Big doings in the toy department

by Dave Nelson

My foundation will do special events when pigs fly and the Ice Capades schedules Hell as a regular tour stop.
–A VP of Development at a West Coast medical center foundation

What is most notable about the quote above is the attitude it reflects. As much as proponents of event fund raising (like me) might wish it otherwise, many non-profit executives and fund raising experts steadfastly regard special events as the toy department of philanthropy.

For people who desperately need the very things events can deliver namely, people, money, and attention this seems a curious attitude. Even more curious considering non-profits operate in a world gone mad for entertainment.

Think about it. Nations lusting for money and legitimacy vie for the right to stage the Olympics. Mayors anxious for tourists compete for conventions and sporting championships. Las Vegas casinos seeking to lure bettors produce elaborate stage revues. Corporations spend millions to associate themselves with concert tours and movie premieres because they know events draw people, money and attention.

Even a cursory glance at the calendar listings in the local newspaper confirms our cultural obsession with entertainment. The leisure industry (incorporating entertainment, sports and tourism) is booming. Stars from sports, movies, music, television, arts, and literature dominate the attention of the media. Garlic festivals, Grammy awards, chili cook-offs, marathons, celebrity-studded galas everywhere there is evidence of an affluent society searching for ways to keep itself amused.

Yet the “toy department” reputation of event fund raising persists. Why is that? Why are special events considered the inferior cousins of the more “significant” areas of philanthropy planned and annual giving, major gifts, and capital campaigns?

The answer probably lies in special events own lamentable history as high-risk, low-return investments.

How many non-profit organizations have been burned by poorly-conceived, badly-managed events? Lots. How many fund raising programs have been drained of money, people, and goodwill by special events? Too many. How many valuable development opportunities have been squandered, how much time wasted, in pursuit of the perfect bake sale? Zillions. (Okay, I’m being a little imprecise, but were talking BIG numbers here.) With that kind of a record, is it any wonder event fund raising gets no respect?

Even worse, special events reputation has almost become a self-fulfilling curse. Nonprofit executives, fearful of the risks, have often adopted management strategies which virtually guarantee special events miserable productivity.

The first is the “Catch-22” strategy. The Boss (a euphemism for the CEO, President, Director, Chairperson, Dean, or whatever) perceives the special events operation as a low-level function which generates little money. That being the case, the Boss naturally will invest very little of the institutions resources (money, staff time) in special events.

That means the event fund raising duties will be assigned to the least-experienced or least expensive person on staff. (Quick! Who gets paid more – the major gifts officer or the special events coordinator?) Despite heroic effort, with only minimal resources and experience at their disposal, the people who manage special events have virtually no time or ability to increase the money generated. The lackluster financial results then reinforce the Boss’ original perception of special events. The self-defeating cycle of shrinking investment and declining ROI is complete.

In other words, special events get no respect because they make so little money. But they can’t make more money because they get so little respect. Catch-22.

Other organizations seize upon the “sales volume” approach to special events. Executives take the offensive, seeking to make up the financial losses through sheer sales volume. “If we have to do events,” the volume management philosophy goes, “we’d better do enough of them to make an impression in the community and on the bottom line.”

A “volume” approach might work for Wal-Mart, but it is the pathway to disaster in fund raising. It commits more and more vital resources at unacceptable risk. Beyond that, the events staff can never properly exploit the revenue opportunities of any single event because it is always racing off to the next event. Staff, volunteer, and participant burnout ensues. The bottomline suffers.

A third common approach to special events is the “addition by subtraction” method. This strategy eliminates the risk and distraction of special events by simply doing away with them altogether. While convenient, this method also eliminates the entree events provide non-profit organizations into nontraditional funding like sponsorship. With dwindling government support and ferocious competition for grant funding and corporate philanthropy, can non-profits ignore any potential source of revenue?

Realistically, non-profit organizations can no longer afford any of these strategies. The upside of special events–as well as the destructive downside–is simply too great. Our culture’s fascination with events is a lot more powerful than its devotion to charity. By ignoring, trivializing, or dismissing events, non-profit executives overlook the extraordinary chance to put entertainment at the service of philanthropy.

Like it or not, there are big doings in the toy department.

© 1999, David L. Nelson

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