HOW TO PUT ON A FUNDRAISER — CELEBRITY DINNER OR CONCERT OR COMEDY SHOW — THAT ACTUALLY RAISES FUNDS
In theory it always sounds good. Get a famous musician or comedian — or group of musicians or comedians — and put on a big fundraising event. Raise a bunch of money. Easy.
Or not. But it can work.
It also might not work.
There are centers in this network who have put on absolutely gigantic events, with a stunning array of talent, and have actually lost money. So here are some hints and guidelines to help you avoid apocalypse.
First of all, before you go into this, be clear on your goals. Is this event designed to actually bring in funds, or is it more to raise awareness of your organization? If it’s the latter, that’s fine! But the rest of this guide is not for you.
If you do intend to raise money, follow these steps for the following kinds of events: Big dressy dinner; low-key comedy night; concert.
Big Dressy Dinner
1. First, decide how much money you intend to take home after all expenses. This amount should be in proportion to the favors you’re asking. If you’re hoping to fly in a very popular person — let’s say this is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, because those words are fun to say — then the amount you hope to raise should be very large. Otherwise it’s a disproportionate amount of time and effort and talent expended for a small amount of money raised. Be very sure to decide on this amount, the minimum funds you intend to raise, and work back from that.
2. Let’s say that amount is $100,000. (This is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, after all.)
3. Next, you have to think about what you can charge people to come see Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If you have a venue with 500 seats, you would have to charge $2,000 per seat to attend. Oops. You can’t do that, can you?
4. So how do you get to that $100,000? Well, there are many ways. Sponsorships is one way. Maybe a bunch of local and/or global companies want to help put on the event in exchange for their logos being on the evening’s program. That might, in theory, bring in $50,000.
5. But then the average ticket price is $1,000. Still far too much, right? Let’s say you believe you can’t charge more than $500 per ticket. What do you do? You’re still $25,000 short, and you haven’t paid for food, the venue, anything. Yikes.
6. Now you think, maybe live auction. Maybe silent auction. Maybe a portion of the evening where people raise paddles to simply add larger donations into the overall pool of funds. That can potentially get you to your goal. Or it might still leave you far short.
7. But overall, what you are probably seeing is that it is not easy to get to $100,000 — and meanwhile, you keep seeing fundraisers in the media where they raise millions. How are they doing it?
8. One factor is pre-donations. That is, you can secure donations ahead of time, from very generous people and foundations, and these donations will be made on or near the date of your Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fundraiser, and will be added to the overall tally. Some of these donations are sponsorships. Some are from regular fundraisers. In any case, the big dressy dinner gives you an opportunity to coalesce these donations into one big-impact event.
9. Remember that no event is raising millions based solely on the ticket sales to see anyone, even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Always the fundraising comes from a combination of sponsorships, large timely donations, auctions, tickets, and night-of paddle-raises. It’s a big crazy mix.
10. Now, let’s get back to your 500 seats. Let’s say the tickets are $500 each. Finding 500 individuals willing to pay such a price is very hard. But finding 50 table hosts, each of whom commits to filling their table with 10 people — that makes it a bit easier. Now these 50 saintly table hosts bear the burden of wrangling friends and co-workers into buying seats at their table. And thus the burden isn’t on you alone.
11. Typically these table hosts have the capacity to pay for the table themselves in a pinch. They might, in the end, get 5 friends to buy full-price tickets. And they might pay for the other 5 seats themselves. And this way, 50 people sell 500 seats. It has been done since time immemorial. It is a pretty good system.
12. And the table-hosts idea works on any scale. If the tickets are far cheaper, their task is easier. If there are no seats, and it’s just a matter of 30 volunteers agreeing to bring 5 friends each to a comedy night, that works, too. The key is to spread the responsibility around. Simply listing an event and hoping random people buy tickets — that is not a plan and it will not work.
13. Okay. Those are the basics. There will be a thousand other details, but the main thing to bear in mind is that such events are hard to put on, they take a ton of staff time, so they should bring in a lot of funds. If you end up barely breaking even after all that work, you have screwed up.
14. Outside of the ticket sales and fundraising, how do you ensure that you don’t screw up?
Observe these rules:
a) Beware venues that require you to use their caterer and all that. In such venues, you have very little control over your costs. The venue might charge $10,000 for the rental, and their built-in caterer costs $20,000, and suddenly you have a huge hurdle in front of you. Avoid such situations. Look for venues that allow you to figure out the food yourself. You’ll save a ton of money. Look for a venue that’s free. Look for unusual solutions to every part of the event — food, service, drinks, everything. There are so many ways to put on an event. You’re supposed to be a nontraditional organization anyway. Don’t do a traditional rubber-chicken dinner. No one wants that anyway.
b) Watch every dime. Costs tend to spiral. Someone says you need a photo booth. Someone else says you need valet parking. Bit by bit your potential fundraising falls away.
c) Don’t pay for anything you might get for free. Look for wine donations. Look for venues that believe in your mission and give you their space for free. Look for a local restaurant that will give you a deal on the food in exchange for exposure and public recognition. Whatever you do, don’t pay full price for anything. You’re a nonprofit, for god’s sake!
There’s probably no event more fraught than the fundraising concert. Many are the tales of woe — huge shows wherein a dozen world-class bands play to 50,000 people and somehow the event manages to lose money. It can happen to anyone.
But here’s how to avoid it:
1. As with any fundraiser, go into it with a clear eye toward your goal. Are you seriously thinking about raising money with a concert? Okay. Just wanted to be sure.
2. Set your fundraising goal. Is it $15,000? It should be about $15,000. If this is just a ticket-sales fundraiser, don’t kid yourself into thinking it will bring more than $15,000. It just won’t.
3. Let’s say you rent a venue (for as little as possible) that seats 1,000.
4. If you charge $20 per ticket, and sell 1,000 seats, then you’ve made $20,000, right? Awesome!
5. No. Factor in the venue ($5,000 minimum but likely much more). Factor in the musician’s expenses (flight and hotel and various equipment costs). That’s maybe another $5,000. So you’ve just taken a $10,000 hit.
6. And what about the rest of the band? What if it’s the Polyphonic Spree?!
7. Do not bring the Polyphonic Spree. In fact, don’t fly in any more than one or two people if you can avoid it. Every person you fly in takes a huge bite from your potential fundraising. Keep it simple. Doesn’t everyone like an acoustic concert from their favorite singer-songwriter? Yes, they do. Solo acoustic concerts are just about the only way you will make money.
8. So now you’re back to 1,000 seats sold at $20 each. Expenses are $10,000. Hey, maybe you can charge more than $20 a seat. Maybe you can have a sliding scale of between $20 and $100 depending on the seats. Now you’re back to actually raising money. You might actually take home $15,000.
9. Now leave it alone. Keep it simple. Don’t add expenses. Don’t add food or anything else. Sell the seats, listen to the music and leave it alone.
10. Whatever you, absolutely do not put on a concert with 10 bands. This is the worst idea any human has ever had. By doing so, you have multiplied your expenses tenfold, and the audience is no happier. Audiences tend to come to see one band or musician — one they like. They don’t want to hear their favorite singer sing 4 songs and cede the stage to nine bands they don’t care for. You want the 1,000 rabid fans who will pay up to $100 to hear the one singer sing all night. These fans will not pay $100 to hear that singer sing for 12 minutes and then leave.
11. So choose one musician, give her or him the night, and keep it simple. Everyone will be happy and you’ll actually raise money.
Now, let’s talk about…
These can work. They tend to be simple and cheap to put on. But they are fraught for other reasons. First, can you ensure that the comedians won’t tell filthy jokes all night to an audience there to support youth literacy? Something to think about. It can get awkward.
But if you’re going ahead with the comedy night, and feel good about the above, then read all the guidelines for the music fundraiser, because all those rules apply.
Then read these:
1. Set your fundraising goals.
2. Be realistic about what people will pay for a comedy night. (Maybe $30?)
3. Limit your expenses.
4. Keep it simple.
Next episode: The inherent perils of all auctions live or silent!