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What nonprofits should do about events: Err on the side of caution

Young volunteers sharing their organization goals

I fiercely want our nonprofits to raise as much money as they can, so they can continue to champion—and even ramp up—their commitment to their respective noble missions that touch, improve, and help others who are struggling. This fall, nonprofits face a quandary over what to do about the large events upon which their fundraising efforts have depended.

There is no perfect one-size-fits-all solution.

I have to admit to two major biases:

1) I’ve never been a fan of special events based on fundraising efficiency. I advise that it is much more productive to cultivate the same donors and prospects on an individual basis for major gifts.

2) My wife Andrea and I continue to be cautious about the coronavirus (COVID-19) and think the pandemic is far from over.

Quite strongly, I don’t see how nonprofits can feel comfortable about gathering 500 people inside a ballroom for a gala, luncheon, or other kind of special event. The time isn’t right yet. There’s the possibility of requiring proof that attendees are double vaccinated and wear masks, but that can introduce complexities and dampen a festive mood. And, even this isn’t fail-proof with the Delta variant. 

Another huge concern is uncertainty as conditions change drastically month-to-month and even week-to-week. Here’s the brutal reality: Too many things are out of our control. Each community needs to closely monitor its vaccination rate, hospitalizations, positivity tests, and other essential measures.

Fortunately, nonprofits have several alternatives that will engage friends, tell their stories—and raise money! Let’s consider some options and their benefits:

1. Phantom event: This is when you ask friends to support your cause without having to dress up, go to a venue, eat a “rubber chicken,” and endure a long program to glean what the nonprofit has accomplished with their gift dollars. Instead, I would email supporters a first-class video on what the organization has accomplished. It’s amazing the results you can get yourselves now from just using smart phones and laptops.

2. Virtual event: This approach enjoyed enormous success and cost-effectiveness last year as donors continued to give, and event expenses were held to a minimum. Essentially, a virtual event is when a program is delivered through video-conferencing, combining live and pre-taped components.

3. Hybrid event: This is more complicated—staging a series of smaller gatherings, connected by technology. This offers donors a safe way to interact with one another, something that many may be strongly yearning for. On the other hand, expenses go way up.

4. Outdoor event: This is a much safer way to bring larger groups together avoiding ballrooms, but the weather can be unpredictable and inclement, and tents cost a ton to rent, so expenses may run very high.

Organizations adhering to event planning guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local governments will have to decide which option best fits their fundraising, public relations, and stakeholder engagement goals.

Here’s my two cents: You’re not going to be criticized by your donors for erring on the side of caution and emphasizing public health and safety as your highest priority. The nonprofit sector should more than mirror society but show leadership in embracing best practices. Last year, we learned that people are more than willing to support hybrid, virtual, and phantom events, so their generosity can continue to advance their philanthropic vision and priorities, while protecting themselves and others from the pandemic.


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