Special events focus on donors

Stewardship and fundraising receptions or dinners are the most popular special events for charities, a new survey says.

Most charities do not employ a full-time staff member devoted to event management, and decide whether to hold an event after considering the expected return on investment, and the staff and volunteer capacity to support it, says the 2014 Special Events Report from the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy.

“Special events are important to many nonprofit organizations because they help raise awareness of a cause and help cultivate relationships with donors and potential donors,” says the report. “Events tend to be more costly than other fundraising strategies in terms of return on investment, but they are often incorporated into overall fundraising strategy because they provide visibility for the organization and opportunities to involve people in its activities.”

Most research on events focuses mainly on “anecdotal descriptions of how-to’s for producing events,” the report says.

Its goal is to provide “benchmarking’ to help nonprofits determine whether an event “is appropriate considering its circumstances, how its event results compare with those of other like organizations, and effective ways to follow up with constituents, media and potential donors after the event.”

The report is based on responses from 101 individuals to an online survey fielded in March to a random sample of 2,500 members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the U.S. and 1,200 in Canada, and on two focus groups of fundraisers with significant experience in event planning.

Number of events

Nearly all survey respondents hold special events in a typical year, with roughly one-third holding or or two a year; nearly a third holding three or four; 17 percent holding five to nine; 13 percent holding 10 to 14; nine percent holding 15 to 49; and four percent holding 50 or more.

Most popular events

Sixty-two percent of survey respondents hold stewardship and fundraising receptions or dinners, and 57 percent hold galas with a live or silent auction, or both.

Just over one-third of respondents hold sports tournaments, and nearly one-fourth hold “a-thons.”

Event staffing

Fifty-six percent of survey respondents do not have a full-time staff position devoted to event management, while 20 percent have one events position; 17 percent have two to four events positions; and over 40 percent have two to four staff members who work on events as needed.

Event revenue

Fifty-five percent of respondents generate gross revenue of $100,000 or more a year from special events, and roughly one-third say revenue from special events accounts for less than half their annual revenue.

Only 12 percent say event revenue generates 50 percent or more of annual revenue.

Return on investment

Just over half of respondents track costs per dollar raised.

While estimated costs vary by type of event, most total 59 cents or less per dollar raised.

Reasons for holding events

While respondents cite a range of factors that influence the decision to hold an event, including relevance, mission and pressure from the board, most indicate they consider the expected return on investment, and staff and capacity to support the event.

Information resources

The main information resources that charities say they use for event planning are their own volunteers and staff, professional colleagues who plan events, and websites of other organizations that hold events.

Over half of respondents say they want more benchmarking information on effective ways to achieve event objectives, fresh ideas for themes, new technologies to support events; and “third-party” events hosted by someone outside the organization to benefit the organization.


Most respondents count on volunteers to help with planning, execution, evaluation and follow-up for special events. And most say it is important to select volunteers based on their interests and abilities, to train volunteers and staff, to communicate well during event planning, and to recognize volunteers.


The technologies that charities say they use most often for planning, executing and evaluating events are websites, standards spreadsheet software, social media, fundraising software, and online publications.

Measuring success

Respondents say the most important measure of the success of an event is whether or not it meets its budget goal, followed by whether it generates new donors, prospects and volunteers.

Todd Cohen

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