Dear Nonprofiteer, Can an event really broaden our base?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

We’re a social service agency with two problems–too little support, and too few supporters.  We want to hold a benefit event that will bring in new people who will give us lots of money.  What’s a sure-fire fundraiser?  Signed, Open Arms and Empty Wallet

Dear Open Arms:

"We want to hold a benefit event that will bring in new people who will give us lots of money."–You and the whole rest of the nonprofit sector.  But because you’ve defined the problem so clearly, you’ll have an easier time solving it.

You can bring in new people if you give an event that sounds like fun–meaning "different from all other benefit events."  Suggestion: don’t think of an event, think of an activity (roller skating, going to the theater, dressing up) and then of an unusual venue for the activity (the museum, the subway, the ballpark).  You may not actually be able to hold an event that consists of roller skating through the museum, but this little exercise will enable you to think of an afternoon or evening’s worth of fun that people otherwise couldn’t have.  It might turn out to be a boring activity in an interesting location (cocktails, but after-hours at a museum) or an unusual activity in an unremarkable location (roller-skating, albeit at a plain old roller rink), or something moderately interesting at a location moderately notable (going to see a show for which tickets are otherwise scarce); but in any case it’s a multiplication problem.  If the activity is a 2, the venue needs to be a 10, and vice-versa–and of course your ideal is 10 x 10.

BUT you want "new people who will give us lots of money."  Contradictory as it seems, the only event that answers to this description is the most familiar one of all: the awards dinner.  The reason so many agencies hold the "Come Honor Jane Doe and Her Years of Service to Our Community" rubber-chicken meal is that Jane Doe’s friends will buy tickets–and the agency has figured out in advance that, given Jane Doe’s job, family and social connections, her friends have lots of money over and above the ticket price, if only the agency can get to it.  The thing to remember, though, is that you get one shot at converting Jane Doe’s friends into the agency’s friends, and this rubber-chicken dinner is it. 

So make sure the evening’s agenda includes an interesting introduction to the agency’s work (well-done videos are always good), and that Jane Doe’s friends go home with some goodie to give them a warm positive reminder of the evening and make them welcome future communications (that is, importunings for money) from you.  Maybe the goodie is a candle made by your agency’s clients; maybe it’s a photo of friend with Jane Doe; maybe it’s a memento of the venue, which even here should be somewhere people will be interested in going (the new wing of the museum?  the roof of a building with a great view?  the sewers of Paris?).  You’re creating an association here: Agency A=good time/warm positive feelings.

Reality check: most likely your event will EITHER bring in new people OR bring in lots of money.  Events that produce huge paydays are ones populated by the agency’s stalwart friends, not by newcomers.  My recommendation?  Use events to make new friends (from whom you will get big money later); ask your old friends just to write you a check, and give them what most charitable people really want: an evening off and a chance to relax at home.

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