8 Fundraising Event Mistakes You Must Avoid to Make Money

Make Sure Your Fundraising Event Makes More Money Than It Costs

Tables set for a gala charity event.
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Fundraising events are a fantastic way to raise funds and awareness for your cause. Sadly, there are quite a few fundraising events that lose money or just barely cover their costs.

However, don’t worry — we have gathered together the top eight mistakes that most nonprofits make, the kinds of mistakes that lead to losses rather than gains. 

8 Mistakes When Planning Fundraising Events

We'll cover these eight mistakes and give you actionable advice for how to combat each error.

  1. Waiting Too Long to Start Planning the Event.
  2. Not Choosing a Theme for the Fundraiser.
  3. Foregoing Branded Products at Your Event.
  4. Fumbling With the Sponsorship Ask.  
  5. Choosing Not to Segment Your Database.
  6. Making Fundraising Event Attendees Wait.
  7. Failing to Ask for a Donation from Attendees.
  8. Forgetting to Thank Your Gracious Donors.

Now, let’s get down to business and come up with solutions for each of these failures:

1. Waiting Too Long to Start Planning the Event.

The first mistake is a rookie misstep. It is easy to make. And easy to avoid. Let’s be honest. We have all been there; we have all overestimated our abilities and underestimated an event’s difficulties and hidden challenges. Thus, we have waited until it is just a couple of months before we’d ideally like to host an event to throw something together.

Waiting until the last minute does not benefit anyone, least of all your organization.

How do you decide when the proper time to start planning an event is?

 It begins with determining your fundraising goals. You must first ask yourself, “What do we hope to accomplish with this event?”

The answer will provide you with a scope for your fundraising event. If you aim to raise thousands of dollars for a particular project, you know that you will have to put that many more hours into preparation for it.

If, however, you do not have a concrete goal in mind, you may want to determine one before you start planning your event.

Ultimately, your goal is what will anchor the rest of your decisions.

Once you have pinpointed a goal and determined the scope of your event, you can start to research the amount of time each type of event might take (Silent auction planning, for instance, can take upwards of 9-12 months!).

There’s no hard and fast rule, unfortunately, when it comes to picking a time to start planning. However, the more time you give yourself, the more time you will have to breathe and fix any potholes that you come across along the way.

The simple fix: Give yourself at least 6-12 months to plan any given fundraising event. When in doubt, it is better to allow more time than you think you will need.

2. Not Choosing a Theme for the Fundraiser.

In the end, a theme is simply a unifying idea. It is what brings all of your efforts together under the same umbrella. Most people regard a theme as something along the lines of “Under the Sea” or “Las Vegas Casino Night.” In truth, those are great themes. However, they are not the best ideas possible for your purpose.

If you want to raise money from donors, your theme has to come from an honest place. It has to have some meaning behind it.

That being said, a traditional theme can be reworked to meet those criteria. Let’s say, for instance, that this year is the year that you are planning to grow significantly. You want to communicate this to your event attendees. But, how? With a fun theme, of course!

Imagine this: a fundraising dinner event space that feels like a veritable jungle, filled with trees and wildlife, and best of all, possibilities. You guessed it! The theme is “Grow With Us.”

The best themes are ones that double as exciting and thought-provoking.

Remember, the theme you choose sends a subconscious message to your attendees, so choose wisely!

The simple fix: No matter what kind of fundraiser you are planning, it never hurts to spice it up with a fun theme. Pick an enticing, meaningful theme and run with it!

There are dozens of event ideas and themes to consider.

3. Foregoing Branded Products at Your Event.

It can be easy to dismiss products as a part of your fundraising event. They seem like an extra cost without a whole lot of extra benefit.

However, the truth is: the return on investment (ROI) on fundraising products is astronomical.

If you think about it, having a branded product that your event attendees can wear or sip out of for the next few years is virtually priceless. It is advertising by your donors!

Moreover, your event participants may wear a shirt or drink from a water bottle with the name of your organization prominently displayed on it (plus the names of your sponsors) for years to come. If they use that product for five years, that amounts to countless advertising opportunities.

Hundreds of friends, family members, and acquaintances may read the message on that shirt or water bottle and ask, “What’s that organization all about?” With any luck, it will pique their interests, and those friends and family members will look into getting involved with your nonprofit.

Product fundraising is a win-win situation.

You may be thinking, “What about overstock? What do we do about all the extras we have ordered?” After all, a t-shirt needs to be ordered in several sizes.

However, crowdfunding your products solves the overstock (and sizing issues). In the case of T-shirts, every participant can pick out their size, style, and color ahead of time. That way, you never have any extras lying around, and everyone gets exactly what he or she wants.

Through a crowdfunding platform, each attendee can choose the promotional item that they would like, place an order, and that product will be shipped to them directly.

The simple fix: If you have not already, make sure that you include branded products in your event strategy. Product fundraising is about more than just great T-shirts. There are dozens of product ideas to choose from.

4. Fumbling With the Sponsorship Ask.  

It is no secret: behind most significant fundraising events there is at least one great sponsor. The trouble that many nonprofits run into is setting up that initial ask. It is awkward to ask a business to sponsor an event, just as it is embarrassing to ask anyone for money. It does not come naturally.

However, you have to think of it this way: sponsorships are not money for nothing; they are a partnership agreement. You have something that every market-conscious business wants. You have a worthy cause.

Market research has shown that over 70% of people would switch brands to a business that supports a good cause. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of people would also highly recommend any product or company that links up with a reputable nonprofit.

Plain and simple, cause marketing does incredible things for any business.

So, why is it so hard to make the ask? It comes down to lack of research. To make the best ask, you have to know what you are talking about, whom you’re talking to, and what exactly you have to offer.

The first step is to scope out any connections you may have within the business. Having someone on the inside should help clarify what the company’s objectives are.

If you do not already have any inside connections, don’t worry. You can always reach out to someone and strike up an informal conversation. An informational interview, if you will.

The next goal is to find out what your potential sponsors’ marketing objectives are. What do they want from a nonprofit like yours? Is it exposure to your audience? Alternatively, is it more about the affiliation with a good cause?

Once you know all of that, you can determine what you have to trade for their sponsorship.

Having all of that info on hand prevents fumbling the ask.

Moreover, at the end of the day, a potential sponsor stands to benefit just as much from the partnership as your organization does.

The simple fix: Conduct ample research ahead of time to make sure that you know precisely what to ask for from your potential sponsors — and what to offer them in return.

5. Choosing Not to Segment Your Database.

As you are making your event attendee guest list (and checking it twice), you may be wondering, “Who’s most likely to give a significant gift after this event?” It is a great question!

However, if you just stop at pondering, you may be missing some great opportunities to answer your question. The right course of action is to learn more about your supporters and then to segment your database accordingly.

You can achieve the first step by conducting prospect research.

There are several approaches you can take to screening and evaluating your donors. You can DIY and try to glean info from the internet.

Or you can hire a prospect researcher or a consultant. You can also send your donor list off to a prospect research screening company.

In any case, let the information you gather from your research inform your segmentation decisions. Let’s say, for instance, that you conduct some prospect research and find that you have a few donors who would be excellent candidates for major gifts.

You will want to segment your database to emphasize that these donors could be significant contributors to your nonprofit.

Having that knowledge may also inform the way you arrange your fundraising event’s seating charts.

Additionally, it could influence the way you reach out to individual attendees. Some participants may end up requiring a more personal touch (a phone call rather than an email) to invite them to your event.

Without that research and separating your donors into meaningful categories, you might have expended too much energy on attendees who were unlikely to give. Worse yet, you might have ignored crucial supporters! Luckily, now you know the importance of doing a little digging ahead of time.

The simple fix: Conduct prospect research on your event attendees and segment your database before the event, so you never miss out on the opportunity to steward a potential major donor.

6. Making Fundraising Event Attendees Wait.

This is yet another rookie mistake that, unfortunately, many nonprofits make when they are setting up a fundraising event.

As they say, “You lose a thousand dollars every minute past 9 PM.” That is, send your guests home earlier rather than later.

Fundraising event attendees do not want to be held captive forever. They have lives and kids and jobs, and they do not want to spend six hours at your event, no matter how wonderful it is.

In truth, your supporters love your organization. They would not show up at your fundraiser or find ways to donate to your cause otherwise.

However, that does not mean that you can hold their attention forever.

Sure, there are tons of ways to spice up your next fundraising event, but even the most enthralling “main event” can’t justify a fundraiser lasting multiple hours longer than expected.

When in doubt, it never hurts to cut a good event a little short.

You may want to keep the good times rolling, but take a page out of The Beatles’ playbook, and quit while you are ahead.

The simple fix: Keep your fundraising events short, sweet, and to-the-point. You always want to leave your guests wanting more!

7. Failing to Ask for a Donation From Attendees.

This might be a no-brainer, and you may be wondering why it is even on this list. However, to tell you the truth, most nonprofits never come right out and say what they want. They never really ask for donations, even when they think that they have.

Many nonprofits will shrug and say, “I asked for support!” In all honesty, that is not quite enough. If you never ask your supporters for donations, if you are never specific about your needs, how can you expect them to come through for you?

The best way to remedy this discrepancy is to delve into those specifics at your fundraising event. 

Tell your attendees all about your lofty goals and aspirations. Let them in on the planning of your upcoming initiatives.

They are likely curious about the projects you plan to tackle. Moreover, they want to know how they can help — how they can get in on the ground floor of the good work that you are pursuing.

So ask them!

Ask donors for their help. Tell them that their donations matter and that every dollar counts toward achieving your nonprofit’s dreams.

It may feel unnatural at first to ask for money outright, but your donors would rather know the truth than to continue, unaware of how they could be of real help to your cause.

The simple fix: Make direct asks of your event attendees. You may be surprised by how positive their responses are.

8. Forgetting to Thank Your Gracious Donors.

One of the biggest mistakes many fundraisers make is failing to thank their event attendees and donors. Or if they do, they may not thank their donors in the right way.

For instance, if a donor gives $10 after a fundraising event, it is perfectly acceptable to send them a thank-you email.

However, if a major donor gives your nonprofit $5,000, you can bet that an email is not enough. A well-thought-out thank-you letter is in order. Moreover, a formal phone call to acknowledge their generous contribution may be in order.

The point is: To provide the best stewardship experience possible, it is important to consider each of your donors as individuals. It is also important to recognize that acknowledging your donors is what keeps them coming back to your organization.

Good stewardship is the key to high donor retention rates.

In fact, donors often cite a lack of communication and/or gratitude as their reason for leaving a nonprofit. Not only does what you say matter, but it also matters when you say it.

The best practice for thanking your event attendees is to send out your acknowledgments within the first 48 hours following the fundraiser. Practically speaking, this means that you should probably send out general thanks via email first and then move on to more personalized ways such as phone calls and mailed thank you letters.

The simple fix: Be sure to thank your donors early, often, and in a manner that suits their involvement with your organization.

Though there may be quite a few blunders that a nonprofit could easily make with a fundraising event, there are also just as many quick fixes. Use these solutions and you can host a fundraising event with the confidence that you will raise more money than you spend.