If your nonprofit is planning a special event fundraiser, such as a dinner, auction, tournament, festival, or garden/home tour, you've probably already figured out that ticket sales won't likely cover your costs, much less turn the event into a true fundraiser. Corporate sponsorships may help, but they usually require a lot of advance planning.
Here are some ways to add some "oomph" to your event's fundraising possibilities, and make sure that no guest goes home feeling like he or she could have given a little more to the cause, if only the right opportunity had presented itself.
No need to go crazy lining up prizes – one big-ticket item will do it, preferably one that's in keeping with the theme of the main event. However, be sure to comply with your state's law on raffles, and see the article, "Special IRS Gambling Rules for Nonprofits."
For a home or garden tour, for example, you might sell luncheon items or drinks, or offer outside vendors the opportunity to sell home- or garden-themed items (in return for a set fee or a percentage of profits). Or, if your group has produced T-shirts, calendar, or other items else you've been trying to sell -- or perhaps has a closet full of leftover thank-you gifts from last year's mail appeal -- here's the perfect opportunity to earn a little extra.
If you're trying to loosen up your guests – for example, to get auction attendees into a bidding mood -- the first drink should be free. After that, however, offering a special mixed drink – with a clever name that ties in to your nonprofit's name or work – is fun, and you can charge extra for it.
The idea here is that volunteers bake cakes and fancy desserts and attendees bid on them during a brief live auction that follows dinner. Each dessert can easily bring in $50 to $100, depending on the crowd.
This is a variation on the raffle idea. You stuff blown up balloons with gift certificates, for example to local stores and restaurants. Holding the balloons, your staff or volunteers circle the room during an appropriate part of the event, and sell them for around $5 to $15. The excitement builds as the balloons are popped and people see what they have won.
Can you get two of the same high-value item? A donor who, for example, is willing to part with one week's stay at a vacation cabin may be willing to give you a second one. Don't publicize the existence of a duplicate in advance. Instead, when the bidding seems ready to peak, have the auctioneer announce that the donor has consented to providing another of the same item, with both offered at the second-highest price. You'll probably make both bidders happy, with an instant boost to your proceeds.
Here's how Kaleo Waxman, with the Parents' Club of the Belmont Oaks Academy in Belmont, California, explains this type of contest in Nolo's Volunteers' Guide to Fundraising: "The auctioneer says to the audience, ‘How many of you would be willing to donate just $25 to support the school? Stand up now! How about $50?' The idea is that people sit down when they're not willing to give a higher amount—but a runner quickly goes and gets confirmation of their donation. Meanwhile, the auctioneer keeps upping the amount until there's a ‘last person standing.' Last year that person, who donated $800, received a surprise bonus gift of a two-night stay at a Ritz Carlton resort near Lake Tahoe. Many people said afterward, ‘If we'd known that was coming, we would have stayed standing longer!' But this year, they know there'll be a nice surprise in store." Note that although this setting was an auction, it could work at many other sit-down events.
You are probably (or hopefully) already planning to have someone make a specific "ask" for support at some point during the event. This could be your E.D., a person with a story to tell, or simply someone who's a passionate, inspiring advocate to your cause. But too many nonprofits drop the ball and don't make clear that they really want people to give, right then and there. A great way to achieve that clarity is to set a goal that's tied to receiving a matching gift from someone in the room.
For a separate entry fee, you can have guests guess the number of objects in a jar, enter a putting contest (at a golf tournament), hit a target, guess which baby photo is your executive director, or anything else appropriate to the mood and theme of the event. With advance notice, you can also hold a dessert contest, ugly dog contest, best moustache contest, or something similarly wacky.
The event isn't really over when it's over. You should have collected names of every person who attended, some of whom are probably friends of friends who have never really supported or even known much about your organization before. Now is your chance to engage with them. Give them a call or other form of contact, and find out what interests them and whether there's a way they might become further involved with your organization.
For detailed information on special event planning, see The Volunteers' Guide to Fundraising; Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group (Nolo).