Maximizing the return on investment from your special events

Maximizing the return on investment from your special events

March 17, 2016

As an event fundraiser in the late 1990s, it seemed all you needed was an honoree and a dream to fund your mission. It probably wasn’t as easy as I remember it, but it appears the game of checkers we were all playing back then has quickly turned into chess.

The philanthropic market has changed. Donors are now focused more on impact and are investing in fewer nonprofits. Corporations are less willing to solicit their roster of vendors for charitable donations because of a combination of real and imagined ethical and legal concerns. The formula for event success has changed. While some organizations are completely turning away from special event fundraising, I actually see a greater benefit than ever for events – that is, if they are executed well and correctly placed within the context of your entire fundraising operation.

Special events can be an acquisition program for your major gift efforts. Every guest and donor is an opportunity to expand your pipeline. Here are three things to focus on while planning your event that will help you realize returns afterward that are exponentially greater than the funds raised at the event itself:


Think carefully about what will drive people to attend your event. We’ve all been to too many events and are busier than ever. Without a compelling reason, someone may donate but choose not to attend your event. The opportunity to engage that donor beyond the initial gift will be missed.

Use differentiation to make your event stand out. Differentiation can be done by location. For example, my company, Orr Associates, Inc. collaborated with Smile Train on their gala in 2014 and transformed the floor of the Barclays Arena, which at that time had never been opened for an event of this nature. This proved to be a unique offering that drew in attendees. You can also differentiate with entertainment. For example, during OAI’s partnership with Boys and Girls Harbor, by far their most successful event was a 2015 gala that featured Jennifer Hudson and Vanessa Williams.

Bring your mission to life

Everyone who attends the event needs to leave understanding what you do and why it matters. Everything about the event needs to be on-brand and communicate the message you want guests to remember when they leave. OAI recently partnered with College Summit to help produce its first gala in over 10 years. A primary purpose for the gala was to introduce their important mission to a new audience. The entire evening creatively featured students and alumni. OAI brought the unique attributes of College Summit to life, and that’s what guests remembered. You don’t want people to leave talking about the food. You want them to leave talking about your mission. Ensure you build your program accordingly.

Make a plan for each key donor in advance of the event

Research your new donors and attendees as soon as you have their names. Prioritize who you want to draw in. Where will they sit? Who on your board will be prepped to interact with them and what will be the intended messaging? What happens the week after the event? The month after? Sit with the key board members and solicitors in advance to co-create a plan for their guests and donors and then again after the event to learn what their guests had to say. Have them help you make a plan and engage them in it.

Your events are your first impression for an audience of new investors. Make it a good one!


Craig is a Vice President at Orr Associates, Inc. (OAI), a premier consulting firm to the nonprofit industry with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. He specializes in serving as an embedded fundraising, leadership and strategy partner to leading nonprofits. Prior to joining OAI Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as National Director of Development and Corporate Alliances. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).

Craig Shelley