So many Development Officers privately, to themselves hate these while Board Members and other leadership think they are wonderful. The difference between the two groups is that the Development Officer actually sees and accounts for what actually goes into this popular event.
As Development Officers we all have them or have survived one. I call them “Vampire Events”. It’s a highly time consuming, financially questionable and popular event in your organizations history that like a vampire lives on and on and defies death! Every year it rises from its crypt. It’s a vampire event because it sucks large amounts of time, resources and focus of Development Officers and often doesn’t produce the dollars and relationships you need.
So many Development Officers privately, to themselves hate these while Board Members and other leadership think they are wonderful. The difference between the two groups is that the Development Officer actually sees and accounts for what actually goes into this popular event. What make it worse is that the Development Officer is probably aware of other strategies/methods that would be much more effective for the organization in raising money and relationships. The big hidden cost to any event here is staff time. This is just not commonly accounted for when totally the costs of our vampire event. When you do the full picture is shown. Notice I avoided saying “shed light on it”. It was tempting.
A colleague of mine is the Development Officer and leads a small team of 3 for a $3 million dollar regional nonprofit. They have a historic dinner with a silent auction that 20 years ago was the first type of this event in town. It used to be the bedrock of their budget. Now there are 60 similar events a year from every other nonprofit. It’s the classic: buy tables, twist your friends arms, ask the local business’s to sponsor and contribute to the Silent Auction. Every year they raise less and less. The total dinner cost is about $160,000 to put on and last year they raised about $300,000. So it sounds like they raised $140,000? Well yes and no. Nobody counts three staff working hard on this for 4 -5 months. Every year the Board wants nice venues, nice music and nice food. Every year they promise to help a great deal. Every year the former happens but not the latter. Add in their salaries of the staff to the bottom line it would make the numbers quite a bit different. They basically come out even for all that effort. But everyone is thrilled “they raised “$300,000”.
Then there is the cost in focus. Most fundraising events like this one generate transactional relationships. People come to the event who have no interest in your institution, they come to have fun and fill a table for their boss. Anyone who has ever tried to move an event donor into a major donor track will tell you how hard that is. You’re not starting an engaging philanthropic relationship with event attendee’s. I have seen event organizers thrilled that an attendee made a $5,000 gift to their event. What’s sad is that that same person had been philanthropically engaged by other institutions and was making philanthropic gifts of $100,000 elsewhere. Relationships are the KEY to all fundraising, if you’re not building solid relationships with people passionate about your organizations work; you’re wasting valuable staff time.
What if you had spent that staff time on another strategy, like a Major Donor program that relied on strong Prospect Research to identify individuals who would have high affinity for your cause/institution and have strong ability to give? What if you focused those 5 months on engaging those people? It’s my experience that building relationships with the right people, philanthropic and powerful relationships have a much greater return on investment. I have used small Major Gifts Dinners of researched, pre-qualified Major Gifts prospects that have raised millions from under 30 people. The cost to put on these small dinners is either free or several thousand dollars. That’s effective use of staff time and resources.
Going back to my colleague, she has tried for 2 years to retire or as she privately mutters “murder” this event but it just lives on and on, like a vampire. Sucking time from her calendar. It’s a quarter of her year. What a waste. This parasitic event is a major factor into why this organization can’t financially grow.
So Why Do Vampire Events Live On?
It’s What People Know: Often Board Members know little about what makes great fundraising. Sorry to be blunt but our profession is commonly misunderstood. It never ceases to amaze me the misconceptions about our work that are out there. Events are understandable and a good Board Member wants to help. It also seems successful. Few Board Members break out the ledgers and really do the math AND include staff time. Few ask themselves and their fellow Board Members…”if we tried this other strategy what might the ROI look like?” , “is this event building solid relationships for us?” So people go to what they know.
It’s “Nice” Fundraising: It’s nice, clean and accepted. Individual Major Gift’s fundraising for example scares people and makes strong women and men uncomfortable. People run from individual fundraising like a catchy disease. Want to have light attendance at your next Board meeting? Announce that you will be talking about individual fundraising. Events like this one are formulaic and accepted, understood.
We Don’t Have a Replacement: I have heard Board’s commiserate and tell me they know their annual gala is a giant time commitment for their staff, they know they should do other strategies but how can they replace one till they have the other source of revenue? My advice is to have the courage to at least start. If your event raises you $500,000 a year identify the resources needed to start an individual major giving program or some other strategy that can replace that money. Something you can grow that in the long term will far outstrip the old event strategy. Don’t just throw up your hands. Ask your Development Officer to research alternative approaches to replace that money. If your event is a “break even” type of event then have the courage to stand up and educate your team and drive that stake into its heart! Ok, that’s pretty morbid, but you get it.
Development Officers Don’t Speak Up: A final factor here is that Development Officers aren’t in a position to say “No” or “Are you crazy?” to their Boards. It’s just not that kind of relationship. You want to appear competent; you don’t want to look like a whiner. Give your Development Officer the freedom to be straight with you. Especially if it’s something you don’t want to hear or disagree with. If they are against an event they should have the solid numbers to show to prove their points and AND they should present viable alternatives, not just complaints.
Disclaimer: One disclaimer. You may have a great event that raises you lots of money. If your event is truly successful then you can ignore me. There are many out there. Here is my checklist for you to check your events health so you know what successful event should look like:
So if you do need to put an end to this event and not have it come back to haunt you here is my tips for that.
Do the Math
Identify the events that actually are of little financial value. Add in ALL the costs. Backtrack if you can and create a five year history of this event. Cost, attendance, program and revenue. Can you clearly identify new major donor prospects who came to your organization for the first time through this event? Weigh all of these and do the math. This is where a business background does help, its simple ROI.
Get Prepared for the Anger
People will not like that you have killed their favorite event. There will be protest and people telling you that you have made a mistake. Make sure you have 100% solid Board support. Back each other up and stick to the message. This type of change requires courage.
Invest in Building Relationships
After you have turned your Vampire to dust.. Take that time and use it to the maximum financial effect. The problem with Major Gifts/Relationship based fundraising is that it is seldom understood. Most importantly, well done…it takes time. You don’t go on a date and ask that person to marry you on the first date do you? So it’s harder initially to see the ROI. Don’t lose patience. Ask your Development Officer to produce a pipeline based on the Cycle of Philanthropy. Which is: Identification, Qualification, Cultivation, Solicitation and Stewardship. Track the growth of your prospects through this cycle. Before you see the dollars you will see people moving step by step through this cycle. Support your staff to get people moving down the road to solicitation.
Train and Support Your Board
Board Members want their organizations to succeed. There is simply a lot of poor information and fear about fundraising out there. Educate them on the Cycle of Fundraising. Help them understand the nitty gritty work of relationship fundraising. It’s not a matter of calling some list of rich people who will all right checks instantly because you called. It’s about the whole cycle. Show them their roles throughout the cycle and keep them informed. When money pressures hit an organization the desire to put more pressure on development is a natural instinct, though usually counter productive. If your Board at least understands your pipeline it will help you.
Good Luck and Good Vampire Hunting! Let me know if I can help or answer questions!
What's a "Vampire Fundraising Event" and Is It Time to Kill It?