Most people in development and advancement consider a big event – a gala evening, with, perhaps, a Caribbean theme, complete with steel drum band and beach attire – a large source of potential income, and a major part of their plan to generate funds for their school. Maybe it’s an auction-style event, or golf outing, or concert with a name band, several silent auctions in the lobby, and a program filled with ads from generous benefactors.

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but in 2017 at this time, I was blessed to be able to spend the weekend with my wife at a hotel in Southern, California.  The company she worked for had a presentation there, and I got to tag along for the ride.  That Saturday night, the hotel had a gala event for the local Catholic elementary school.  With luxury car dealers displaying vehicles as event sponsors, silent auction prizes that included concerts and walk-on appearances in television programs, a VIP reception with cash bar, basket raffles that filled a ballroom (the dinner with the live band was in the other ballroom) and special attractions too numerous to mention, this formalwear event would be what every Catholic school would love to see happen to benefit their school.  But this isn’t an event that’s put together by a few parents.  The school has a staff of four advancement professionals, and group of dedicated volunteers that plan the event for the. whole. year!  Planning for the next event starts right after this one finishes.  And they have ways of capturing names, addresses and emails of everyone who comes…even those who are guests at the hotel.   They may take a chance or two on winning the 50/50 put in a bid on one of the silent auction items.  How do I know this?  Guess what we did?

Certainly not all schools have been this fortunate.  Back in 2007, a year before the real estate collapse and stock market meltdown, an article in the May edition of the Pittsburgh Business Times stated that many of these types of events are now not even bringing in lower amounts, but actually produce negative income (okay, they “lose money”).  Not only should that have given us a warning about things to come, but it prompted some organizations to shift gears and try a new event or move to a different type of fundraiser.  And, with our pandemic reality, events have needed to be cancelled, and are now re-emerging, albeit with some changes.

While some schools and non-profits have found that portions of the event can be underwritten (that is, auction prizes are donated, the dinner is donated by a local caterer, the decorations are donated by a party store, the cost of the entertainment is donated by a generous benefactor, etc.) and others can be cut (have a dinner at the school rather than at a banquet facility), scaling back may not encourage attendees to return – especially if the event has had a tradition of becoming “bigger and better” in successive years.

The problem is that an event is viewed as a “fundraiser.”  While it’s not the typical cookie dough and pizza sale, if the main objective of the event is to “raise money,” especially from parents that are currently affiliated with the school, then it’s a fundraiser, perpetuating a fundraising mindset.  Events are a LOT of work – and when numbers don’t reach expectations, actions such as scaling back may limit the scope of the event, moving it from “a community ‘thing'” to “a school ‘thing’.”

Re-read that paragraph that described the gala in Southern California.  Notice there is no mention of the word “fundraiser.”  Indeed, they raise funds, but it’s not a fundraiser.  In a development mindset, an event is a “friendraiser.” It involves people in the community – businesses, alumni, and, most importantly, their friends, and friends of their friends! It encourages others to be exposed to the school, its vision, and, most importantly, its children.

A parent called me after a local school had held such an event some time ago. While the event was very successful, he shared that he was struggling with the fact that a prominent and philanthropic member of the community had come to the event. The organizing committee had asked that this individual to sponsor the event, but instead, the person came to the event with a table full of friends, and spent the night with them.

I suggested that this was a very good thing for the school! The easy thing to do for a philanthropic person to do is write a check. By this person attending the event, it shows that he is engaged in the mission of the school, brought his friends to see it and be exposed to surroundings and school staff, see the children (more about that in a later Marketing Matter), and spend some of those funds at the auction. Indeed, his friends spent their funds at the auctions too. Those friends are now part of the school’s database, and will be contacted as part of the school’s annual appeal, providing additional prospects for major gifts. THAT’s a development mindset…not just a fundraising one.

This VIP was marketing the school in a way that the school could not do itself. That’s how development connects the process of advancement back to marketing, allowing the cycle to continue…and the school to grow.

So…when’s your next “friendraiser?”

By the way – the correct answer to last week’s question – How many people do you need to sell out an event that has a maximum of 224 attendees?

a) 28

b) 112

c) 168

d) 224

The correct answer is any one of them.  It all depends on the amount of work you want to do.  If you’re selling individual tickets, 224;  if you design it so that some folks will bring their friends with them, 168; if you design it so that it’s a couples event, 112; and if you have tables of 8, and 28 people invite 9 of their friends to come with them, that will sell it out.  As for that event in California described above, you can bet people brought their friends!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007-2012 (Original Publication Date: 20070528)