Nonprofit fundraising has become known to the common masses for its ‘fundraising’ events and its sale activities. Talk to any layperson about being in ‘fundraising’ and they respond “Oh, you must be good at planning events!” or “I was never good at selling cookies”.
Events are commonly misunderstood. Possibly the misunderstanding comes from the saturation affect: the daily arrival of invites, ads and press releases on what black-tie gala or hayride and cookout is being hosted for which group, how much they raised or plan to raise, and who attended. The misunderstanding is that events are hosted to raise funds.
Too often the reality is, the money raised is minimal compared to the expense, the attendees learn little about the organization as beneficiary, and the event is seen as a burden on the supporter- an obligation that must be born to show support and that most donors would just as happily support the nonprofit in other ways, ways more lucrative and efficient to the nonprofit’s mission.
Disagree? See, as evidence, the recent results of the cancellation of such ‘fundraising’ events due to economic stress. One nonprofit board member, Nancy Jarecki, speaking in an article in the Nonprofit Times, observes “It’s kind of strange when people are almost not required or obligated to get that event invitation in the mail, that expectation that they feel like they’ve got to do it, they still write the check,” Jarecki said. “They tended to still give, but on their own. They didn’t have the pressure of buying a $1,000 ticket”
In the same article, Carol Kurzig Executive Director of the Avon Foundation notes “In general, in our experience, individual donations are holding very well and have increased significantly this year”
And in a study conducted in 2007, the nonprofit watchdog group, Charity Navigator concluded “…special events are inefficient in comparison to overall fundraising activities” and “Many health charities would benefit from shifting their fundraising focus away from special events.” Most disturbingly, the report went on to discover “A large percent of charities are reporting their special events data incorrectly, with no recourse from state or federal regulators.” But that’s a topic for another post, I digress.
So, the question then becomes- Why? Why are nonprofit leaders across the nation continuing to perpetrate this crime on the donating public? Why do they continue to reel headlong onto the path of wasted money and large headaches in pursuit of raising funds, if the results are poor return on investment, bad donor feelings, and a weak economic model in a stressful economy?
Unlike our corporate sisters, nonprofits have been indoctrinated into believing that they must perform to the expectation of the masses, allowing the public to lead the development and performance of the NPO, rather than driving performance and perception from their core product line. Public opinion sways management more than outcomes when it comes to fundraising. Maybe it’s because many fundraisers come from the service delivery field, where public need and opinion rightly DOES drive programs. Maybe it’s because our Board of Directors often does not have sufficient experience in philanthropy to be governing such decisions. Maybe we just don’t know how to stop.
2. It’s easy
Okay, hosting events is not really easy. They’re a heck of a lot of work- volunteer coordination, set up, break down, mailings, registration tracking, and more mailings. And all of those decisions. Hours and hours of time and resources, for months on end, to produce a three hour event. But what makes them easy and attractive is the group nature of the solicitation. No one is on the end of the limb. No one is in the spotlight asking for the gift. The ‘ask’ is not from a philanthropic place, it’s from a sales place. And a sale is an academic activity, it’s understandable, it’s American. I give you this, you give me that. It seems fair. But compared to cultivating and building a relationship with a real person – mano a mano – to ask them for money, well bring on the flower choices and dinner menus. Let’s have a party.
3. It draws daily attention
Show me the society page that has picture upon picture of Mrs. Jenna Moneybags and the Executive Director of the We Need Your Help nonprofit organization with the headline “Years of Cultivation and Stewardship Pays Off: Large ask gifts WNYH organization with $100,000 for their children’s ward.” Valuable philanthropy just doesn’t get that kind of everyday publicity or pictures and smiles. It doesn’t market.
4. It feels good
Volunteers want to help. Planning events gives them something to do.
All of which, while being valid and understandable, still doesn’t answer the question of why do we continue.
I propose we place a moratorium on all new ‘fundraising’ events, all expansion of ‘fundraising’ events, or even, the continuation of dying ‘fundraising’ events. The economy seems to be helping us do just that.
I next propose we educate our boards in a way that helps them become more effective in governing philanthropic decisions. Let’s start with the wasteful nature of events as fundraisers.
In tandem, we need to provide academic educational opportunities and tracks of learning and growth for fundraising professionals. More academics on developing relationships, cultivating constituents, stewarding donors, and less of the ‘how to host an event’ training is needed. And it needs to be qualified in a tiered way that allows the development of professionals along lines of experience, from entry-level to experienced professional.
Finally, let’s develop a mental picture of what events can actually do for us: engage volunteers, bring awareness, and satisfy public perception. But they don’t raise money and so, therefore, are not ‘Fund Raisers’. If we build our events using these three core beliefs, I reason that waste will be reduced, donor market share will increase and philanthropic profits will rise.