Planning your next fundraising event? Watch out for these potential pitfalls.

Fundraising events – we know them, we love them (mostly– it’s complicated). When done right, events can be an efficient and powerful way to steward longtime supporters, to showcase your mission and work, and to cultivate relationships with new friends.

With all the moving pieces involved, events can be a massive undertaking and often a huge source of stress for those behind the scenes.  So, it’s important that we do everything in our power to set ourselves up for success. Your future self, your colleagues, and your constituents will all thank you.

In this post, we’ll talk through four common fundraising event faux pas from “not great, but easily fixable” to “NO MORE OF THIS. EVER”.

If you find that your organization is guilty of one or more of the items on the list, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. The good news is, once we have identified a problem, we are then able to begin fixing it! So, without further ado, here they are – four fundraising event flubs that may be hurting your cause:

1) You dive in without a life vest, aka a plan.

If you’re working in the nonprofit sector, chances are very good that you’ve had to produce a gathering with few resources and little time. Think back to how that made you feel. It probably involved a lot of anxiety, frustration, long work days, and perhaps a few expletives.

Fundraising events are stressful even when everything is going well, so add poor planning into that equation and it could spell disaster. Haphazard preparation and planning lead to disorganized events. A less-than-stellar event experience doesn’t just mean some people will bail early or have negative feedback, it means fewer dollars raised to support your important mission, and possibly fewer advocates for your cause.

Our advice:

Do an honest assessment of your bandwidth, and remember that the true cost of the event also includes the time that your staff is spending working on it. If your team is burnt out, chances are the event you’re hosting isn’t going to be your best, and you’ll be left with some really unhappy team members.

Consider how many fundraising events you’re putting on each year, and see if you can scale back. In this case, we strongly recommend quality over quantity, so maybe instead of spreading yourselves thin with 3 or 4 events, you focus your energy on putting together one really kick-a** event, and connecting with supporters in other, less time-intensive, ways throughout the rest of the year.

And lastly, start the planning EARLY, like really early. We’re talking 6 months in advance. Scouting honorees, prepping your Board for cultivation efforts, putting together event collateral, etc. – it all takes TIME, so the best thing you can do is give yourself plenty of runways. Make a list of everything you want your event to include and set realistic timelines (be generous!!!) for completing each important task.


2) You ignore the importance of cultivation opportunities

Fundraising events aren’t just about the party. Yes, of course, you want your guests to be entertained and enjoy the food, but events are a huge opportunity to deepen peoples’ relationships with your organization. If you’re not deploying your staff and Board members into the room to connect with folks, then you’re missing out big time.

Our advice:

First, make sure the team that should be cultivating guests is not stuck behind the registration table or backstage – invest in professionals or recruit awesome volunteers to make sure the event logistics run smoothly. Placing members of your direct service or Programs staff (folx who typically do not deal with fundraising) is a great way to increase cultivation by passively introducing supporters to even more of the brilliant people who make your mission happen. 

Second, It’s your job to know who’s going to be in the room so you can be sure they’ll get some special attention from senior staff or Board member – think the party prep scene from The Devil Wears Prada:

Now, you definitely shouldn’t be learning the names of your supporters the night of the event (that’s where good planning comes in), but as tickets and sponsorships are being purchased, be sure to keep an eye on attendees and flag the VIPs.

And yes, like The Devil Wears Prada, once you’ve identified your VIPs, it’s a good idea to create a document with their picture and a few key details so that your staff and Board can easily spot them in the room and are well-prepared to strike up a conversation.

Lastly, make sure you’re deploying your staff and Board efficiently. Make sure that your Board and staff members aren’t all going up to the same people while others are left without any interaction. Identify similarities in industries and interests and assign each team member a small group of people to connect with. Bonus points if you give the team a deadline to report back to you on the conversations they had with each guest!

3) Your calls to action aren’t clear and concise

Fundraising events are just that, events to raise funds. And while it seems pretty obvious that everyone in the room knows that, they won’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Is a gift of $100 enough, or do you want folks to dig deeper? Do you need funds to support a specific initiative? If you’re not clear about what you need, then your donors won’t be either.

If you’re not including an explicit ask AT LEAST once in your program, you are leaving money on the table!

Our advice:

Donors need to know what your organization needs, or they can’t help you get there. Don’t rely on subtle messages for them to hopefully just “get it.” Set a goal, then be upfront and ask for what you need – politely, of course, but go for it.

People want to know where their money is going and want to be sure that their support is making a tangible difference. If you just say we need $50,000 to support our mission, that doesn’t offer much by way of impact. Instead, try something like “$50,000 will help us provide 5,000 meals, buy 100 art kits, house 100 people, and repair our leaky roof”. This gives the donor the satisfaction of knowing exactly what they are supporting and leaves them with a sense of accomplishment.

Lastly, make sure you are offering other opportunities for your guests to get involved. Yes, getting a donation is an important goal, but how are you going to get people interested enough to KEEP making donations and become champions of your cause? In addition to asking people to make a donation, promote opportunities to take a tour of your facility, to come work on a volunteer project, or even to have lunch with your CEO.

P.S. Fundraising events are a great way to introduce people to your work, but they shouldn’t be the only time supporters get to see you in action. Make sure you’re following up with them throughout the year!

4) You’re guilty of relying on “philanthropy porn.”

You may have also heard the term “poverty tourism,” i.e., look at all these poor people with terrible lives, and only YOU can help save them. 🤮 Whatever you call it, it makes us cringe and wants to run for the nearest exit. There is a not-so-fine line between offering an empowering opportunity to a stakeholder to share their personal testimonial and exploitation.

If you’re bringing your constituents on stage for a “heartfelt, teary moment” or scripting people who have been your service recipients to make your donors the hero of their life story, and then sending them on their way, you need to do some serious reflection about the role that dignity plays in your community. 

Our advice:

Guilty of this? Stop it. This isn’t the great marketing tactic that some folks seem to think it is, and it’s actually hurting not only your cause, but the individuals being exploited for their stories, and the social sector as a whole. Yes, some tears from a thankful recipient may get you a few extra dollars, but at what cost? Is it worth exploiting the people that you’re supposedly advocating for?

Let’s be real. Most people receiving nonprofit services are BIPOC folx, and most major donors are white. If we fall into the trap of philanthropy porn, we are only perpetuating “white saviorism”, the antithesis of true social justice work. Ask yourself, “Are we really building supportive communities, or are we upholding oppressive systems”? If we’re truly working towards a just world for ALL, then we need to stop with the “us” and “them” mentality, and philanthropy porn is NOT the way to do that.

Instead of resorting to this icky fundraising tactic, try focusing on the positives. Yes, the people you’re serving benefit from the support your organization provides, but how can you emphasize the impact of community, connection, and how mutually beneficial philanthropy really is? Yes, that student who was growing up in poverty and became a multi-degreed COO that is helping to create jobs in your city is an incredible success story to share. But what about the stories of impact from those who were of service to this person? Why not ask the donor who funded the scholarship they utilized or the mentor that helped them get their first job after college to provide their powerful testimonial? If you do feature speakers at your event that has been the recipient of your organization’s services, ask yourself: are we inviting this person to participate in an experience that will enrich their lives and feel dignified from start to finish? Hint: if you’re bringing them on stage for a brief moment only to exclude them from the rest of the event, the answer is no.

As you’re putting together the program for your fundraising event, have a check-in and make sure that you’re representing not only your organization but also the people you serve in an authentic and respectful way. Again, we love Ethical Storytelling, which provides great resources for telling stories responsibly.

Traditional fundraising events are a staple for many organizations, but as nonprofit professionals, we have the power to update the format and outdated tactics. You may not want to throw the concept away altogether, but there are certainly opportunities to improve planning, efficiency, and, most importantly, to ensure that you are portraying and upholding the values you’re preaching.

Remember: don’t let the way things have always been stopping you from challenging the status quo and trying something new. You never know until you try!

As always, we’ve got your back, and we’re rooting for your success!

– The Philanthropy Coach LLC Team

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