The main event

I have worked with many charities and many events teams in my 20-year fundraising career. Currently, I am working as a consultant and I have the privilege of being brought into a charity to troubleshoot and find solutions to challenges. I am confided in; financials and survey results are shared and I get to speak to committed passionate staff about issues they are facing and potential resolutions. It’s flipping great.

One of the more frequent challenges I hear in my role as an Events Fundraising Specialist is the (perceived) decline in Special Events. Now I know that lots of charities generate very decent income from Gala Dinners, Christmas Concerts, Auctions and the like and for some charities they are one of the most successful fundraising mechanisms, but many struggle. There’s the gargantuan team efforts to sell tables at a Gala Dinner which has been organised by the same committee for a decade or more, the securing of ever more original auction prizes, the attempts to raise a decent net profit when tens of thousands will be sucked up by the expense of a glitzy dinner at a posh hotel.  And it is, quite rightly, leading Fundraising Directors and Heads of team to ask: Are the days of Special Events numbered? They can feel a bit inappropriate in today’s world of falling public trust, where charities are under fire for overhead and ambiguity.

But fundraising events do more than fundraise. The best results are seen when charities view their events as a catalyst for deeper engagement, a key that unlocks future support, where fundraising is not the main driver. We need to redefine what a fit-for-purpose events programme looks like as we enter the 2020’s. It will require change, and an appetite for risk, but in this post GDPR era, events have never been more important to the charity sector. 

Here are a few pointers that I share with teams I work with who are looking to transform & future-proof their special events model.

  1. Park (or ditch) underperforming activity. Working for months and months on an annual fundraising event which is only going to net a few thousand pounds (before staff costs) makes no sense. Through shelving underperforming activity, time will be freed up to innovate and explore alternative activity, which will ultimately raise more long term. It may be easier to persuade committee members if you say you are parking it temporarily or giving it a fallow year, just like Glastonbury does!
  2. Involve the whole charity in planning. Again, this sounds simple but the culture in fundraising teams is so hard-wired towards individual team targets that planning is very often done in silo. If you involve the department and wider organisation in the purpose and value of the events from the outset, there will be a shared sense of ownership and colleagues are more likely to work towards its success knowing it benefits the entire charity. (Note: All KPIs must reflect that.) 
  3. Stop calling them ‘Special Events’. Potentially controversial, but it is an internal charity term and doesn’t reflect their purpose. If we want these events to succeed, they need to be more accessible. Engagement Events is a more fitting term.
  4. Remove financial targets. If income generation remains the main driver for these events it will be nigh on impossible to make any meaningful change. Remove the financial targets and suddenly these activities can be measured in a far more significant way. Let’s not forget events are unrivaled opportunities to engage, recruit, steward and cultivate supporters. They are far more than an income target on a spreadsheet.  We must shift the narrative about charity events and give them the opportunity to work in a more sustainable and meaningful way.   

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