Events: Are They Really Worth It?

You may recall from reading some of the articles of SchoolAdvancement.com that, as educators, we are all about change!  Even though you think you may be planning the same lessons from year to year, the dynamics of your classroom change with each year.  If the classes you teach have different students in them, then your life could change from hour to hour.  Do you realize how awesome this is?  Compare this to the factory worker, who may have graduated high school and gone to work in the factory…doing the same thing every day for the next 40 years.

Sometimes, change happens in an instant.  We also perceive “change” in the “macro” sense, as in, “big” changes.  Planning for change is different, since that’s really not change.  What’s known in corporate circles today as “change” is actually “transition.”  Transition takes time and energy. So does developing “Advancementality” (a mindset that realizes advancement as a living system of Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing).

So here’s an article to perhaps “change” your mind about events.  Events can be considered fundraisers – but are they really “development” activities? And, if so, are they worth it?

I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum.

The timing of this article is quite appropriate, as the non-profit organization my wife and have administered for the past 9 years has its fall event tonight.  What started out as a way to raise a couple thousand dollars to meet the organization’s year-end goal has become the major event of the year for the organization!  For the past 4 years, it has sold out 2 weeks before the date of the event,  but last year, it sold out on the of the event, and that means people that show up at the door have been turned away.  This year, we moved to a larger venue, and while we were only able to accommodate about 140 people last year, over 200 supporters and their friends will be attending tonight!

During the third year of the event, one of our volunteers cornered us and commented, “I don’t recognize half the people here this year.”  I said, “That’s a good thing!  That means we’re engaging more and more people in our organization!”  This year, while there were many who have attended the event in the past, there are once again a significant number of “first-timers!”

Here’s another great example.  An organization I’ve worked with planned a concert with a local popular band, but made it into a two-day affair. The evening before the concert, there was a dinner at a very nice restaurant for a limited number of people along with members of the band. Diners paid a fee to have the privilege of attending the event, and the restaurant donated the room and the food. The servers were also compensated for their attentiveness that evening. The concert was open to the community and held at a local popular theatrical venue. There was a silent auction, and the band got to sell their promotional items. Two musical instruments signed by members of the band were auctioned off between the opening act and the main performance.

Funds realized – about $40,000 for the organization!

Then there’s the other side of the coin.

Another organization I’ve worked with planned what was historically one of their largest fund raising events of year.  At least 40 or so marching bands came together yearly for a State competition near the end of October, and planning for this event took months – silent auctions, candygrams, 50/50 raffle, program production with advertisements, hosts for all the visiting bands, parking for all the parents and relatives, hotel rooms for the judges, practice field coordination and parking for the buses and trailers for each band, and, of course, the concession stand with all the food and baked goods needed for an event which began at 10 AM and continued through 11 PM.

The “highlight” of the day was experiencing all four seasons in a matter of 6 hours.  Sunny skies in the morning gave way to a 20 degree drop in temperature during the day, to hail, to high winds, to rain, to the sky turning an interesting shade of green-gray, to snow, and finally to a clear sky at night with freezing temperatures. When all was said and done, if all of the 85 families of the organization who hosted the event put $10 in a basket, they would have collected more money than was realized in dollars raised for the organization on that day.

Ten years later, those 40 marching bands have dwindled to less than half that number.  The event starts at 4pm and is over by 9:30pm.

With that in mind here’s an SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) type question for you:  What is the main purpose of events? Remember that in an SAT question, one or two of the choices can be eliminated because they are incorrect. One of the remaining choices is the “best” answer to the question, but both choices could very well be the correct answer – it’s just that one of them is the “better” answer.

a) To raise a lot of money in a very short period of time

b) To build community awareness of the organization

c) To involve the larger community with the hopes of engaging more people in the mission of your organization

d) To bring members of the organization together by working toward a common goal

Let’s eliminate the incorrect answer, b). There are certainly other ways marketing can occur. While this is also a benefit of an event, it is not its main purpose.

That leaves a), c) and d).

a) is usually what is expected to happen, and is therefore a possible answer, but, as we have seen from the examples given, not the best answer. Fundraising is short-term, and expected to generate lots of money in a short period of time. Although this is why most organizations plan events and invite people to them, so many things (like weather, conflicting schedules, and other more popular events) can contribute to an event’s financial success or failure. The other issue is one’s mindset. If this is a fundraising event, that’s great…but since we’re talking about Development here, it helps to remember that Development is a long-term concept.

d) is also a possible answer, since fundraising provides a benefit to the school, group, or organization by scheduling, planning and executing an event. As I’ve stated in my book on “Retention: A Systems Approach to Growing Enrollment,” one of the main purposes of a fundraiser is to build the community. However, it’s not the main purpose of a major Development event.

That leaves c) as the best answer. The goal of Development (since events are part of Development – which consists of Appeals, Rest (yes, Development Directors need to rest), Communication, Happenings (or Events), Associations, Networking, Gifts and Grants, Energize/Educate, and List Management) is to continually engage more and more people in the mission of the organization. Not just involve – engage. It is this engagement which will lead to gifts in the forms of time, talent and treasure.

In terms of Advancement, the real success will lie in what happens the following year, and what lessons are learned as the organization advances. In the case of the successful concert, the band that was enlisted could not perform the following year, so a different event was scheduled. While it was a very popular show, it generated a little more than half of what the dinner and concert brought in. In the case of the State competition, its scope fit the definition of a fundraiser. Since these were high school bands, most of the people who came to the event were parents of the musicians, alumni from the bands, parents of alumni, and their friends. While that sounds like a great development audience, the event was hosted by a particular school. Did the people in attendance really and truly care about the host facility? No. They cared about the band they were coming to see. Were members of the community there because they really believed that high school music programs were important to the well-being of the performers? Possibly, but not for the majority of those that came to see what all the fuss was about. If someone had “something better” to do that day (like stay inside during a freezing hailstorm), you can bet they did. Parents were there to see their children. While that’s a great show of support for their children and for music education in general, I would bet there weren’t very many people that came forward that night and said, “You guys did a great job hosting this event – here’s $1,000 so that you can continue your good work.”  There are other actions which generate that type of support – and it does happen!!

The lesson learned from this event was that the organization investigated other systems to make for more successful and consistent sources of income, so that the next time the state competition came along, any funds raised from it could be considered as “gravy” rather than part of the income budgeted for the organization. Indeed, in the greater scheme of things, fundraisers are “gravy.” If your organization relies on them as a main source of income, especially in difficult economic times, your organization will continue to experience the impact of difficult economic times since during those times, people cut back on buying popcorn and cookie dough when the don’t have the money to do so.

To answer the question, “Are they really worth it,” the answer is “Yes” – as long as it is a Development event, and not a fundraising event. If you’d like to know more about the difference, send an email to schooladvancement@gmail.com and include the words “What’s a Development Event” in the subject line.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2018