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We call them special events for a reason.

They bring us money, friends, visibility, reach, media opportunities, board prospects and more - on top of raising essential unrestricted dollars.

But they are also behemoths - public, time-sensitive, all-consuming. If we're not careful, they can take on a life of their own.

Events are tools to meet our organizational objectives - and "because we always do it" is never a good reason to invest so much time, money and human capital to pull them off.

So when is it time to take a breath and ask - is it really worth it? The answer is - every single year, well before we plunge in. Here are some ways to rethink an event that's just not so special any more.
Fix It

Get more out of your event on all fronts:
  • Increase fundraising return by starting earlier, reducing expenses, getting more buy-in up front
  • Expand board participation and thereby your reach and effectiveness
  • Reach new markets and get more people asking on your behalf
Most importantly, position your event as "one" of the important relationship-building activities you do throughout the year.

By basing events in a year-round fundraising context, you're constantly cultivating the next honoree, event chair or host committee members and sponsors - so you're not pulling an increasingly stubborn rabbit out of the hat every year.
Change It

Sometimes the environment or your audience has shifted, or perhaps board membership is skewing younger, and a traditional sit-down dinner just doesn't meet the group's needs.

One of the easiest changes is a shift to cocktails - reducing expenses and providing a relatively easier lift, with more flexibility and a focus on cultivation.  Does adding a VIP reception up front - or a dance party afterwards allow you to engage a wider universe of supporters?   
Lose It

For some nonprofits, shifting the extraordinary amount of time they invest in running the gala each year into foundation fundraising or cultivating corporate program partners might ultimately yield far more for the organization.

It may well be that several smaller events might serve to create and nurture a more diverse donor base...for instance, a bar party or volunteer event for the next gen crowd, plus a smaller more intimate house party or dinner for potential major donors. It's rare that "one size fits all" will meet enough of your needs - and might actually be holding you back in crucial areas.

Groups may also consider moving to a gala fundraising event every other year, with smaller fundraising and/or cultivation activities on the off years.
Meeting Resistance?

Board members may balk: " Will you buy a table?" can feel easier to say than " Let me introduce you to our work" through a cultivation opportunity.

If you're worried that key sponsors might not respond well to the change - that they might need those tables to make the same commitment - ask them!

They may surprise you, and be perfectly content with the offer of heightened marketing opportunities or meeting key donors and honorees in a special reception prior to the main event. You might find the change actually creates unforeseen new opportunities.

Most importantly, don't let your "sacred cow" event become a bully. Invest the time in deeply evaluating your event's return on investment and if it's not meeting your needs - show it who's boss.
Cause Effective Can Help

Want some assistance in thinking this through?  Check out this Tip Sheet on Event Assessment, and drop us a line.

If your event seems tired and ready for some fresh thinking, we're here to help.

Judy Levine 
Executive Director  
Cause Effective Around Town
New workshops, podcast, blog posts...and more! 
Sacred Cows: Showing Your Fundraising Event Who's Boss

Foundation Center 
Thursday, May 26th
Learn how to analyze your special events - and how to rethink, recharge, or replace an event that's just not so special any more.

Register Here! 
Podcast: Your Gala Might Be a Tradition, but Is It Effective?
Hear Senior Associate Susan Gabriel talk with Tony Martignetti in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Podcast with Ruth Browne, CEO of the Arthur Ashe Institute for Public Health, to discuss changing-up their event.

Listen to it here!
And check out the Chronicle's lead story: First, We Kill All the Galas - about taming the runaway special event.
From the Cause Effective Blog:
The Path In

There's no substitute for first-hand experience, agreed a board member, executive director and director of development, at last week's Nonprofit Excellence Awards Panel on Excellence in Fundraising and Resource Development. 

Rather than asking people cold - for board members, for donations, for resources - the answer, for panelists from New York Common Pantry and Red Hook Initiative, is to involve people in the organization as volunteers. [more]
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For over 30 years, Cause Effective has strengthened the nonprofit sector by increasing the capacity of more than 5,000 nonprofits to build sustainable communities of supporters.  We provide carefully tailored counsel to help nonprofits diversify funding, raise more money from individuals, activate boards of directors, and get the greatest value from anniversaries and special events so they can achieve long-term, community-based change.

To learn more, please visit www.causeeffective.org.