WDE grew up watching and loving the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies. You know the ones, where the solution to life’s problems was “Let’s have a show!” In the classic Strike Up The Band, Jimmy (Mickey) and his best friend Mary (Judy) unite, with other music-loving kids in town, to host a fundraising event. The event’s profits cover the cost of train fare to Chicago, where Jimmy fulfills his dream of auditioning for orchestra leader Paul Whiteman.

Judy and Mickey were fundraising-event naturals—or perhaps they hired an event-management company that was never shown on-screen—who knew how to make money, make friends, and have fun at the same time. They understood that events provide opportunities for relationship building, inspiring and educating new and old audiences, and that events should be fun. Judy and Mickey’s friends and neighbors paid to attend their show, learned about their mission and goals, and left feeling inspired and excited.

They made it look effortless, but we know that planning and producing effective fundraising events requires a lot of work. Our goal is to find the best way for our clients to incorporate events into a development plan and to ensure that those events are authentic and in-sync with their community. As designers and producers, we help clients choose the right events and then execute them with style and efficiency. Here’s how we do it.

Step One: Plan Way Ahead

First, we highly recommend creating a 2–3-year events calendar. That’s right, two to three years. We find that people actually enjoy getting together and making plans — so take advantage of that. We then review our clients’ existing events schedule and we ask a lot of questions. For example, What events have they planned? Do they have a history of annual events? What are the financial and community-building goals for each event?

Second, we encourage clients to target and design each event with a specific donor focus. Every event should appeal to a distinct donor group, or groups, and have clearly defined financial and community-building goals. We use the Prospect Evaluation Grid (PEG) for this step. Put a donor name in every square of the PEG and ask those donors, What kind of events do they enjoy attending? Something cozy and intimate or an event with lots of people? What settings do they prefer? Indoor? Outdoor? Formal? Casual? Could they host events in their home? Also, make the most of this conversation with donors by further educating them about your services, mission, accomplishments, and goals.

Step Two: Do the MATH

We encourage our clients to do this simple calculation for every event.

Net Profit = Revenue Generated – (Direct Costs + Indirect Costs)
  • Net Profit: The revenue generated minus direct and indirect costs.
  • Revenue Generated: The money the event brought in or will have brought in within a designated time period. Include sponsorships and donations received by matching funds as well as donations made by individuals who could not attend the event. When exact figures are not known, clients should be able to make educated estimates based on past events and donor research.
  • Direct Costs: Bids for the venue, vendors, and event collateral.
  • Indirect Costs: Staff time and capacity. This is a big one. Ask these questions: Does the available staff have the skills and time to design and produce this event? How many volunteer hours will be needed before, during, and after the event? Should we hire consultants for some of this work?

Step Three: Nail Down the “W’s” and “H’s”

When is your event? Where will it be held? What is the event budget? Who are the key team members? How is the team producing this event? A lot of work goes into event planning and you need an actively engaged team that can design and implement an effective plan. Almost as soon as they said, “Let’s have a show” Mickey and Judy had nailed down their budget, venue, production team, and had hired all the talent.

Step Four: Mark Your Calendar

If your organization just completed a huge capital campaign last month, an auction this month might not be the best idea. Considerations when scheduling events include: How close is this event to other scheduled events or fundraising campaigns on your organization’s calendar? Familiarize yourself with the major events schedule of your peer organizations. Do not schedule events during major city happenings — you can’t compete with the Seahawks parade! Ask individuals from your targeted donor group when they would like to host or attend the event. Consider having events in the months of January, February, and March. Seattle is largely dormant in those months, so clients can often negotiate better deals with venues and vendors.

Step Five: Measure Your Success

Determine which measurement tools are appropriate for each event. Implement and review feedback from attendees, volunteers, and staff. Here are some questions to ask: What would happen if you didn’t reach your event goal? On a scale of one to ten, how excited were you about being involved in producing the event? If WDE wrote a check that met your event fundraising goal, would you still have the event?

Step Six: Say Thank You and More

You already know the importance of thanking donors, but don’t forget to tell them how their donation helped your organization achieve its goals. Write them a note, call them on the phone, or take them to lunch and tell them exactly how their generosity served your clients. Do this promptly — even a month is too long to wait.

Step Seven: Iterate!

Complete steps 1–6 for every event in your 2–3-year events calendar.

Fundraising events provide opportunities to meet potential donors face-to-face — the most effective form of fundraising. These events should be interesting, educational, and fun. They should be tailor-made for specific donor audiences and they should have clearly defined fundraising and community-building goals. If Mickey and Judy can plan a successful fundraising event and meet their financial goals, so can you.