Special Events Fundraising
Ken Wyman, CFRE
Ken Wyman and Associates, Inc. Consultants
64B Shuter Street
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Table of Contents
Introduction - A Cautionary Tale
1 Ethics and Special Event Fundraising
2 More than Money - What Can You Gain from Special
3 What Makes Special Events Winners or Losers?
4 What are the Different Types of Events?
5 Selection of Ideas - Winners You Can Use and
Losers to Watch Out For
6 Getting (Almost) Everything Donated to Reduce
Your Costs to Nearly Zero
7 How to Guarantee Income Before You Sell Your
8 Nine Ways a Souvenir Programme Increases
9 Challenge Grants Can Add an Element of Fun
10 Hidden Gold - Extra Income After Events and Raffles
11 Auctions Encourage Top Donors to Give the Limit
12 Getting Bigger Bucks from Any Crowd
13 How to Get Musicians and Celebrities to Give Their
Time and be Glad They Did
14 How to Get Enough Good Volunteers
15 Secrets of Scheduling Time for Maximum
16 The Mathematics of Money at an Event - Avoiding
17 What's Deductible? Revenue Canada and Other Legal
18 Avoid One Shot Ideas
19 The Event Ability Quiz
20 Resource Guide to Organizations and
21 How Could This Book Be Better?
About the Author
A Cautionary Tale
In a disaster that has now passed into fundraising legend, a Boston-based
group snared what seemed like an extraordinary opportunity. Reggae musicians
Bob Marley and the Wailers would play free at a benefit.
They made careful plans. About 400 volunteers toiled for many weeks to
organize the event. On the big day, 13,000 people spent seven hours in the
summer sun enjoying a star-studded cast.
Unfortunately, there were some unanticipated costs. They had to pay return
air fare from Jamaica for Marley, his band, and a backup crew complete with
cook. There were hotel rooms for the entourage, tons of equipment to rent, and
the cost of the hail.
The net take for the evening was a stupendous $50,000 in the red.
You can lose big money in the best of causes. You can also make big profits.
How? Simply cut costs and maximize revenue.
If that sounds too simplistic, this handbook will spell out some of the
methods for you.
Is this book for you?
This is a self-help handbook designed to guide the beginner. Experts, too,
will discover new ideas and rediscover basic principles.
It will help with difficult decisions. What kind of event should you hold?
How can you maximize the returns? What human resources are needed?
The goal of this book is to help Canada's voluntary organizations expand
their share of public support and funds, through special events.
Special events are probably the most widely used technique to raise money,
attract publicity and educate the public.
All kinds of non-profit organizations use special events. With minor
modifications, they fit large and small, urban and rural. They work for
registered charities and for unregistered non- profit advocacy groups. Almost
identical ideas raise money for francophones, anglophones and every other
ethnic group. Adaptions customize methods for groups with wealthy patrons, or
for low-income self-help organizations.
Highly paid professional event managers can be. hired to run them. More
often, volunteers make it all happen.
Events can raise a million dollars in just one night. Of course
it really takes months of planning behind the scenes.
At the top end, Canadians paid $1,500 per person to attend a gala birthday
party and support a political party. At the other extreme, organizations charge
no admission and raise less than a hundred dollars by passing a hat. In between
are auctions, theatre nights, bingos, casinos, film nights and many more
variations on the theme.
They can and do go wrong, wasting hours of work, losing money, and
embarrassing the organizers. The opportunities for difficulty are plentiful.
Concerts, for example, frequently lose money. One celebrated Canadian
singer/actor had to apply for welfare after spending all his own money
organizing a benefit concert for native peoples. Despite free performances from
Dinah Christie, the Parachute Club and other well known artists, the event
didn't even break even.
Several large and well organized charities have also had serious
difficulties while raising money by raffling off a house. One group lost over a
half million dollars this way.
Even when they do make money, groups often complain that the financial
returns simply do not justify the volunteer hours consumed.
There are many success stories too, of course. This book will document some
of the techniques that reduce the labour, increase the income and remove the
This book is a unique Canadian look at the subject. While fundraisers have
published some material in the United States, it is of limited value here.
There are substantial market differences. Tax regulations governing ticket
sales and donations are completely different. Little of the American material
is available to most people, in any case.
This book doesn't say everything there is to say about special event
fundraising. That would take an encyclopedia. Or two. It does cover the most
important points, in a format that's quick and easy to read.
Thanks to ..
Mary Hancock, an Associate at Ken Wyman and Associates. Her hours of
research produced valuable details on effective events all across Canada.
Alexandra Montgomery, a student in York University's Master of
Volunteer Administration programme, who volunteered to research the material
that launched this book.
Lyn McDonell, an Associate at Ken Wyman and Associates. Lyn
contributed substantial material for this volume - particularly on volunteers
and on time management.
Nancy White, the singer/songwriter, performs at so many benefits that
she has become an expert on how to do them. She contributes her wisdom in the
section on musicians.
Bany Baker of Easter Seals, who suggested the fundraising formulas
and gave me permission to print them in the chapter on The Mathematics of
Raising Money at an Event. Barry is one of the top Canadian experts.
And many others, including Fred Gardiner for graphics and for keeping
the office managed so I had time to write. Marta Valencia for typing
parts of this (but any errors you find are mine, not hers). Don McRae of
Secretary of State for ideas, encouragement and patience. The Canadian
Centre for Philanthropy, particularly Laura Oda, the Director of
Training and Development, who arranged a national seminar tour on special
events that put me in touch with many important people, and Rose van
Rotterdam, the Manager of the Resource Centre, who gathered information and
quickly answered the oddest questions. Leueen MacFarlane, who
collaborated on ideas and provided moral support. Greg Bums, Director of
Recreation for the City of Cambridge, Ontario, who has an excellent thesis full
of many good ideas that couldn't be fitted in here. And literally hundreds of
other people who contributed ideas, whether I was interviewing them, consulting
with their organizations or leading a seminar.
Thanks to you all!
Special Events Fundraising
The ethical considerations of events deserve special consideration.
Depending on the group, these can be complex. Don't be overwhelmed by the long
list that follows. It is meant to identify the issues, and offer solutions.
First of all, the money raised must actually be spent for the non-profit
group's purposes. The public is increasingly suspicious that fake charities are
raising money from unsuspecting donors, and use the money for personal gain.
There have been several cases of abuse of the public. The worst of these
involved telephone sales of tickets to a show supposedly benefiting disabled
children. Apparently the show was oversold, few disabled children saw it, and
the non-profit group was misrepresented by salespeople who were paid
Responsible non-profit groups will have to counteract this understandable
hardening of the heart.
It is also essential that fundraising costs be kept to a minimum. Special
events can be costly operations. It behooves us all to keep expenses as low as
possible. Laws have been passed in parts of the United States that set maximum
fundraising expenses at 10% to 15% of the money raised. Similar legislation is
being discussed in Canada. This extremely low limit can be hard to achieve. The
reaction is understandable, however, given a few highly publicized cases where
overhead expenses consumed 70% or more of all money donated.
Fundraisers must also be careful not to give special treatment to suppliers.
If, for example, a job is given to a Board member's printing firm without
getting competitive prices, others may object. Exercise extra caution when
dealing with suppliers who are not at an arm's-length arrangement. Beware of
conflicts of interest. Avoid finders' fees, kick-backs or incentives from
suppliers. In extreme cases, people flying on non-profit business have been
criticized for using accumulated frequent flyer points for their own benefit,
instead of the non-profit's.
Community standards must also be respected. Strip-athons, and bachelor
auctions may sound like fun, but they can hurt an organization's image. Avoid
anything that smacks of sexism, racism or age-ism.
Eating contests, pie-throwing and similar activities are also becoming less
acceptable. As the public becomes more conscious of hunger in Canada and around
the world, food wastage and conspicuous over-consumption become moral issues.
Alcohol is another problem area. For many religious groups, it is simply
prohibited. For others, religious or not, only moderate drinking is acceptable.
This goes beyond ethics, too. Several lawsuits have also demonstrated that
the person pouring the drinks is responsible if a drunk driver is hurt or hurts
someone else. Non-profit groups that serve alcohol at events must pay heed.
Drinking contests are not a good idea. Raffles for alcohol are now illegal in
many areas. When serving alcohol, the current trend is to include no more than
one free drink as part of the price of admission to an event and that is
usually only done at dinners. A cash bar is provided for those who want to
Smoking is also increasingly an issue. Non-smokers feel that 'clean air'
areas should be provided at all events. If that isn't possible, it may be
preferable to ban smoking entirely.
Gambling presents another contentious debate. Again, many religions prohibit
it. People also criticize lotteries and bingos as a tax on the poor. While
people of every income level do participate in these activities, there is a
disproportionate representation from the people who can afford it least.
Consider carefully before involving your non-profit group in any gambling
activities. This includes casinos, raffles, bingos, 50-50 draws, lotteries,
Nevadas and similar games of chance. Double-check all local, provincial and
federal laws on the subject.
Accessibility is important, too. This extends far beyond groups dealing with
people who have special needs. Non-profit groups have a responsibility to lead
social change. In the arts, religion, education and any community building,
sensitivity to these issues has earned groups high praise.
Inspect any premises you may use for an event to make sure it is wheelchair
accessible, from ramps to special washrooms. Speakers and entertainers should
be interpreted into sign language for people with hearing impairments. Offering
child care can make an event more accessible for single parents. In some cases,
you may need to arrange special transportation, too. Some people have special
dietary needs. Offer to make arrangements on request for those who require
special food because of health, religion or other reasons. Most cooks can
accommodate the arrangements if given reasonable notice.
Multi-cultural issues must also be addressed. Should you provide
English-French bilingual materials? Perhaps other languages should be included,
such as Ojibway or Cree, Vietnamese, Italian, or Ukrainian, to name just a few
of Canada's largest ethnic populations. Be sensitive to inter-faith issues,
too. When saying grace, invoking the blessing of Jesus can offend Jews,
Moslems, Sikhs, Hindus and many others. Similarly, referring to God as
He will anger those battling sexism. Avoid scheduling events during
major holidays, for example. During the Islamic fast of Ramadan or the Jewish
feast of Passover, meals can become more complex. English Canada sometimes
forgets that Quebec offices are closed for St. Jean-Baptiste.
Boycotts present yet another problem. Many groups do not want to use
products from repressive countries, strike-bound companies, or businesses
targeted in campaigns. For example, one Canadian brewery is partially owned by
South African interests. Some university campuses and union halls forbid the
sale of any of their brands. Others are concerned about California grapes,
toxic chemical dumpers, and products made in countries like Russia, Chile, or
South Africa, to name a few.
Corporate co-sponsorships are also a problem. Disabled people's groups, for
example, often feel angry at drug companies that charge high prices and
insurance companies that are slow to pay premiums. Environmental groups are
concerned about resource extraction companies and polluters. Feminist groups,
Native peoples, people on both sides of the abortion issue and many others have
strong grievances against specific businesses. Often, these antipathies cross
over from the business itself to include those who own them, invest in them, or
work there. Throughout history, there have been people who hate the rich. Be
careful of the company you keep.
Charges of elitism are a thorn for those planning high-priced special
events. Many people argue that expensive admission charges, upper-class
entertainment styles and special privileges for those who can give more money
are all inappropriate for a non-profit group. This sets up, they say, a
two-class system of benevolent givers and beholden receivers, in the worst
traditions of paternalistic charity. Others respond that the purpose of a
fundraising event is to make as much money as possible, not to provide a party
as a public service.
Although this situation crops up most often in social service and health
organizations, it also arises in arts and sports groups, and political parties
from the New Democrats to the Progressive Conservatives. There are few
solutions. Sometimes it helps to offer a sliding scale of admission fees, with
discounts for seniors, unemployed, disabled, or students. Ultimately, a group
must decide: will the event be open to all, or will it cater to the wishes of
those who can give the most?
If those who have money are persona non grata, should you raise money
from the poor? Many groups are equally vehement that the people they are
helping can't afford to support the group financially. They often refuse to ask
members / clients / patients / service-users to donate or buy a ticket to an
event. This, too, can be a kind of paternalism. In many cases, poor people have
shown that they not only will contribute, they take pride in doing so. This
participation helps transform a non-profit group from an alienating bureaucracy
into a participatory self-help tool.
What's more, studies by The Canadian Centre for Philanthropy show that poor
people are extremely generous. They give a substantially larger portion of
their income to non-profit groups than the rich do. While the availability of
services should never depend on anyone's donations, it is reasonable to ask if
they would like to join in the efforts. Avoid asking anyone who may be hurt by
a public disclosure of their connection, of course.
Finally, non-profits must respect each other. Most groups are friendly and
open about sharing information with other non-profits. This is as it should be.
A few groups, however, have tried to steal others' fundraising ideas. That
hurts everyone. While there aren't many, if any, truly original fundraising
events, it is dangerous to copy too closely. New techniques reported in the
media quickly become trends as dozens of groups pick them up. Using the same
idea too often can render it totally unproductive for everyone.
All of these factors must be taken into account in choosing the right
special event. It can seem daunting to deal with them all, yet the public
expects higher standards of morality from charities and non-profit groups than
from anyone else. Be sure you live up to a reasonable standard of ethics.
More Than Money:
What Can You Gain
From Special Events?
Good fundraising must provide an opportunity to gain more than just funds.
In fact, if that's all it raises, it may not truly be a success in the
The money may finance important work. All too soon, though, the income is
exhausted and more is needed. The needs are so endless, and the available funds
are so limited.
Fortunately, events can produce more than just money.
They also communicate image and information about your organization and its
projects to the public. These are called warm fuzzies. They're
intangible, but very real. If this is done well, it makes it easier to raise
money again the next time. Warm fuzzies are more than Public Relations. The
list below will show you some of the possibilities.
Too often, however, warm fuzzies are used as an excuse. After an event that
doesn't raise much money, the organizers might console themselves and try to
mollify the Board by pointing out all the warm fuzzy results. They may be
over-estimating the reality.
Warm fuzzies aren't an accidental by-product. You must plan on developing
them from the beginning.
It's also easy to measure the results.
You may have shown your new slide show about your projects, for example. Did
people learn anything new? Were you preaching to the converted?
Try a simple before-and-after test. Decide 5 or 10 points you want people to
know. Before the show begins, ask them to fill in a 60-second multiple choice
quiz. Afterwards, have them do the same quiz again.
Did they score high marks before they even saw the show? Then it's too
simplistic for them. Have the scores improved? Youve got a winner! Did
the scores go downhill? Yes, it really happens. That means youve confused
Here's another common misconception about warm fuzzies: overrating media
coverage. You may have had your group's name in the media, but will people
remember it? Was the name linked to positive values that enhance your image, or
clarify your mission? Was it in media that your most important donors respect?
Don't measure your media exposure in column-inches or seconds of air time
alone. Quality is more important than quantity.
Even more important than warm fuzzies is the enhanced ability to raise more
money in the long run. Call this hot flashes.
An event is worth more than the money it raises if it makes it easier to
raise still more. For example, will the people who participated do so again?
Did you get their names and addresses? Do you have a plan in place to contact
them again soon?
After an event that's done right, the donors and even the volunteers may
feel energized. They may look forward to the next event, instead of dreading
it. The organizers have learned new skills, made new contacts, and feel
Your human resources should feel invested, not spent.
Here is a sampling of possibilities in three categories:
Cold Cash (Once you spend it, it's gone!)
- credit card donations
- in-kind donations of goods and services
- post-dated donations
Warm Fuzzies (The good feelings that open doors tomorrow.)
- contact with people
- increased commitment
- good community relations
Hot Flashes (Enhanced ability to raise more in the long run.)
- 'repeat-ability' of good ideas
- leadership training
- new volunteers
- re-invigorated volunteers and staff
- names and addresses of new donors to ask again
- diversified sources of funding
What Makes Special Events
Winners or Losers?
There are thousands of different ideas, but they all boil down to give
donors something for their money.
What's the biggest advantage? People nervous about asking for money find it
easier to make a request. As well, events can help a group educate people, gain
publicity and find new friends.
What are the problems?
Running an event is really very similar to starting a business. Many
non-profits don't like to think of themselves as having anything in common with
the business world. Yet the similarities are striking.
Have a dinner and you're opening a restaurant for one night. Put on a
concert and you're in show biz! Design and sell your own Christmas cards and
you're into manufacturing and retailing.
Profits can be slim in any of these businesses, even when professionals run
them year round. Restaurant corporations go bankrupt every year. Musicians'
poverty is legendary, except for a handful of stars. Greeting card companies
report declining sales as postal rates soar. Most small businesses expect a 3-
to 5-year struggle before they are profitable.
How much more difficult is it for amateurs to do well? Who else would expect
to open a business, operate it for a single night, and immediately generate
substantial surplus income? Yet it can be done!
The profits may come from surprising places, however. In the cinema, for
example, the sales of popcorn and refreshments can be more rewarding than
Major recording artists often don't break even on tours. Large audiences
paying top dollars for tickets and buying expensive souvenirs may not produce
enough revenue. Tours frequently must be subsidized by government arts grants.
Even the biggest stars have concerts co-sponsored by soft drink companies,
brewers or car makers. Ultimately, the value of a tour is usually measured in
promotional publicity that increases record sales in stores.
It is no surprise that non-profit groups sometimes lose money on events
despite countless hours of hard work by many volunteers. The surprise is how
often they succeed.
Why do special events fail?
- Costs are too high.
- Prices are too low.
- Not enough tickets are sold.
- Expectations are unrealistic.
Here are some of the most overlooked problems:
1. Front money is needed to pay bills before revenue comes in. Many
groups do not have a source of capital to bankroll the investment phase. If
they use operating funds, a loss - or even a delay in payments - can interfere
with programs. Some board members will advance personal funds, or co-sign a
loan. Although this can be risky, it is often the only solution.
2. Underbidding cuts income by setting prices below what a donor
might give. Frequently, organizations decide the price by the lowest common
denominator. The non-profit doesnt want to exclude any supporters who
can't afford high prices. As a result, a fundraising event turns into a
community party that just breaks even - or worse, loses money.
Even when prices are higher, there are always some people who would give you
as much or more as a pure donation, if you asked properly. Whether you offer a
ticket for $15 or for $150, few people will offer to give more than the ticket
price. Yet some of them can afford $25, or $250. They might give that much, if
you asked. Its often your organizational goals they care about, not the
They might even be happier to give you money if they dont have to
attend the event! Yet you incur expenses, and get less than theyd like to
3. A 'careful consumer attitude makes donors reluctant to pay
for tickets. Sell $15 tickets for a dinner worth $10, and they question the
value. They may forget that you are not putting on the event to offer them a
bargain, but to raise money. In addition, they believe they gave your
organization a $15 gift, not $5, since that is their out-of-pocket cost. The
expenses are not apparent to the donors.
This problem becomes most acute when selling products. A souvenir sweat
shirt may cost your organization $10 to produce. You may sell it for $15. The
donors may compare it to one at a discount store for $5.
4. Disaster planning is overlooked too often. Murphys Law
applies to fundraising events. It remains true that if things can go wrong,
One group researched the entire meteorological history of their community.
They wanted to determine the one day statistically least likely to rain, for an
outdoor event. It rained, of course.
Rental of a tent, or alternate scheduling are essential for outdoor
In the same way, contingency plans should be made in case of every
emergency. Ask yourself every possible What If question. Figure out
the answers in advance.
What if not enough tickets are sold? What if the main speaker or
entertainment cancels at the last minute? What if a tight breaks Out? What if
someone gets drunk and wants to drive home? What if...