Pro tips for successful fundraising events

Event professionals weigh in

By the end of 2023, our Movers & Makers Datebook will have listed more than 550 fundraising, friend-raising and community-building events from across Greater Cincinnati, an average of more than 10 each week. Let that number sink in for a minute.

Events are at the core of our publication, and in fact a primary reason for its founding as Express Cincinnati back in November 1995. (Happy 28th Anniversary to us!) Express was an extension of what had been previously known as the “society pages” – weekly photos of sponsors, volunteer leaders, honorees and other benefactors that newspapers published to publicly acknowledge their contributions. 

We at M&M thought it might be helpful to hear from event industry professionals and share some of their “pro tips” for successful fundraising events. Toward that end, we recently held a roundtable conversation with people from four segments of the event production process: 

The main thrust of our conversation covered what nonprofits can do to create more successful fundraisers and also to make their event production partner’s lives easier.

Start earlier

From our conversation, it seems as if the number one piece of advice is to “start earlier,” as event planner Janet Hill recommends. She and other panelists listed numerous advantages of beginning the conversation as soon as possible, providing ample time to … 

  • Secure the best professionals available to assist you.
  • Effectively determine the appropriate nature and scope of the event.
  • Book the ideal venue.
  • Divvy up responsibilities internally and externally to optimize resources.
  • Allow time for creativity to blossom and for suppliers to take full advantage of their capabilities and resources.
Janet Hill, executive producer and consultant, Janet Hill Events

Hill: If (nonprofits) would approach us earlier, while they’re thinking about the event and what they might want to do, we can give them a lot more direction about what kind of event might work best and the number of people that might work best under that situation.

Gerwe: I have found that for some of our nonprofit clients who have utilized professional event planners, professional party planners, professional nonprofit event organizers, that’s money well spent. Having someone who is experienced in executing the event, of course, is going to take a lot of stress off of the nonprofits and ensure that they are focused on raising money.

NOTE: Always remember to let us at M&M know the date and basic event details as soon as you have them nailed down. Put your stake in the ground for your preferred date by listing in our online Datebook as long as a year in advance.

Define the purpose of the event

Winkfield: Think about what you want from your event. Are you trying to do this simply as a fundraiser? …a marketing opportunity? Or are you trying to connect with your community? All of those mean different things and will determine your space, your vendors, so think about your event and its identity.

Don’t overthink

Thomas: Some organizations throw all these obstacles at you. I just came from a fifth meeting for a party of less than 200 for a nonprofit. And they’re measuring walls and all this crazy stuff. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Be honest about budget limitations

Winkfield: I totally appreciate organizations having a limited budget. But be honest with us about that budget when you go in the gate. That’s okay. We can work with a budget. We just need to know what it is.

Have a point person and a chain of command

Hill: It’s really important to have that point person. You don’t want a bunch of other people trying to call vendors. So it helps if you can just channel everything through your event planner or your internal person. And I’ve worked with some fabulous teams and we pulled off some amazing things with that internal team doing different parts. So we just say, figure out what your chain of command is.

Clearly define the event committee’s role and harness hosts and hostesses

Hill: You have to determine what it is you want from your committee, and be clear about what expertise they can give you. In some committees, the best thing they can do for you is sell your tickets. They’re connected to a lot of people. They don’t really want to get into the details of it.  Sometimes you have a committee that really wants to jump in, and they really want to make the centerpieces, etc., and they have the ability to do that. They can marshal the talent. I think it’s just really important to figure out what you want from them and what they can give you.

Jeff Thomas, owner and creative director, Jeff Thomas Catering

Thomas: One of the trends that’s totally gone, and needs to be reconceptualized is: In the old days, when you signed up to be a host and hostess for an event, it was expected that you’re gonna fill that table. Now we don’t do that anymore, and we just throw it out there and hope and cast fate to the wind. But it’s really a concept of working smarter instead of harder. When you can find 30 people to fill a room with 300 people…

Maintain focus; don’t let individual demands distract you.

Gerwe: Sometimes I feel that meeting the demands of internal clients has been one of the largest hindrances for nonprofits. Some organizations have maybe five of their top donors that they have to make happy and all of those top-five donors are expecting different things. So the organizers are a little restricted as to what’s possible because they have to check the box of each big donor. I’ve always found that a unique challenge for nonprofits.

Prepared to adapt and adjust

Winkfield: Having talented flexible players is the way, I would say, those individuals who have been in enough positions where they know how to shorten or lengthen the time span of what you need, and at the same time are not so fixated on a hyper-organized schedule that they can’t adapt when inevitably something happens, because something will. So those talented, flexible players can really help make the event.

Rehearse live portions of the program

Hill: I try to work with people to get them to rehearse these scripts together, and review them back and forth to each other to see if the timing is right.

Thomas: Choreography, choreography, choreography. I’ve done events where they allow somebody to speak instead of doing the video because video is so expensive. But I’ve seen (organizers) think (speakers) are going to be up there for five minutes and they ramble on for a half hour. And then my beef tenderloins are medium-well instead of medium-rare. 

Effectively communicate with guests about vendor needs

Thomas: From a caterer’s perspective, our biggest challenge – and it’s the nonprofit’s challenge, too – is that the sponsor tables often aren’t filled until the day before, and they’re scrambling to fill their table, or they don’t. And then people finally get to the table, and we don’t know whether they’re gluten free, or vegan or no nuts, or what have you, it’s a stumbling block in the whole process of getting the food out in a timely manner. I wish (nonprofits) could get a little more organized and, you know, politely demanding, to determine if there are any special needs for the people at the table.

Honor your guest count

Winkfield: If you have a set number of tickets, you have a set number of tickets. Please stick to that number. We cannot grow walls, we cannot grow square footage. It is set for a reason, and if you sell out of tickets it’s a great thing. And you know what then? That just proves that you did something right. And hopefully, you have the same problem next year.

Be creative; inject fun elements

Gerwe: I love doing new and unique things. I just reached out to a former vendor from BLINK to potentially do a digital art installation for a client coming into Cincinnati. We have such a unique city. We have such talent in the city, such different abilities from what most outside the city expect. And so I’m just excited and looking for clients who are open to trying new, unique, interesting things.

Tifani Winkfield, venue and marketing director, ARCO, Price Hill Will

Winkfield: Try to find a way to infuse your nonprofit identity with fun elements, something that makes the event memorable. For so many nonprofit events, even the smallest unique component makes it more successful. Everything from wigs to interesting takes on announcements or fun games and prizes, stuff like that. So, finding little, fun things people can identify with: marketing items, print materials, doing things with lights and sound, AV. I think there are little ways you can improve and make your identity stand out in a fun way.

Thomas: There’s a huge shift away from the ‘rubber chicken’ dinner. Nobody wants to sit through all that stuff anymore.

Learn from what worked and what did not

Hill: Really look at your event, like the one I did last weekend. I had left space, even though it wasn’t supposed to be a dance. I thought with the timing of the program there’d be some time to dance afterwards with a DJ. And we left it open, and they were dancing all over the entire hall having a blast and coming up to the people I was working with. ‘Can we do a dance next year?’ So you’ve already got them all fired up about coming next year to dance. Listen to what your people say.

Thomas: One thing I’d like to see back is the recap afterwards. What did we do right? What do we do wrong? What can we improve on?

New trends

Hill: Galas used to mean ‘gala.’ You know, long dress, cocktail dress, tuxedos. For the last two I worked on, they encouraged wearing costumes. One was a disco theme, and another was a ‘Wizard of Oz’ theme, and I saw everything from tuxedos to the Cowardly Lion, plus somebody in just a sports jacket. So I think it seems like people are feeling a little more comfortable being who they are.

Winkfield: Because of (COVID), we are left in this place now where people really are wanting to dive more into fun. What comes to mind are trends around romance and novels, and people getting to actually dress up – more like ‘Bridgerton’ costumes, more classically elegant things. So I think we will get there. I think we’re probably at the very beginning of that. 

Abby Gerwe, director of special events, MegaCorp Pavilion

Gerwe: I totally agree. I think we’re seeing a trend that moves more towards the experience of your evening. Uniqueness and standing out are a huge piece of that experience
for guests. 

Key elements of successful events beyond fundraising

Hill: What’s important is that people enjoy themselves and reconnect. What I see is people getting back together again, and just absolutely thrilled. And then that’s part of what you’re trying to do in fundraising is the friend-raising. You want to have this group support as well, and they’re gonna come out to be there for you on your other development ‘asks’ throughout the year. So I think it’s really important that you find a way to make that experience as enjoyable and fun as you can.

Gerwe: A lot of what we’re seeing at Megacorp Pavilion is that our nonprofit clients are hoping to gain new audience. Of course, they want to keep and nurture their current supporters, but it is imperative to bring in new and fresh support. And so we’re seeing that new fresh support is becoming as important as the dollars raised for our clients. 

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