Despite what some people will have you believe, there are a ton of ways to create a profitable, sustainable fundraising event.
While there are endless ways you can succeed, there are also a handful of practices and behaviors that will keep you from achieving your goals.
This is great news because it means that if you avoid making a few fundamental mistakes, you can be as creative as you want when it comes to actually making money at your event.
As a professional fundraising event consultant, I’ve helped a wide range of teams with different causes and varying budgets put together awesome events for their tribes.
When it comes to fundraisers I’ve been around the block a time or two and I’ve noticed a few patterns along the way.
Here are some of the top reasons I see that otherwise good fundraisers end up failing before they really get going.
Use these as early warning signs to keep your own fundraiser safely on the road to success.
Let’s dive in.
Mistake #1: Don’t have a set goal
It’s tempting to put off setting a fundraising goal.
Maybe you’re afraid to aim too high.
Or you don’t want to be disappointed or embarrassed if you put a goal out there but don’t reach it.
Believe me, I get how this feels. But it’s hard to stay on track if you don’t know what you’re working toward.
The reality is that way too many events are flops because people don’t have a specific outcome in mind. Or if they do have a goal, they’re afraid to be honest about it.
Sometimes folks have a solid fundraising number, but they will avoid telling people about it.
Don’t play Secret Squirrel about what you’re trying to do.
This is a good way to make potential supporters suspicious of you and not want to partner with you.
“We don’t really know how much we want to raise, or what we will use the money for, but will you trust us with your donation anyway?” really isn’t how to win friends and influence people.
People want to help you win and they also want to be a part of your success. Being open and honest with them is a win-win situation.
Don’t be scared to aim high
Before taking on a new client, I always ask what their fundraising goal is.
This is such a simple question, but it makes people squirmy.
Kinda like saying the dredded B word. Budget.
When I ask about a fundraising goal I usually get two numbers.
One is the “realistic” number; the one that is in that arbitrary safe space where someone feels like they can make enough to not be embarrassed, but also not feel greedy for asking for too much.
The second number usually takes a bit of digging to get to.
This is the number that follows those “wouldn’t it be amazing if…” thoughts.
This is the number that would make them proud as hell for bringing in all those money bags. This is the number that names them feel like a fundraising Boss.
This is the only number that matters.
The beauty of setting goals is that you they’re supposed to be a challenge.
If you’re trying to come up with a fundraising goal and you have a number in your head that makes you want to hurl a little, but also gets you damn excited thinking about the possibilities, then go with that number.
Goals are meant to be worked on. Plus, you can always change them down the road so just pick something and don’t sweat it.
Get the Ultimate Fundraiser Starter Workbook to plan the perfect event for you and your tribe.
Mistake #2: Don’t take the time to create a real plan to move them toward their goal
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else” - Yogi Berra
Okay, so you set your fundraising goal, and you’re ready to go!
Now you have to figure out a path for how you’re going to get there.
Otherwise, a goal is nothing but words that sound nice.
Figure out how you’re going to get to your goal by breaking it down into a pathway of smaller goals first.
A fun way to do this is by using time as a marker. If your event is in 6 months, what are the biggest things that need to happen for you to reach your overall goal?
Write down a list of no more than 3 things that if they happened, would make you break out the hip hop airhorn and put Drake on repeat ‘cause you made it.
Then, take that list and break those goals down even further. What would you have to do in the next 3 months to reach your Big 3?
Then take that list and repeat. What would you need to accomplish in the next month to make sure your goals for the next three months happen?
You’ll be amazed at how using this system will keep you on track and ONLY focusing on the things that really matter.
💡Pro tip: if you’re really ready to get your event to the next level, use this method to start a full project management plan.
This is basically a big ole to-do list with everything you need to stay on target. It’s the nitty gritty stuff.
Once you have a list you can add in deadlines for each task and who’s in charge of getting it done.
This might seem like a massive undertaking. And to be honest, yes, good project plans require a significant time investment. But taking the time to create a full project plan is one million, bazzillion percent worth it.
No more racking your brain trying to remember what all you did the year before. Your future self and your future teams will be thanking you year after year for doing this.
If you want to save yourself even more time figuring out what should go in a project management plan, you can grab a done-for-you Project Plan here that your team can start using today.
Mistake #3: Expect to make money, without wanting to invest in their guests
Some organizations seem to think that once they decide to host a fundraiser, money is just going to fall out of the sky with little to no effort on their part.
Like on some real Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs stuff.
I once consulted for a nonprofit that wanted to turn around their event that had lost money year after year. They were also dreaming big and wanted to take their fundraising goal from the previous year that they didn’t make, and double it.
They had all these ideas about all the important people they’d invite and how much money they’d make.
I’m all for big dreams, and think its a major part of goal setting. You have to have something to get excited about.
But here’s when things started to go off.
When they talked about their current supporters (the ones that came to their event that wasn’t making enough profit) they talked down about them.
Like they were better than these people. They wanted more important people with more money to support them. Huge yellow flag, but not the worst part.
When we went into strategizing about how they would attract these new shinier, richer people to their event, they didn’t have any ideas.
More than that, they seemed shocked that I suggest that they would have to put in more work to attract these people. Some of them were even offended.
Red flag! Do not pass go! Danger Will Robinson! All that.
It then made perfect sense to me why their event failed year after year.
Not only were they not willing to go the extra mile to attract new people to them, they weren’t treating their current tribe (the people who WERE giving them money!) well.
This is not only a recipe for disaster when it comes to fundraising, but in general it’s just a crappy way to be.
Remember that your supporters are human, just like you. They want to be a part of something.
People donate to your cause to get some sort of experience. This can be good branding for their name/ company, the opportunity to meet like-minded people, or just a fun night out.
Hopefully your fundraiser offers them all of the above.
Build your event around your supporters and they will spread the word for you.
Then- and only then- will it seem like money and opportunities just fall out of the sky.
Mistake # 4: Team members aren’t all rowing in the same direction
It might surprise you that this is by far the biggest reason why fundraising teams fail. It’s not that people are lazy, or not engaged. This problem is even worse than having a team where not a single person knows what they’re doing.
You can have a team full of absolute fundraising rockstars, but if everyone isn’t working together toward the same goal, you’re fundraiser is dead in the water.
The good news is that this is also the quickest problem to fix.
Be super clear about the goals and expectations of your fundraising team before folks join your group and repeat them at your very first meeting.
If your group sets the goals together, even better.
Write it down and remind people of the goals often. Make it a metric for making all decisions and walk through it with people. Use it to hold people accountable along the way.
If you’ve already started putting your event together and your team seems all over the place, folks are probably just drifting a bit. Don’t panic- this is totally normal.
Because believe it or not, folks have other stuff going on in their lives besides being on your committee.
If your team seems lost at sea, take a pause to get everyone refocused and fired up about the same goal again.
You can take some time in one of your planning committee meetings to do this.
You can also do it in something as simple as sending a progress email.
How ever you do it, just make sure you have healthy amounts of encouragement baked in.
Keeping everyone rowing in the same direction is something you have to do throughout your whole planning process.
The more consistent you are, the less effort it takes to keep everyone working together as you go.
Mistake #5: Spending too much time on the wrong things
One thing you learn very quickly when planning fundraising events is to pick your battles.
One of my favorite things to say to clients is “this is not the hill you want to die on!”.
It’s funny and helps make light of potentially stressful situations.
More than anything though, it reminds my clients of the top priority goals that they set when we first started working together.
Before they were deep in the trenches and stressed out of their minds.
Before every little thing felt like it was a huge deal with the potential to bring their whole event burning to the ground around them.
This might seem overly dramatic, but I know that if you’ve planned a huge fundraiser before, you’ve felt at least a little bit of this.
Successful fundraising events aren’t built by having every little thing you envisioned work out.
Things won’t work the way you thought. Stuff won’t cost what you thought it might. People won’t show up like they said they would.
The official motto of event planning should be “Shit happens. Roll with it.”
Successful fundraisers are built on setting a goal, actively working toward achieving that goal, trying to make the best decision possible when things go wrong with the information you have at the time, and then moving on to keep working forward to the goal.
The details of how you envisioned your event are going to change as you go. And that’s okay.
If you actually expect it, you’ll have a lot less stress and more fun along the way.
Base every decision you make not on the thing itself, but if it helps you achieve your goal.
If one of your goals is to share what you do and the impact that it has for the low income middle school students you serve, does it really matter that your rental company promised you navy blue cloth napkins, but they showed up the day of with white?
Ask yourself if napkin colors get you closer to your goals.
If not, then for the love of all things holy, do not die on that hill!
Now, let’s say that the color of your napkins actually is important to your branding and the entire theme of your table design.
Is it important enough to you pay for a rush delivery for new ones or to get someone to pick them up?
If they are, then do that. And move on.
You don’t need to have a 3-day summit about it. You don’t need to curse the name of the person who made a mistake for the next 5 years to everyone you know.
Get a refund, write a Yelp review later, or just take them off of the list of people you work with.
Find the fastest, best solution and move on with your life.
You have more important things to worry about.
There you have it, the top reasons why fundraisers fail. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to avoid these traps.
Set a clear fundraising goal and use it to make all major decisions about your event.
Be open and honest with your supporters and your planning committees about what you’re trying to do and how they can help. Make it a team sport where everyone is focused on the same goal and wins together.
Remember that if you want to make money, you’re going to have to work for it. Go all out on creating an amazing experience for your supporters. Build an event around what they want, show them over and over how much their support means to you.
And finally, know that some things are going to be more important than others. Don’t die on every hill. Focus all your energy on what’s moving you closer to reaching your goal.