. But that doesn’t mean a sponsor can’t help.
Instead of hitting a sponsor up for one giant donation, ask for a contribution to cover venue costs. Or to hire entertainment for the event. Or pay for a course in a meal. Or pay for an audio system rental. It doesn’t have to be a huge cost to them, but it could mean the world to you. Saving a few hundred dollars on something in one place because of a sponsor could mean you can use that somewhere else for another much-needed addition to the event. Even something simple like a silent auction donation could mean a noticeable difference in your bottom line for the event.
But, just like in the previous point, you need to give something back as well. For most sponsors, it’s some type of recognition. Put their names in the program. Mention them in a speech. Display a banner or sign for them. Give them complimentary tickets to your event. Something that makes it worth their while. And whatever that proposal may be, have it planned and ready when you walk through their door (again, see Step #3).
And that of course, leads us to one final thing…
Step #8: Give Thanks
While so simple, this can be the most important thing that most people overlook. You need to thank people.
Now I don’t just mean at the end of the night when the evening is over (but obviously, then too). You need to thank and acknowledge your committee for all their hard work. You need to thank your sponsors for contributing to the success of the event. You need to thank your caterer and your venue for supplying a wonderful meal in a splendid location. You need to thank the entertainment for wowing your crowd. And, most importantly you need to thank your patrons for supporting your cause.
These thank you’s can be found from start to finish for your event. Buying tickets for the event online? Put a giant “THANK YOU” on the confirmation page. Put a “Thank You For Your Support” for big contributors in your evening’s program. Put pictures of people who made big donations on a slide show playing in the background. Be human. Show your gratitude for everything that everyone has done. Because they wanted to support your cause. And even though their contributions mean the world to you for supporting your cause, your gratitude means the world to them.