Are fundraising events worth the effort?


Spring in Grand Rapids is a busy time with a never-ending whirlwind of lunches, galas, auctions and golf outings. Businesses sort through dozens of sponsorship requests, invites and donor asks, while volunteers spend hundreds of hours planning, securing donations and hosting.

Is it time to say goodbye to the traditional gala or special event fundraiser? Do the funds raised offset the cost and resources to host? What about staff time? How much money is really raised? These are all questions those in the nonprofit world ask on a daily basis.

The fact is, a fundraiser that’s done right is a critical tool for supporting and sustaining the mission and work of a nonprofit. The special event is one strategy in a larger cultivation plan, similar to a sales person hosting a booth at a trade show. It is an outlay of time and resources that can and will pay dividends several times over.

There are three main benefits:

Raise critical funding

A special event is often one of the only means for raising unrestricted funds. Unrestricted funds are donations that the nonprofit may use for any purpose and are not tied to a particular project or need. These dollars provide gap funding for program expenses not covered by grants, fees or restricted gifts. They also support the often unfunded expenses around advocacy (newsletters and brochures), administration (support staff, insurance, operational expenses) and financial oversight (organizational audits). Put simply, these are the dollars needed to keep the nonprofit’s doors open.

Share the mission

Nonprofits exist to support the greater good. Success is not measured by financial profit, but rather by addressing a larger community need. Because investors may not receive a direct benefit from the nonprofit, a special event becomes the vehicle for sharing the impact and indirect benefit of the nonprofit’s services. The best events share the story and the vision of the organization, explaining the community need and how, with community investment, the nonprofit can address this need. The event also provides a unique opportunity for the executive director and/or board chair to personally share the leadership vision for the future of the organization and for the community to meet individuals directly impacted by their investment.

Create some energy

Special events are hard work, but they are fun too! The event brings the community together around a common goal, providing a greater purpose and sense of collaboration. Research has shown that giving makes us happier, either through time or financially. And new research from the International Journal of Happiness and Development reveals that the positive effect is multiplied when giving in a social context. “The overarching conclusion is that donors feel happiest if they give to a charity via a friend, relative or social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation to a worthy cause,” said Therese J. Borchard in the article “How Giving Makes Us Happy,” published in “Psych Central: World of Psychology.” As a result, new donors and volunteers come forward and existing ones become more engaged, taking on new roles as board members, campaign chairs and community advocates.

It may sometimes feel that the flurry of fundraisers is just too much. But for the nonprofit that identifies clear objectives and deliberately plans the event to advance those objectives, the special event is an invaluable tool for advancing the organization’s mission.

So yes, the nonprofit special event fundraiser is a good use of resources for both the organization and for the community that supports it. Now, go buy that ticket and celebrate the great organizations that call Grand Rapids home.

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With more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit leadership, Michele Suchovsky has attended and hosted more special events than she can count. As the executive director of Artists Creating Together, or ACT, from 2003-2013, Suchovsky led a team that provided arts programming to students of all abilities across West Michigan. In 2013, she became executive director of the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, or SAF. As the foundation for Grand Rapids Public Schools, SAF raises resources and support for the district’s more than 17,000 students to learn, grow and thrive.