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Ted Wilson | The Kibitzer | December 2006

Special Event Fundraising

About Our Columnist

Ted Wilson has over 30 years' experience in marketing, fundraising, fiscal management, strategic planning and event planning in business, public and non-profit settings. On the theatrical side, he has spent over 35 years as an actor, director, writer, teacher, juggler, and mask-maker in educational, community, and professional settings. His firm, Concept To Execution, combines this diverse experience with his degrees in psychology and theater to offer specialized consulting services for community theaters and other community arts organizations, as well as creativity workshops, planning and marketing services for businesses and corporations.

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Not long ago I heard from an old theatre friend of mine who reminded me of a great show he put together.  Some of you may already know Greer Firestone, in which case, you will promptly dismiss this suggestion (just kidding, Greer!).  Greer put together a really terrific review a few years back: Gershwin, By George:  The 1936 Radio Show.  You can find info on it at his website:

Greer’s shows have been so successful that I thought they would make good fundraising events for almost any community theatre that has the capability to do musicals.  And that got me thinking about special event fundraising in a community theatre setting, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

Delusions of Grandeur

One of the biggest mistakes many community theatre volunteers make is thinking too big.  I know, I know:  If you think big, it will be big, if you think small, it will be small.  But big isn’t always better.  I’ve been involved with “gala” celebrations at two community theatres and neither realized their potential.  I believe the delusional thinking of both events was pricing.  It was only after the fact that “old timers” at the theatres offered an important historical perspective:  “Whenever we try to charge more than $20 or $25 for anything, our audience just won’t come out.”  Well, that was really critical information that we needed to have BEFORE the event and early in the planning stages.  “Oh, I just thought maybe things had changed…” A note to a theatre’s up and coming leadership:  Seek out info from and listen to the old timers.  There’s wisdom in their warnings, whining, and kibitzing. 

Another mistake may also be thematic.  What I mean by that is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – leave that to your prop department, they make that magic for every show.  Community theatre tends not to be a formal atmosphere.  The social events that are usually the most fun are those that are the most casual.  Community theatre is where you can let your hair down everywhere in the place – except on stage, as necessary.  Yet, fundraising and special “gala” committees sometimes try to force high-priced, formal celebrations that just don’t fit with these characteristics. 

It’s not just a matter of knowing and understanding who you are as an organization, but also accepting who you are as an organization.  If as a community theatre you have a successful track record of involvement and participation (financial and otherwise) of your community’s moving and shaking upper crust, then by all means, go for the big bucks. Otherwise, take off the rose-colored glasses and get real. 

Lack of Follow-Through

Another problem I have seen so often in innumerable non-profit organizations -- not just community theatres -- is a lack of follow-through by critical volunteers.  I don’t have a number, but trust me when I tell you that you have to have A LOT of people involved with the planning and execution of any special event.  If you don’t, then lower your expectations, minimize your costs, narrow your focus, or even forget about it.  Inevitably, it seems, someone in a leadership position is going to take his/her eye off the ball because life gets in the way.  When it comes to something really important and it involves volunteer leadership, you need back-ups for back-ups -- and an extra back-up, just in case. 

Here’s the deal:  Only the most ardent and trustworthy volunteers should be heading up a special event.  Someone unproven (who might be just great, but this is one place where you need to earn your stripes ahead of time), or whose heart is in the right place but is known to be unreliable, should never be given the reigns for a really important event.  Too often, volunteer organizations get so desperate for volunteer involvement that they take the warm body approach to leadership ("Does s/he have a pulse? Great!  Let’s put him/her on the board!").  Like every rule, there may be exceptions to the picture I’m painting, so decide how much you want to risk on the expectation that you have an exception to the rule.  Fundraising is hard enough; why go against the odds?  But if you do, hedge your bets with one or more volunteer assistants to the leader you’re taking the flyer on.

The Right Event

At the moment, there are 828,322 different fundraising event ideas with more on the way.  Every single one of them has been a great success for at least one organization somewhere in the universe.  Here’s the truth about event selection:  it doesn’t matter what you pick as long as it feels right.  How do you know if it feels right?  Look for these clues:  just about everyone that hears about it nods their head in cosmic consensus, the organizers do everything they can to ensure success, and no less than 70 % of everyone that’s a part of the organization is jumping on the bandwagon.  (I’m going to take a small, but related tangent here to make a point about the infamous naked calendar fundraisers.  A couple of organizations did very well with this concept, but does that mean it will be a hit for everyone?  Maybe, but I think it would be a stretch as a Little Sisters of the Poor fundraising idea.)

Be Patient

 “We tried Event # 6,741 one year and it did okay, but it didn’t make nearly as much money as the organization we stole the idea from gets from it every year.  So we dropped it and tried Event # 6,742, which was a complete disaster, then Event # 6,743, but no one helped so it flopped, and now we don’t know what to do – nothing works!”  Inevitably, the organization that invented Event # 6,741 did so on the eighth day of creation and has been successful with it ever since.  It’s become a tradition.  Everyone knows when the event is going to happen and they’ll be there next year and the year after and the year after that.  Kids will grow up attending the event.  And so will their kids.  And so on. 

When stealing good ideas, consider the possibility that the idea may have taken some time to take hold and become successful.  With that in mind, in addition to making a commitment to making it as successful as possible this year, include in your planning a commitment to trying to make it as successful as possible every year for the next three years – or five years.   Don’t try to hit a home run the first time up to bat.  Just try to meet the ball.  Try strategically building the event, even if that means the first year objective is to just break even.  If your budget is so tight that you have decided that you need a “must win” event, then you may want to take an alternate approach (First off, you need to take a look at what you’re doing as an organization to be in a situation that you need a home run to stay viable; check out my bonus comments on crisis fundraising).  You may be better off with considering a lot of little, low-risk, low-cost events instead of the big-risk MEGAEVENT. 

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