Special events are tons of fun and proven to raise money for your charity when everything goes according to plan. And while there’s nothing more satisfying than watching your event in full swing, the actual nonprofit event planning processes depend on effective communication, organization, focus, and the ability to track progress.
In this article, we’ll explore event options and outline 13 event planning steps to help you save time, earn more money, and stay stress-free while planning a nonprofit event.
1. Choose the Right Type of Event for Your Nonprofit
Each event needs to be tailored to a specific audience to set the stage to raise awareness for your cause. For example, a pancake breakfast might be the appropriate setting for a Little League awards ceremony, but a more sophisticated affair would be better for museum or symphony patrons. Your nonprofit’s budget may also dictate the type of event you can pull off.
Let’s look at some of the most popular fundraising events, including the key elements to making them more profitable.
Food- or Meal-Related Events
One of the more popular types of charity events involves food, such as a dinner, luncheon, or wine tasting. Carefully consider your venue and menu, the type of entertainment you’ll have, and how you plan to educate your guests on your organization and the initiatives that the funds raised will help support. You may opt for a sit-down meal at a hotel or restaurant, an intimate gathering at a supporter’s home, a buffet prepared by clients or supporters, a progressive dinner among different locations, or a tasting event featuring local vendors.
Timing is also a consideration: Scheduling your event around holidays or significant milestones like anniversaries, retirements, or achievements adds a celebratory vibe that can translate into attendee excitement—and larger donations.
Cost Savings Tip: Food events can be pricier to pull off than other types of fundraising events, depending on the venue, type of food, and who is preparing it. Negotiate with restaurants or venues for discounts and donations of goods or services to reduce costs.
Auctions and Raffles
Everyone loves to win prizes, and even those who don’t like to gamble don’t mind putting up some cash they might “lose” if it’s going to a good cause.
Silent auctions—alone or in conjunction with a meal or other event—are a great choice for a mellow vibe that facilitates mingling and networking. Much like eBay, bidders submit their offers on paper or electronically, with bids ending at a set time. Conversely, live auctions run by an auctioneer put the auction at the forefront of your event and create an exciting atmosphere that can significantly boost fundraising.
Raffles are also a highly effective way to raise funds in a gamified way. Set a fair ticket price and sell tickets to win prizes, or go for a 50-50 pot, where the winner collects half the proceeds. With Ticketstripe, you can sell raffle tickets separately or include a set number of raffle tickets with an admission purchase. Our system collects contact info with each purchase, which can be a great way to expand your mailing list, too.
Cost Savings Tip: Acquiring donated prizes to auction or raffle puts every penny of the purchase price into the nonprofit’s coffers.
Goods Sales or Services-for-Hire
Bake sales, rummage sales, and car washes are classic fundraising events for nonprofits, each with unique considerations to ensure their success. The trickiest part of this sort of fundraiser is ensuring attendees understand the nonprofit’s goals and message and are not simply attending to acquire the goods or services offered.
Cost Savings Tip: To reduce overhead costs and increase profits, engage local merchants for sponsorships or in-kind donations—which also fosters community involvement.
Active Competitions and Sporting Events
Competitive events like walk-a-thons, running races, and golf tournaments are excellent ways to engage communities and support causes, especially for organizations targeting younger demographics or health-focused initiatives.
Funds may be raised simply from the cost of admission, or you may put the onus on participants to solicit support from others for their participation. If you go the latter route, organizing prizes for top performers should be at the top of your list.
Cost Savings Tip: Partnering up with an established event, such as an annual local half marathon, may be a good way to get your feet wet without taking on additional organizational responsibilities.
Benefit Concerts and Live Presentations
Utilize your organization’s network to identify and engage local or national celebrities, authors, experts, or musical groups with the ability to draw your audience. You can even aim to create a unique event experience, possibly combining different speakers or artists in unconventional pairings.
Cost Savings Tip: To ensure everyone is on the same page, use contracts for presenters or performers that clearly define the terms and limit the expenses related to guest accommodations, transportation, and incidentals—even if performers’ services have been donated to the cause.
Site or Walking Tours
Tours are inherently educational events, allowing your nonprofit to share a ton of information with participants. They can also be a big draw, especially if your nonprofit has an interesting physical space or the opportunity to offer a behind-the-scenes look at your operation. Tours of other venues, such as private homes or gardens, or walking tours of the area your nonprofit serves also draw interest from the community while bringing a rapt audience.
Cost Savings Tip: Budget carefully for promotional and operational expenses, and consider incorporating additional revenue streams such as selling related merchandise or refreshments.
Fairs and Festivals
Fairs and festivals offer unique opportunities for fundraising, community engagement, and showcasing diverse talents and vendors. You have several avenues to raise funds, including charging an entry fee to the public and a fee to each vendor for table space, as well as vending your own merchandise or running a raffle.
Cost Savings Tip: Utilize support from local government and businesses, such as donated venues, waived fees, or equipment loans, to reduce costs.
2. What Makes a Nonprofit Event Successful?
When you figure out what type of event to pursue, the next challenge is approaching initial planning from a birds-eye view. It’s all well and good to offer folks a nice time, but remember that your event is an opportunity for expanding your reach and strengthening your network.
Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture: To engage participants in the moment and beyond, your event should appeal to your target audience as an outing they want to pay to attend while providing specific takeaway info about what your nonprofit hopes to achieve. Attendees should leave feeling satisfied and inspired, and your organization should have met financial goals but also made connections with supporters, new and old, to follow up with and facilitate ongoing relationships.
3. Be SMART About Setting Your Event Goals
Everything starts with a clear goal statement to guide the planning process. Think of your goal statement as your elevator pitch, something short and sweet that every team member can recite on the spot. Try the SMART approach to setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.
Let’s consider an example goal statement: “Organize a charity golf tournament to raise $3,000 for local environmental conservation efforts within the next six months, attracting at least 100 participants and securing a minimum of five sponsorships from local businesses.”
This goal checks the boxes. It’s…
- Specific: Host a charity golf tournament to support environmental conservation.
- Measurable: Raise $3,000, attract 100 participants, and secure five local business sponsorships.
- Achievable: Definitely, assuming you have a local golf course that’s amenable for hosting, and those numbers track with the reach of your organization.
- Relevant: Supports the nonprofit’s mission of environmental conservation.
- Time-bound: Accomplish this within the next six months.
4. Consider Whether to Make Your Event Virtual or Hybrid
The allure of virtual events for nonprofits is their cost-effectiveness, as they eliminate expenses associated with physical venues and travel. Sponsors find virtual events attractive due to the lack of physical setup and the opportunity to connect with a global audience through digital visibility. And you can’t beat the convenience of virtual or hybrid events for attendees, with access as simple as connecting to the internet.
Assemble Your Virtual Tool Kit: Your virtual event is only as good as the software you use to support it. Video streaming software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToWebinar is a no-brainer, while targeted use of social media platforms gets the word out to prospective attendees. For easy ticketing, look to Ticketstripe, which supports in-person and virtual ticket sales alike, with easy-to-share links and customizable attendee reminders, plus back-end reports that allow organizers to collect and synthesize attendee info by ticket types.
5. Maximize Your Event’s Fundraising Potential
When planning a fundraising event, it’s crucial to remember that ticket sales alone may not cover event costs as well as support future plans. Your event should be more than just a gathering; it should be a catalyst for broader fundraising efforts.
Offer Opportunities for Additional Contributions: A simple first step is to include a “donation” option when people purchase tickets. Ticketstripe makes this easy in the event setup with suggested and flexible donation options.
Seek In-Kind Donations: Remember, not all contributions need to be monetary. Solicit donations of essential items such as food, space, labor, decorations, entertainment, sound systems, or transportation for speakers. This reduces your cost burden and allows you to channel more funds into your cause.
Explore Corporate Sponsorship: A popular way to secure sponsors is by offering sponsorship packages, where in exchange for a table purchase, the business name is displayed on the physical table or in other event materials. Ticketstripe lets you create sponsorship packages and collect contact info of individuals who receive table tickets as potential future donors. Another way to garner corporate sponsorship is by soliciting larger donations in exchange for prominent name placement on promotional materials; with Ticketstripe’s fully customizable event landing pages, there’s plenty of space to feature sponsor logos however you like.
6. Set Your Event Date and Plan Deadlines Accordingly
Large-scale events like annual dinners or gala balls typically require six months to a year of preparation. Starting early not only preserves sanity but can also save money, e.g., giving designers and printers enough time results in lower costs compared to rush jobs.
Choose the Date Wisely: When setting your event date, you want to be mindful of other community events or major happenings, lest your event compete with another large fundraiser or a significant public event.
Create and Share a Calendar: A detailed shared calendar is an indispensable tool. Mark key deadlines, the start dates for tasks, and assign tasks to specific individuals for accountability.
Keep Everyone in the Know: Email lists and Facebook groups are fine ways to keep everyone updated on progress, but you may also want to be creative. For example, the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center updates a large, visible sign with the number of participants for its community-wide garage sale. This not only motivates staff and volunteers but also builds excitement within the community.
7. Assemble Your Event Dream Team
Every event needs a mastermind to coordinate volunteers, oversee schedules, and ensure everything is going as planned, whether that’s you or a trusted point person. This individual should embody the event’s vision with the ability to rally a team of staff and volunteers. If it’s in the budget, you may consider hiring a consultant to help. A skilled nonprofit event planner can bring value by leveraging relationships with vendors and local businesses, contributing to cost efficiency and maximizing profits.
Determine Division of Labor: Whether you’re assigning tasks to individuals or committees, you’ll need to divide to conquer. Areas might include site planning, catering and decorations, management of exhibitors or performers, sourcing of auction or raffle donations or corporate sponsorships, staffing and registration, promotion, risk management, and cleanup. It’s often more effective to have smaller dedicated teams for each task rather than large groups where accountability gets lost in the shuffle.
Clarify Roles and Limits of Authority: This includes knowing what needs to be done, the deadlines, and communication protocols for reporting progress or challenges. For example, if the food committee proposes a menu, the members should be aware that the final decision might rest with you or the trusted point person.
Establish Clear Channels of Communication: Identify the person in charge of each aspect of the event. Regular updates via email keep everyone on the same page. While meetings are important, they should be reserved for significant discussions.
8. Develop an Event Budget That Makes Sense
Planning a successful nonprofit event requires adequate financial support. A well-considered budget is priceless, and it’s the backbone of any successful event. Chances are, you have a set budget to divvy up, though it can help to do the exercise of estimating costs individually to compare the total if simply to see where to determine you must cut expenses.
As a rule of thumb, you want to try to earn at least five times your expenses. Even if actual earnings fall short, this approach provides a buffer. Always consider the worst-case scenario in your budget planning and plan accordingly.
Manage Costs Wisely: As you determine what you can spend on each aspect of your event, consider the costs of professional services versus a homespun approach by soliciting donations or using volunteers. Just don’t cut corners on key aspects that might mar attendees’ experience. For example, investing a little more in renting quality audio equipment for a speaker event ensures that technical glitches won’t distract from the talk itself.
Estimate Expenses: Event expenses include everything from venue rental to promotional materials. When you estimate your expenses, make sure to account for every possible cost, including often-overlooked or hidden charges like necessary permits and event insurance, staff time, or emergency contingencies. It’s advisable to add a buffer—at least 20 percent—to your initial estimate to account for unforeseen expenses.
Estimate Income: Predicting income can be challenging, especially for new events. Start by making an educated guess on how many attendees you’ll get and what you will need to charge for admission to maximize earnings without pricing out your audience. Remember that Ticketstripe is by far the most cost-effective event software for nonprofits to manage ticket sales with the lowest fees in the industry—and it’s a no-subscription-fee alternative to Eventbrite. Don’t forget to factor in other revenue streams, such as sponsorships, raffles, and so on. If your estimated income is nowhere near that five-times-expenses benchmark, revisit your spending and look for other ways to save.
9. Create Your Event Page and Sell Tickets ASAP
Invitations or ticket sale announcements should go out four months before the event. Ticketstripe makes it easy for nonprofits to create an event landing page to customize and share with potential attendees quickly. Our platform offers a range of features tailored to nonprofit needs. Here’s why TicketStripe stands out as the best event management software for nonprofits:
- Ease of Use: Our site is intuitive to use, with easy-to-follow tutorials to show you how to make your event page truly personalized and unique.
- Discounted Service Fees for Nonprofits: Our special nonprofit pricing is much lower than the competition.
- Pass-on-Fees Option: We allow nonprofits to pass service and credit card fees to ticket buyers and donors, helping you collect more funds.
- Pay-What-You-Wish Tickets: Offer guests ticket pricing to accommodate all attendees with PWYWT.
- Flexible and Suggested Donations: Capitalize on attendees’ generosity at the point of sale with customizable additional donations.
- At-the-Door Ticket Scanning and Sales: Streamline entry and sell tickets at the door with our easy-to-use app.
- Enhanced Attendee Data Collection: Gather more information from attendees through packaged ticket options like tables, sponsorships, and group sales.
10. Master Marketing and Promotion
To attract the public, especially those outside your organization’s mailing list, you must focus intently on promotion and publicity. Promotion includes self-produced advertising like posters and invitations, while publicity refers to media coverage. If possible, seek the help of a public relations or marketing professional, ideally on a volunteer basis. Someone should be assigned or hired to capture the event in photos and videos to be used in future marketing efforts on your website and promotional materials.
Do Some Pre-Research: The marketing committee or designated individual should decide on promotional materials like event posters and social media campaigns. Explore which platforms, newspapers, magazines, or websites your potential ticket buyers frequent. Free community calendars and local group newsletters are cost-effective publicity avenues to market your event.
Get the Word Out ASAP: Start by informing your existing supporters about the event through newsletters and your website, building excitement months in advance. Early communication helps ensure that potential attendees keep their schedules open. A “Save the Date” postcard or social media blitz at least three months before the event is a good kickoff. Alert the local media about your event with a press release delineating not only what will happen there but also what initiative you intend your fundraising to support. Positive media write-ups not only lend credibility to your event but can also dramatically increase its reach and appeal
Use the Web to Leverage Your Event: Whether you create a landing page on your organization’s website, an event invitation on Facebook, or utilize Ticketstripe as your main event page, that page should feature key details like the program, speakers and a link to register. Ticketstripe has a simple widget that you can use to customize a clickable button to include on your website.
Encourage Others to Share the Hype: Sponsors generally sign on because they want to be linked to the good works of your nonprofit. It’s a no-brainer, then, to ask sponsors to promote their involvement in the event as well. Individuals who follow you on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram may be similarly motivated. Encouraging sharing of posts can exponentially increase your promotional efforts.
11. Button Up Final Event Details
As the final countdown to your event begins, it’s often a whirlwind, even for the most seasoned event planner. This is when your meticulously prepared checklists become your lifeline. As you go through everything one last time, look for opportunities to delegate tasks to others on your team. This ensures that every aspect of the event is managed effectively and reduces stress on any single individual.
Confirm Everything: One week out, contact every person and organization involved in your event to reconfirm details such as arrival times and final payments. This includes speakers and presenters, vendors and service providers, shipping and deliveries, and local authorities (if your event takes place in a public area). Make sure any financial matter is settled now, so you don’t have conflicts on event day.
Communicate Final Details: Send a comprehensive last email to participants to ramp up excitement and provide essential information. Include reminders, schedule changes, check-in instructions, directions, hotel information, and a list of essentials they should bring. Provide the event’s agenda and details about any additional offerings, such as after-hours events or one-on-one sessions.
Gather Supplies: Compile all items you’ll need at the event, including signs, decor, lanyards, badge supplies, registration equipment, handouts, and survey forms. You’ll also want an emergency kit of items you might need if something goes awry—extra batteries, a first-aid kit, and basic tools. To ensure your volunteers are well taken care of, don’t forget snacks, water, and anything else to keep them comfortable and motivated throughout the event.
Share Contact Info: Create comprehensive contact lists of all key personnel and vendors. This list should be easily accessible to you and your team for quick communication during the event. In addition, prepare a list of individuals, organizations, and sponsors to publicly thank during the event. Recognizing their contributions not only shows gratitude but also encourages future support.
12. Follow Up After the Event
Resist the urge to immediately dive back into your regular tasks—the post-event phase is no time to rest. Although it’s a time to celebrate a job well done, learn from experiences, and ensure that your hard work sets the stage for future events to be even more impactful.
Publicize Noteworthy Moments: If there were any standout moments or achievements during your event, post them on social media and/or send out press releases to keep the momentum going and to highlight the successes of your event.
Recognize Key Contributors: Give credit where credit is due. Whether it’s volunteers, staff, or major donors, a personalized and public thank you can go a long way.
Conduct a Detailed Review Meeting: Gather your team for an in-depth debriefing of the event. Share insights, discuss what worked well, and identify areas for improvement. If a meeting isn’t feasible, consider distributing surveys to gather feedback. Remember to keep the tone positive and focus on constructive ways to address any issues for future events.
Finalize and Compare the Budget: Compare the actual expenditures against the initial projections to understand where you met, exceeded, or fell short of your fundraising goals. Document these findings for future reference.
Keep Comprehensive Documentation: Finally, prepare your event documentation as if you won’t be around to guide the next one. Include every detail, from planning to execution, contacts, vendors, media outlets, and so on. This comprehensive documentation ensures that even if the team changes, the blueprint for replicating your event’s success remains intact.
13. Enjoy the Ride!
Although there’s nothing like the security and comfort of a well thought-out plan, you can’t plan for every contingency. Leading up to and on the day of a busy event, event planners must also be acrobats, ready and willing to bend over backward for VIPs and simultaneously play the role of ringmaster—all on a community theater budget.
You’ll encounter twists and turns and run into some roadblocks. But as long as you stay focused, organized, and communicate effectively, you’ll be well on your way toward a smashing success. Special events only come along so often, so expect the unexpected, enjoy the adventure, and celebrate your victories.