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How to Design a Nonprofit Event to Fit the Budget

Special events for your nonprofit can be produced on bare-bones budgets, for princely prices, or for any amount in between. As with most kinds of investments, event planners expect a higher return in exchange for a higher investment. But don’t exceed your means.

When deciding on an event, avoid anything that can make your guests uncomfortable or deter them from coming, such as:

  • Events that limit your guests’ ability to come and go as they want — like a soiree on a boat in the middle of a lake.

  • Events at which your intended audience finds the attire, time, or place awkward.

  • Events that are designed to reach an audience that’s completely unknown to your organization or its supporters. Do you like to go to a party where you don’t know anybody?

After you’ve sketched out an idea for an event, go to your staff and board members and ask them directly: Would you attend this event? For this price? At this location? If your core followers and supporters aren’t enthusiastic, the event isn’t going to raise money. If the idea excites them and they’re willing to play a role in the event planning, you’re on your way to success.

Low-budget special events

Most nonprofit organizations have a wealth of talent simply waiting for a showcase. Some of the following suggestions won’t work for your organization, but they can get you thinking about similar events that would be perfect for your nonprofit:

  • Sign up neighborhood children for a summer read-a-thon that benefits the library or an after-school literacy program. By sending forms home to parents in advance, you can secure their permission and help with collecting pledges.

  • Offer a bake sale with a distinctive theme celebrating a cultural group or holiday. Organize your volunteers around three primary activities: setting up and pricing, selling, and taking down the sale. Plan in advance what to do with items that don’t sell.

  • Hold a cocktail party in a board member’s home, focused on a theme or honoring a special guest. Although a cocktail party for 15 people may not raise much money, don’t rule out this idea. If every one of your board members signs up to host such a party over the course of a year, the cumulative amount raised may pleasantly surprise you.

Many nonprofit organizations produce raffles or prize drawings as low-cost activities to raise funds. If you plan to do so, proceed with caution. Such activities are defined as gambling or gaming in many states. Some states permit nonprofits to hold raffles, but in other states or jurisdictions, they may be illegal or may be presented only if you follow steps to secure a permit.

You can find a quick guide to states’ regulation, prohibition, or permission of raffles at the Association of Legal Professionals (NALS) website.

Mid-budget special events

If you can afford a few more features in your special event, you may want to do something like one of these ideas:

  • Identify an up-and-coming performer and ask for a donation of a performance in exchange for the promotion that your event will bring to him or her. The club or theater rental is likely to be your highest cost. If you choose an unusual site that’s donated to you, make sure it can accommodate your performer’s needs — acoustics, lighting, electrical outlets, and the like.

  • Sponsor a daylong cleanup of a coastal area, park, or preserve. Volunteers can be sponsored by having their friends sign up to pledge a certain gift amount to the organization for each pound or bag of trash that they remove. Offer prizes for the most unusual refuse items found and the most sponsorship sign-ups.

  • Produce an online auction. Volunteers can help you reach out to friends to secure donations to be auctioned and draw attention to the event and auction items through social media. To build and hold interest in the auction, you’ll want to post regular updates and news about the event (with pictures).

High-budget special events

If money is no object — at the front end, at least — these events may be of interest. All require more upfront cash:

  • Hire a major speaker or entertainer from a lecture bureau or theatrical agency and use that person as the focus of a dinner party or private concert. Honor one or more business and community leaders at the event. Form an event committee of people who will invite their friends and people who may want to come for the sake of the honorees.

  • Present a dance featuring a live band. Decorate festively. Make sure your crowd likes to dance and that your musicians’ repertoire suits the moves that the crowd knows.

  • Organize a celebrity athletic event. Celebrity golf, bowling, and ping pong — you name it — are all possible. Create teams pairing professional players with amateurs or local celebrities with donors. If you use professional athletes, liberally handicap the amateurs so everyone has a chance of winning. Provide trophies or certificates for many kinds of “achievements.” Often these events end with celebratory dinners.

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