When an Event Goes Flat

Recently, a friend asked me, “What do you do if your fundraising event goes flat?”

My friend works for a national organization with a signature fundraising event.  She can’t just stop doing the event. Her chapter of the organization is required to use the event to raise funds every year, but for some reason, her community just isn’t having success with it. The event seems to have lost its appeal.

“So what can you do to turn things around?” she asked.

My suggestion:  start with data. 

Research and analysis is almost always a good place to start when trying to solve a puzzle.  In this case, the event had been successful at one time. Something changed. What was it? Was it the community? The way they were executing the event? Was it their passion for the event?

One of the best things you can do is make sure you are doing a good job in your role of development is ensure that you are tracking your data over time. In our Resources for Nonprofits Section of our website, we have some great free tools for Nonprofits that we’ve developed in our 50+ years of working with nonprofits, including this spreadsheet for tracking special event performance data over time. The spreadsheet automatically calculates (and graphs) some recommended metrics like ROI and cost per dollar raised to help you evaluate your event.

By tracking your data well—for example, by tracking your attendance by constituent segment (board, staff, sponsors, volunteers, other guests)—you can see over time whether or not you are losing ground with one type of constituency or across the spectrum. It may be that you need a plan to re-engage one group of people or it may be that the whole event needs life support STAT.

The data are also helpful to clarify whether or not my friend meant that the event was “flat” because the money wasn’t growing or because the energy and enthusiasm were gone. If it were the money, we could take a look at revenue by categories (sponsorships, tickets or participants’ dollars, auction or wrap-arounds, etc.).  Again, looking at these different segments over time can shed light on the specific pain points of what’s declined (or not grown) and when.

Benchmarking: External Data

I also recommend that my friend look outward at others’ data, not just at her own. A few years ago, I worked at a national voluntary health organization with a strong and growing signature fundraising walk.  Our national executives were constantly looking at the examples of the leading organizations on P2P’s Annual Top Thirty List to see what we could learn from the best walks in the country.

When I was in grade school, I played chess. (Don’t be impressed.  I should clarify. I played chess very poorly when I was in grade school. My father was a good chess player so I wanted to be one also, but I never was.  I did, however, enjoy letting my father teach me to play chess and spending time with him.) I remember my father teaching me that if I wanted to get better at chess, that I had to play against people who were better than I was, that I had to study the moves and strategies of opponents who were stronger than I was. It was great advice. It applies in fundraising – not that we have opponents, but that we should study those who are stronger, those who have events that are more successful, who raise more money, attract more media attention, and secure more sponsorships. Those organizations show us what’s possible. By studying their strategies, we can learn how to replicate their successes.

So one thing this friend should do, in addition to analyzing her internal data, is gather information from her “peer” organizations—organizations similar in mission, in services, or in type of population served (preferably those that are better fundraisers) to analyze their data comparatively, to see where her event was under-performing compared to her peers and to focus on those areas for improvement.

Action after Analysis:  Allow the Data to Drive Your Plan

So, then what? What should we do after gathering this information? Allow the data to drive your plan. If, for example, the analysis shows that you’re far behind your peer organizations in the sponsorship dollars that you generate, take a look at what your peer organizations do with sponsorships that you do not. Is it a difference in what they’re able to offer in benefits? If your peers are able to attract considerably more attendees than you are, ask yourself why.  Could it be something about their venue or scheduling? Or about the content of their event? Do they do something to make the event extremely fun for their constituents that you do not? 

While analysis of internal and external data may not tell you everything you need and want to know about your event, why it has gone flat, and how to get it back on track again, it will, no doubt, provide some insights and help you identify ways to put the air back into your tires and get you and your fundraising committee rolling again.

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