How to Design a Nonprofit Event to Fit the Budget
Special events for nonprofits 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.
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? If your core followers and supporters aren’t enthusiastic, the event isn’t going to raise money.
Low-budget special events
Most nonprofit organizations have a wealth of talent simply waiting for a showcase. Try some of the following suggestions or similar ideas:
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. Write to your community newspapers inviting them to help you spread the word as event sponsors.
Hold a cocktail party in a board member’s home, focused on a theme or honoring a special guest. 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.
Mid-budget special events
If the treasury is a bit fatter and you can afford a few more features in your special event, try 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. 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 largest numbers of sponsorship sign-ups.
Buy out an interesting new restaurant or a beloved community favorite for a night (usually a Monday or Tuesday when it otherwise would be closed) for your guests only. Work with the restaurant to discount the cost charged to your organization (but not to your guests!) by offering a more limited menu than usual (three to four choices) and by promoting the restaurant through your public relations for the event.
High-priced 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. Make sure your crowd likes to dance and that your musicians’ repertoire suits the moves that the crowd knows.
Organize a celebrity athletic event. Create teams pairing professional players with amateurs or local celebrities with donors. If you use professional athletes, liberally handicap the amateurs so that everyone has a chance of winning. Provide trophies or certificates for many kinds of achievements — longest drive, bowling ball most often in the gutter, and the quickest victory. Often these events end with celebratory dinners.
Produce a benefit auction, selling contributed restaurant meals, vacations, services, or other valuables your board and committee can secure or donate. Include a cocktail party or dinner with the live auction as the entertainment. Your guests can bid on smaller items through a silent auction.