Are you trying to plan your first fundraiser and have no idea what you’re doing? Or maybe trying to turn one around that’s currently a money pit?
Do you also have a crazy tight time schedule to pull off this miracle?
I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been in your shoes. When I planned my first fundraiser I had not one single Blue’s clue how to go about it.
Sure, I had event planning experience, but I’d never planned an event that collected money past ticket sales so fundraising auctions were completely new to me.
So, in typical me fashion, my first step was to go into what I like to call “research phase”, but is really where I read everything I can get my hands on from a place of sheer panic and terror. Sounds fun right?
While there is an amazing amount of information out there on fundraising events, I found myself getting confused.
It seemed like most of what I could find seemed to be missing huge chunks of information, or worse, didn’t actually make sense.
Some people sharing online or in forums didn’t even have proof that they ever planned a successful event. Yeah, hard pass on following their advice.
But despite all that, I put in a TON of hard work and figured out how to make my event successful. My goal was just to not lose money, but this very first gala I planned in 3 months ended up raising 6 figures in profit. Yes, PROFIT. I’m still kinda amazed that I pulled it off.
This was one of the hardest experiences I’ve had professionally, but was also one of the most valuable.
This 3 month experience where I was sure I was going to tank ended up changing my whole life. In fact, it’s the reason why I started Tribe Table.
On reflecting back on how I did this (and ignoring my PTSD eye twitch just thinking about it), I realize that there are a few key things that exponentially grew my success with this particular event and allowed it to be as successful as it was.
Here are the top things I did to plan a gala in 3 months that had 6 figure profits.
Let’s get it!
Find role models
The first thing I did that helped to make my very first fundraiser successful was that I decided to interviewed people in my area who I knew had successful events (and could prove their numbers).
I had a list of specific questions or one specific topic ready when I met them so that I could make the most of the time I had to talk to them. The cool things was that I found people were super nice and really generous with sharing what they’d learned.
I found that most of the time if you approach people from a place of wanting to learn and show them that you’re willing to take action on the suggestions they give you (i.e. not wasting their time talking to you), people will tell you everything you need to know and so much more.
Study the relationships you have
At their core, fundraising events are all about building relationships.
When I was first learning to plan fundraisers I made a huge list of potential sponsors that I could make asks to. I was lucky that the organization I worked for at the time already had a significant list of supporters, so I took that and added a bunch of businesses that they weren’t connected to yet.
I categorized them into 3 groups- current relationships, connections, and the wish list (people they don’t know but wanted to).
Now, one thing you may or may not know about me is that I’m a huge introvert, and I’m really shy around new people. So the biggest, scariest thing I had to force myself to do every day was to reach out to people. Learning to make cold calls was terrifying.
So in order to build my confidence I reached out to the “current relationships” first. I literally started with the people I’d already met.
I did this out of fear, but it turned out to be an excellent strategy for effective fundraising. The people in the “current relationships” group were already supporters, and therefore most likely to sponsor the event. Now a days I call them your tribe.
I called or emailed these folks (depending on how they preferred to communicate) and asked them for meetings to talk about the event. I also asked each of them if there was anyone else that they thought might be interested in the opportunity, and if they would be willing to share contact info.
This is how I got the bulk of my “connections” list. When I reached out to them, I made sure to let them know who I got their information from so I stopped being a random in their minds.
Then I followed the same steps I did with the “current relationships” group so that I could set meetings to get to know them and find out if this event might be a good fit for them.
Pro tip: It’s so important to focus on getting to know these people when you meet up instead of trying to get them to say yes.
Not only does it take the pressure off and open you up to have a real conversation, but it keeps the relationship going. Even if this one event isn’t the right fit for them, you might find that when people like you and they work you do, they’re going to find a way to support you one way or another.
The last group, the “wish list”, I pulled from good ol’ Google. I looked up local companies that I thought might be 1. Big enough to sponsor and 2. Showed interest in giving back.
This was by far the largest group, so once I looked at their websites or called to get the name of the best person to contact, I emailed them a letter template (I’ll get more into this below).
I made sure to schedule time to follow up with this group, and from there I set meetings with the people who seemed interested.
Figure out time management
One of the hardest things to do when planning a fundraising event is decided how much time things were worth. Especially when you’re brand new and everything seems important!
For example, a silent auction was added to the event I was planning at the last minute (6 weeks before the event).
So once I stopped hyperventilating at my desk, I had to prioritize how much time to spend on it- since I was also the person selling table sponsorships in addition to planning.
Because of the time crunch I decided to spend one week on making asks for the silent auction. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the quality of the event as a whole or potentially getting more sponsorships (which for this event were $3,500 and up) for collecting items that were more than likely valued at $200 or less each. After that week was up, we would get what we got and I would move on.
This ended up being a super important lesson for me and I’m so glad I stuck to my guns on this one.
When you have a whole event to plan and not enough time to plan it, you have to make hard decisions. Success all comes down to deciding if you’re going to do more things and do them all poorly because you don’t have time, or deciding to be strategic and choosing to spend the most time on things that will give you the best results.
Automate what you can
When I was reaching out to potential sponsors I quickly realized that I was writing the same letter and the same emails over and over.
So the first thing I did here was to create sponsor letter templates that I could customize. I wrote our signature sponsor letter, then figured out that while I was writing a bunch of people, they all kinda fell into 3 main kinds of relationships.
So from that main letter I edited it slightly to fit each one of those relationship groups and ended up with 3 sub-templates of the letter. The letters were all very similar, but I made sure to address each one to an actual person. I can’t tell you how much time this saved me!
Then I took this to the next level and used mail merge to make this even faster. All I needed to do was make a quick spreadsheet that I could use to autofill in specific information I wanted in the letter for me. #gamechanger!
Track everything in the cloud
Personally I’m not a fan of Word or Excel and only use them when I absolutely have to. The main reason why I don’t like them is because I’m forgetful (which we’ll talk more about in the next section).
I prefer to use Google Sheets (really the whole Google suite) so that I never had to worry about if I was accidentally using an old/ outdated version of the spreadsheet or if I forgot to hit save.
This also works really well with teams and organizing vendors. When I was planning my event I could breathe easy knowing that everyone always had the most up to date version of a piece of work, no matter when I sent it to them originally. Click here to find out all the ways I use the Google suite and other free tools for planning events.
Write everything down
Making lists helped calm my nerves a lot when I was planning that first fundraiser. There was so much going on that I was terrified of forgetting something.
I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic because of stress dreams where it was event day but I forgot to make the table centerpieces. True story.
Or I’d wake up at 3 in the morning and think of things I HAD to remember to do the next day. But because I was so stressed about forgetting them, I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep.
I did this every single day for weeks (not a good look) until I wised up and got a notebook to put by my bed. I put another one in my purse, notes in my phone, and had a stack of post-its on my desk.
Then I set a recurring calendar reminder where at the start of every work day I would take 10 minutes to go through all my notes and put my to-dos in one place. This did wonders for my ability to sleep!
Now I use Asana to keep track of everything and have the app on my phone. You can find out more about Asana and all my favorite sanity-saving planning tools here.
Writing down every single thing I needed to do took up a lot of time, but I was SOOOO grateful that I did it the next year.
Why? Because that first year while I was learning and doing at the same time, I was always in such a reactionary state. I was doing so much at once that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I did even a week later.
By writing everything down I had a super detailed task list and timeline with instructions for how to do what worked by the end of my event. This made it really easy for me to pick up planning for the next year- which I definitely gave myself a full year to do that time around. Lesson learned!
Having everything written down also made it possible for me to get help. I could pass certain tasks along to other people (like volunteers or interns) because I had a detailed plan of what I wanted them to do.
While you can’t just give someone a list and send them off on their merry way, this saved me an incredible amount of time even with checking in on the team I built on a regular basis.
With a team and a detailed plan I was able to focus on the big picture of improving the event instead of drowning in to-dos again.
I hope this helps you in planning your own successful event.
The cool thing is that I’m still able to apply all of these lessons even now that I have a bunch of profitable events under my belt. Focusing on these things allow you to build your fundraiser’s growth year after year.
Do you have any lessons or things you did that helped make your event successful? If so, I’d love it if you’d share your experience with the Tribe in the comments below.