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The best charity event models

6 min read

Claudia Ocean, Leukaemia Foundation
What is the best charity event model?
A model which addresses the basic human desire to help, and the ability to be empathetic to the cause while having fun.

Fundraising through events is an interesting part of the fundraising mix. Statistically, it is one of the smaller income streams for not-for-profits in Australia.

The Leukaemia Foundation is therefore fairly unique in the fact that a considerable portion of the annual fundraising is conducted through fundraising events, such as World’s Greatest Shave.

How do you assess what’s right for your organisation?
We conduct quantitative and qualitative research to determine what works and what doesn’t.

We pay attention to feedback from supporters, patients and the people who carry out the leading research projects. We also look at what’s working internationally. We listen. We get out there. We attend other events.

The key to a successful event?
These are the same as key ingredients to any product success: price, targeted and qualified promotion, timing, hit all the senses (music, food, things to touch), expand the fun to bring on your ‘brand action’, and that of the sponsor.

The event needs to engage the community, mirror the organisation and promote awareness for the organisation and its mission.

Most successful events offer a clear symmetry with the charitable organisation. Some examples of this include Movember for men’s health, Girls Night In for breast cancer and of course, World’s Greatest Shave.

Common mistakes?
Common mistakes include not researching the market, not setting clear objectives, not calculating feasibility and ROI, not monitoring figures during the event, not including stakeholders in decision making and not thanking properly.

The most successful event you have worked on?
This has to be World’s Greatest Shave, because anyone can do it, anywhere. It’s well organised. It’s heaps of fun. Over 100,000 people participated in the event last year, and the number grows year after year.

Registrants have considerable autonomy in hosting their shave activity, but still feel really intrinsically involved in one big event. In its eleventh year, World’s Greatest Shave continues to grow exponentially.

Stephen May, Epworth Foundation
What is the best charity event model?
For events to deliver strong profits they need to be underpinned by corporate sponsorship.

By having strong support from corporate partners you are able to leverage the profitability beyond the price per head on the night. In addition, it makes a huge difference if you have a strong and influential volunteer organising committee.

This allows you to attract support and guests from beyond your organisation’s immediate network, giving you a greater chance of getting strong numbers to your event and at the same time increasing the profile of your cause with a new audience.

How do you assess what’s right for your organisation?
I think it depends on where an organisation is in the evolution of its event strategy.

If events have not been a major part of the fundraising mix and there isn’t strong event capability within the organisation then a model where you position the organisation to be the beneficiary of a corporate event or community service club event is a good place to start.

This might provide the beginnings of a larger event that can be built in partnership with the other organisation or can introduce key internal stakeholders to events as a part of the mix of activities undertaken.

However, if your organisation has a well established event strategy with a strong brand and a strong, well connected, volunteer committee then events can be run in-house and profits maximised.

The key to a successful event?
It is critical that the event supports the positioning of the charity, that it reflects its vision and values. It also needs to communicate a strong message about the cause so guests walk away connected emotionally to the charity.

Events are an important touch point for building relationships that can be leveraged after the event so guests must come away with an emotional connection to the cause that is aligned with how you want to be positioned in the market.

From a profit perspective the event needs to be underpinned by strong corporate sponsorship and it’s important that the volunteer organising committee, management and the board can attract guests who have the capacity to support the cause financially on the night.

Many of the supporters who will attend the event are likely to be invited to a lot of charity or corporate events so the event has to have something unique or special about it that leaves guests excited about the next event. It might be the venue, the theme, the entertainment, or a combination of all three.

Common mistakes?
We have all left the marketing of events to the last minute and are scrambling around trying to fill tables in the last week, but I think the biggest mistake people make is trying to run events without the expertise.

They think that as long as there is some administrative support how hard can it be? There is a big difference between running a function or meeting, and running an event that builds relationships, positively promotes the organisation and makes money.

The other mistake people make is ignoring the cost of internal staff. There is a tendency in charities to only account for the direct costs of running the event and ignore the opportunity cost of what else staff could be doing if they weren’t involved with the event.

That’s not to say that an event that makes a profit before the indirect costs but breaks even after adding all the indirect costs is not still valuable to run. All charity events deliver a number of outcomes to an organisation, one of which is revenue, and part of the planning process is to make sure we understand the full value as well as the full cost.

Most successful event you have worked on?
Last year’s Epworth Gala Ball was very successful. It raised over $250,000 in net profit for the organisation and very clearly positioned Epworth as a ‘Centre of Excellence in World Class Healthcare’.

I think the event delivered on all the key success factors – it made money, it communicated a very clear and simple message about the cause, and it built relationships with three key stakeholder groups that we have been able to leverage further for other events and fundraising activities.

Ben King, King Performance
What charity event model works best?
I’m a big believer in playing to your strengths. That is, realistically examine some of the competitive advantages your organisation possesses and then leverage to the hilt.

Is it access to a key media partner or a great relationship with a venue or caterer? Do your strengths include having a high profile personality as an ambassador, or maybe a group of volunteers willing to invest lots of time into your event? Whatever it is, use it to your benefit and remember every charity is going to be different.

For smaller based charities with limited resources I recommend investing your time in developing relationships with organisations or groups that are able to run event fundraisers for you. It’s a great way of building networks and improving your database. Rotary Clubs are a good place to start.

The key to a successful event?
An old football coach once told me that the key to success is doing the basic fundamentals well – over, and over, and over again. I use the same philosophy in planning an event. It’s important to look at the following basics and ask yourself:

  • Who – who is the target audience?
  • What – what do you need to deliver? (venues, catering, talent)
  • When – when are you going to do it?
  • Where – where is it going to be?
  • Why – why are you doing it and what are you trying to achieve?
  • How – how are you going to deliver? (resources, personnel, marketing and communications)

If you don’t have the solutions to this list then your chances for success will be limited.

Another important ingredient is ‘how much’. My philosophy in running events is pay nothing or pay a lot. Most charities prefer the first one! Therefore, keeping costs to an absolute minimum is critical.

Common mistakes?
An over reliance on charities focusing on so called ‘corporates’. I hate the word ‘corporate’. I always hear event organisers say they are targeting ‘corporates’ for securing sponsorship, selling tickets, or procuring auction items. It’s a description that is too broad and lazy.

Get to truly understand your target audience and what makes them tick. What does it take to get them emotionally connected to your cause? You’ll soon find that events only provide a ‘shop window’ to your organisation and the real work begins once you’ve got them in the door and keep them coming back for more.

The most successful event you have worked on?
The Whitelion Bail Out which has won the Fundraising Institute of Australia (VIC) Best Special Event for the past three years is by far the most successful event I’ve been involved with.

Whitelion’s mission is to build partnerships that empower vulnerable and high risk young people with the courage to grow.

Now entering into its fourth year, the Whitelion Bail Out is Whitelion’s main annual fundraising event. Bail Out fundraisers, known as inmates, are summonsed to step behind bars and into the shoes of a young person. Inmates have one cell, one phone and a target of $1,000 to Bail Out.

The reason the Bail Out has been so successful is that participants fully appreciate the very core of Whitelion’s existence as they experience what it’s like to be stripped of their freedom.

Immediately upon arrival, inmates step into the shoes of a prisoner and are taken on an interactive and unforgettable journey. From having their mug-shot taken, dressing in prisoner attire, fingerprinted, fed soup and bread, appear in court and finally doing some ‘cell time’, participants are constantly challenged as they experience the emotions of being incarcerated.

The Bail Out also works because we’ve been able to develop terrific relationships with partners that share similar values.

In short, we provide an experience to participants that Whitelion works hard to ensure that many young people don’t have to go through.

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