An event is not major gift fundraising, nor does it really have anything to do with philanthropy. Hosting events is a public relations opportunity for non-profits. It’s a way to get their name out and potentially engage new people in your mission. And in rare cases, it provides enough net revenue to justify having one.

A fundraising event or gala is almost always 100% transactional in nature. In other words, it’s not about connecting a donor’s specific passions and interests with the need you’re addressing. To be honest, it’s creating an avenue for you to invite donors and their friends to, for one night, feel good about what you do.

That’s not philanthropy.

Can it be useful for cultivating major donors? Yes, in some cases. Can it inspire some folks to become donors? Yes, in some cases. Is it possible to make more net revenue by doing a gala than by cultivating major donors and building those relationships? No.

If you’re currently working for a non-profit that has a long history of hosting an annual gala event, and the event makes enough net revenue to justify it, then it’s pretty hard to get off that hamster wheel. But please don’t ask your major gift team to plan that event or be involved in the logistics that would take them away from the day-to-day work of cultivating and stewarding their portfolio.

And if you don’t have an annual gala event and you’re thinking of starting one, Richard and I would strongly suggest you put that time, energy and money into building up your major gifts program instead.

Why? Because building relationships, understanding a donor’s passions and interests, and helping a donor find joy in their life through alleviating a need you are addressing will produce much more net revenue, for a longer period of time, than what you’d get from an annual event gift.

What gets Richard and me all fired up is when the development and major gift team is stymied in their work for 2 months because the gala becomes an “all-hands-on-deck” event for your non-profit. That’s a huge chunk of time.

When we look at major gift data and see high value attrition, this is one of the causes. Major gift officers have been diverted away from their portfolio to help pull off a gala. I cannot tell you the scores of major gift officers that have talked to Richard, our team, and me about this serious problem.

Quite frankly, we believe creating or continuing a gala that doesn’t make significant net revenue is hurting your relationships with donors and ultimately hurting your long-term return on investment. If you want to be a good steward of your organization’s resources (which I know you do), then putting in the hard work of building strong relationships with your donors will pay off way more than creating or holding that annual gala.

If your board really feels they need to have an event, let them cover the cost and the logistics for that party without involving the development team… especially the major gifts team.

The bottom line is this: There is no easy way to do major gifts. Many times, an event is seen as a way to help make fundraising easier. But it’s actually detrimental to major gifts. It’s not connecting the donor’s passions and interests to the many programs and projects you have that are changing the world. It’s just asking for cash.

Is all that time, labor, energy, and months spent away from your portfolio worth the measly net revenue your organization is going to come away with?

Build relationships, do that everyday hard work – the result is so much better.


PS — For more detail on how to approach events so they’re an effective part of your fundraising strategy, check out our newly updated White Paper! You can download your free copy of “Events and Major Gift Fundraising” here.

This post originally appeared on the Passionate Giving Blog on May 15, 2019.