Understanding fundraising events as annual campaigns

publication date: Jul 11, 2011
author/source: Joanne Toller
How many times have you heard a board member say, "We should do a special event"? How many organizations have you worked with that simply "do" the same special event each year because that's what they've always done? A certain level of complacency about the purpose of annual fundraising events seems to have overcome many in the charitable sector.Author photo

I believe that annual events should not be undertaken with the limited goals of merely trying to raise awareness and increase fundraising. Many of us forget that special events offer an incredible opportunity to enhance donor cultivation. Events can be a significant part of your organizational development plan.

Bringing annual campaign lens to events

In Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, author Hank Rosso emphasizes that special events are annual campaigns, and that annual campaigns form the foundation of the donor pyramid. Further, the primary objective of any annual campaign is to acquire new donors, renew existing donors and upgrade donors. Since it takes cultivation to acquire, renew and upgrade your donors, wouldn't cultivation be a primary objective of any fundraising event? 

I urge all my clients to treat each event as an annual fund, which is why I draft cultivation and stewardship plans for every event I work on. I also strive to ensure that the event is integrated into the organization's overall development plan.

Educating your board

Consider this scenario. You are in the board room to meet with your charity's event planning committee. You're here to present your vision for this charity's annual fundraiser, styled as an annual campaign and loaded with professional fundraising initiatives. But the committee chair soon challenges your optimism. You find yourself dealing with someone who doesn't understand the depth of your cultivation and stewardship planning for "just a special event" and who would prefer to discuss the menu and napkin colour.

It can be difficult to overcome the perceptions of annual events and convince your working partners that a higher level of planning and consideration will enhance the charity's overall development objectives. I'm fortunate to have done many workshops and presentations on this topic, so I've had a lot of practice educating and swaying committees about the importance of cultivation.

I start by explaining the definition of cultivation: the process of gradually developing the interest of prospective donors through exposure to your organization's activities, people, needs and plans, and bringing them to the point where a major gift may be considered.

With your special event, the purpose of cultivation is to add prospects to your database and then move those prospects to donors. Cultivation is what you do to build commitment, dedication and involvement from supporters of your organization. I then wrap it all up with a reminder that fundraising events offer an excellent opportunity to engage constituents and bond them to our organization. 

It's not about the dinner

The persistent stereotypes of annual fundraising events will likely remain entrenched in some organizations. But it's imperative to try and dispel them with critical thinking and vision. While event planning and management encompasses many minute details, the primary focus should never be on what colour the napkins are or whether to serve roast beef or chicken!

I strongly suggest that fundraising professionals who manage special events understand and integrate the principles of cultivation and stewardship as they relate to the donor pyramid. Again, events should not be undertaken because they are customary. They are an important part of your development strategy and should be designed and implemented to fully realize their potential for cultivation.

In conclusion, if the primary objectives of an annual campaign are to acquire, renew and upgrade donors, then the primary objectives of any fundraising event should be fundraising, awareness and cultivation.

Joanne Toller is a Certified Fundraising Executive with 13 years of event management and fundraising experience specializing in the Calgary charitable sector. She has worked for numerous local and national charities and implemented countless annual fundraising events based upon the principles of cultivation and stewardship.

Joanne is president and founder of The Cause Events, Inc. and has been a recent contributor to Centrepoint workshops in Calgary.

Contact her

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