“Should we lower the ticket price to our event?” is the question I have been asked over and over by clients and colleagues this year. My answer is an emphatic NO!
There are two primary reasons: First, there are people who have the ability to continue to pay the regular ticket price (or sponsorship level). By lowering ticket prices (and sponsorship levels,) you are leaving money on the table. Second, you are lowering expectations for subsequent years.
So, if some individuals and companies won’t be able to participate at their usual levels due to the economy, what do you do? Call them. Talk to them. Tell them how much you appreciate their past support of your event. Explain that you noticed that they had not renewed for this year, and ask if it was an oversight (just in case it was). If not, ask at what level they might be able to participate again this year. Welcome them back at any level, and offer to give them the benefits and perks of their normal, higher level, with the expectation that they will be able to come back at higher levels in future years. Do this with companies and individuals, for sponsorships and individual tickets.
My advice: Do not leave money on the table or lower expectations for your event. Do not lower ticket prices this year.
Why Have Events?
Events are the most time intensive and expensive type of fundraising, so why do we have them? Events are an opportunity to:
- Showcase your organization to your current supporters and members of the community,
- Make a lot of money from companies and people who might not otherwise give,
- Build your database, and
- Raise unrestricted, operating dollars, which are difficult to raise in other ways.
I believe every small development shop should have events, but only one annual one, or two at the most. (Planning more than two events per year will not leave time for other important components of fundraising, such as individual cultivation and solicitation, grant writing, bulk mail, etc.) Despite the drawbacks of events, if you have the staffing capacity to hold an event (or two,) it should be well worth the effort.
Event Committees are for Fundraising, Not for Planning
When planning your event, the first step is to form a committee of board and non-board members to serve as your event committee. Ideally, you should have lots of people on your committee with various positions, titles, and connection in the community. Let each committee member know up front that you expect them to buy or sell at least one table, as a condition of serving on the committee. Lay out additional expectations, like attending occasional meetings and sending invitations with personal notes to friends and colleagues.
An event committee is a fundraising committee, and should not be expected to (or expect to) plan the details of the event. The first time I ever ran a major event, I made the mistake of including the committee on decisions like table cloth colors and dinner menu selection. While you may have one committee member who wants to be involved with event details, (and you may need to let them, for political reasons,) this should not be the primary focus of the committee. The committee exists to help you fundraise!
Event committee members have four key responsibilities:
- Determining the type of event,
- Selecting honorees and speakers,
- Setting sponsorship levels, and
- Selling tickets and tables.
Always make important decisions, such as selecting honorees and sponsorship levels, as a committee, (with staff recommendations and input, of course). This will ensure committee member involvement and “buy-in.”
Setting the Stage to Fundraise: Putting Your Committee to Work
1. Determining the Type of Event
Once the event committee is formed, the first order of business is to select the type of event. Staff should have one or two suggestions in mind to help guide the conversation. You may want to start the conversation via email ahead of the first meeting, so committee members can have ideas when they arrive, and you can move forward quickly.
One of the most common events among non-profits is the awards dinner event. It works well, because it serves as a friend-raiser and fundraiser. There are many other popular events such as golf outings, and dinner dances or galas.
While there are a variety of types of events to choose from, focus on events that easily lend themselves to sponsorship opportunities. I believe that any fundraiser where you sell things one at a time, are bad fundraisers. For example, cookie sales (except for in the case of the girl scouts). Likewise, magazine sales, wrapping paper sales, bake sales, car washes, etc., are bad fundraising events for any small organization. (Schools are perhaps the exception to this rule, because they have huge labor pools – students – to do the selling). Sponsorships are key to successful fundraising events, and you should stay away from events where things are sold one at a time (be it a ticket, or a box of cookies).
2. Selecting Honorees
If you are having an awards dinner or gala, selecting the right honorees is a critical step, because honorees can buy and sell sponsorships for you. Make a list of companies, individuals, foundations, and groups that support your organization. Which would you like to honor, and have the ability, and have the ability to buy and sell sponsorships. Utilize your committee member’s contacts in the community to secure the best honorees possible.
Most organizations opt to have more than one honoree, to leverage as many sponsorships and tables as possible. My rule of thumb is no more than three to four honorees. If you have more than four, it dilutes the meaning of the honor, both on the invitation and at the event. Having too many honorees also creates a long and boring program.
Just a note: having a politician as an honoree is always a fine idea (assuming you’re having more than one honoree,) but s/he will rarely (almost never) generate any ticket sales or sponsorships.
3. Setting Sponsorship Levels
The key to a successful event is to sell sponsorships, not (only) tickets. I always have a ticket price for the few individuals who will want to buy them, but the main focus should be on selling tables or sponsorship packages. Event revenue is raised in a traditional fundraising pyramid (ten percent of the people give ninety percent of the gifts, and ninety percent of the people give ten percent of the gifts). So start where the money is and solicit sponsorships.
Last year, I was hired by an organization to help raise more money at their annual event. After reviewing the event sponsorship levels, I recommended that they significantly raise them from a top level of $5,000 to a top level of $15,000. There was a great deal of resistance by the board and executive director, but I convinced them to give it a chance. We created levels of $15,000, $10,000, and had $5,000 as the bottom level (which had been the top level the year before). With the new sponsorship levels in place, they raised three top sponsorships ($15,000 each,) and two $10,000 sponsorships. From their top five donors, they raised more money than they had ever raised at this event in prior years, and that was before they had sold a single ticket, journal ad, or auction items. Needless to say, they raised well over twice as much as they had ever raised previously at this event, simply by having the appropriate sponsorship levels.
That story is not to say that $15,000 is an appropriate level for all organizations, which is why it is critical for your committee to help determine sponsorship levels. Should tables be $1,000? $5,000? $25,000? This decision will depend on your organization and your board. Do you have any corporate CEO’s or VP’s on your committee or on your board? Ask them if they would be willing to sponsor the dinner for $25,000 – or the highest level your committee can conceive. If they are, then others will be too – and it will set a high standard for future years. Don’t sell your organization short. If you set sponsorship prices low, it will be difficult to significantly raise the prices after year one.
It’s important to have approximately three sponsorship levels, and you can call them whatever you like (benefactor, friend, table sponsor – whatever). Set the top level high enough that it’s okay if you don’t get any, and if you get one, you’ll be thrilled.
Whatever levels you choose, you should be able to get 3-5 mid level sponsorships (if you can’t, your levels maybe set too high, and conversely, if you get more than 2 at the top level, your levels may be set too low). Get commitments from committee members and board members for levels at which they can sponsor before advertising them to the general public.
4. Soliciting Sponsorships and Selling Tickets
Generating support for the event and for your organization is the most important committee responsibility. After committee members commit to sponsoring their own table, they should help you solicit their contacts (friends and colleagues). Staff members must help with this process, by generating all letters, envelopes, and completing the mailings. Volunteers (committee members) should be asked for a list of people to send invitations to, and encouraged to write personal notes on the invitation itself or on a cover letter. They should also be asked to make pre and post-invitation phone calls to encourage participation from their list.
Invitations themselves actually generate very few sponsors. Prior to the invitations going out, is when sponsorship solicitation actually occurs. I always have a pre-invitation, sponsorship form and cover letter for committee members to send to their contacts. These forms only include the top two levels of sponsorship. Board members may resist this strategy, but by including lower levels on the form, you are giving corporations an “easy out.” If they decline the higher levels, go back to them with the lower sponsorship level. Again, committee members should be sending follow up emails and making follow up calls to their contacts.
A Final Word
Make your event FUN, so people want to come back year after year. If you have the event that’s “not to be missed,” they won’t! I bet you know how to throw a fun event. Tell me all about it in the comments.