Why Tournaments & “-a-thons” Are Hurting Partner Development

More and more ministries are joining the tournament/”-a-thon” craze that, like most events, require ridiculous amounts of time and attention in executing while resulting in proportionally smaller returns on the investment. It’s not just that I hate events, and I do despise event fundraising, it’s the fact that ministries engage in them for all the wrong reasons.

Golf-scrambles/-a-thons, bowl-a-thons, walk-a-thons, jump rope-a-thons, bike-a-thons, read-a-thons, skate-a-thons, dance-a-thons, swim-a-thons, and yes, even work-a-thons are all failing miserably to achieve what the tournament/a-thon companies, that keep 40% or more of what donor’s give (which just so happens to violate basic ethics in fundraising) tout as possible benefits of an organization’s fundraising efforts.

The problem is that most ministries use these events as “the medium” for fundraising rather than “a tool” to help bolster it.

I fully acknowledge that these kinds of events are a great way to involve and connect with current ministry partners as well as a donor acquisition tool with an opportunity gain exposure to people who have never heard of the ministry.  Great stuff, for sure. But if that’s where it starts and ends then don’t be surprised if every year these efforts get more taxing on staff & volunteers and the amount of money raised takes a downward spiral.

Events like these are truly all about the money while the mission of the ministry almost always comes secondary. This is where I ask Boards and ministry leaders to tell me again why they are in ministry and convince themselves that these events aren’t all about money?

Inspiritous conducted a survey of 12,700 financial partners to Christ-centered ministries in the US, where more than 54% had participated or sponsored some kind of tournament or a-thon. Here’s what we found:

  • 79% had never been asked to give directly to the ministry hosting the event;
    • among sponsors who were asked to give directly to the ministry sometime after sponsoring, 27% did;
  • 96% had assumed that the company hired to run the event was paid a flat fee and not a percentage of the money raised;
    • 100% of those said that they would not be okay with the company taking a percentage of the money raised;
  • Just 4% said that the ministry followed up with them in a meaningful way that prompted a direct contribution to the ministry.

I don’t’ know when it was that ministries-en-mass bought the lie that enticing people to give through methods that have nothing whatsoever to do with the organizational mission is a great way to enhance partner development.  Ministries wanting to make a real difference in engaging their financial partners should consider instead investing time into those who have demonstrated their love for the mission through giving of their time, talent and/or treasure. Invite them to experience or observe the ministry in action and use their circles of influence to bring in new partners that are there for the right reason.

Giving Tuesday Proving Best Donor Acquisition Tool

While Giving Tuesday has proven to be the best donor acquisition tool for younger donors, ministries are finding that it’s the best tool period, and this year’s event, which is November 27, will be no exception.

Along with the shift in the way people think about their giving, they also view non-profits differently, which is why traditional approaches to donor acquisition have become ineffective.

This is especially the case for direct mail prospecting, which now generates returns of about 0.65%, compared to twenty years ago when the standard was 4% to 6%. The monumental climb in the success of broadcast email solicitation has plummeted almost as fast as it started, which has actually backfired on many organizations that invested big in the trend due to the negative attitudes about spam.  Just because a donor supports one ministry does not mean that they will support another one like it, not to mention the nefarious methods used to acquire email addresses.

Hopefully, no ministry has been stupid enough (yes, I think Jesus would call this “stupid) to join in on the bandwagon of robocalls that target cell phones.

Trying to acquire donors by relentlessly mailing or emailing people with no known connection to the ministry is more than impersonal but passe’ and lacking any real influence.

Giving Tuesday is a much better donor acquisition strategy for these reasons:

1. It is new. Yes, Giving Tuesday is now five years old, but it is still on the upside of the bell curve as more not-for-profits across the country jump on board;

2. It happens across all giving and communications platforms – online, mail, text, social media, even phone in some cases – a diverse execution strategy which can only be called logical in 2018;

3. It attracts young donors, a demographic largely overlooked by more traditional fundraising programs which are slow to accommodate younger donors’ preferred communications methods;

4. It runs on a concentrated timeline – one day – making it easy for the media to get behind it with promotion, sponsorship, and personalities. Whether on purpose or by accident, Giving Tuesday emulates one of the most important design features of the best Capital Campaigns – raising a lot of money in as little time as possible.

Ministries should utilize Giving Tuesday to encourage current financial partners to help promote your ministry to their family and friends, which helps those that have been faithful to the ministry feel part of the strategy and not hit upon to engage in what some see as a gimmick.


A Couple of Ways to Raise More Money at an Event

Your ministry is holding a fundraising event.  It takes time.  It costs money.  You need to raise as much as you can to support your organization’s mission.  What’s a ministry to do?

Focus on the 20% that matters.

We’ve all heard of the 80/20 principle – the idea that 20% of your efforts result in 80% of your successes, and vice-versa.  This rule holds up for fundraising, and for fundraising events.  If you want to raise more at your next event, you need to focus on the 20% of your event fundraising tactics that will result in 80% of your revenues.  Today, I want to talk a little about the simplest of all strategies: focusing your time and energy on what matters most for your event.

Event Focus #1: Sponsorships

When your organization is planning its revenue streams for your fundraising events, where do you focus most of your energy?  If you are spending most of your time trying to figure out how to sell more tickets or how to find more silent auction items, you’re missing the largest prospective source of revenue for your event: sponsorships.

Smart ministrys raise 60-80% of their event revenue from sponsorships, and fill-in the rest with ticket sales and add-ons, like auctions and raffles.  Sponsors provide more bang for your buck, and more possibilities for your limited fundraising time.

I’d rather find one $10,000 sponsor and have to give away 100 $50 tickets to fill the room than sell those tickets at the expense of finding sponsors.  Start your efforts to find sponsors as early as possible, and worry about filling the room after all of your sponsorships have been sold.

Event Committee

Your event committee (sometimes called your “host committee”) is a prime example of the 80-20 rule.

Every host committee I have ever been involved with has resulted in 20% of the committee  raising 80% of the money for the committee as a whole.  If you have 20 people on your committee, chances are that around 4-5 of the members are the ones who are really driving the fundraising by selling sponsorships and tickets.

If you are running the same event year in, year out, capitalize on this fact by constantly (but subtly) dropping the lowest-producing 10% from your committee (perhaps by putting them on a “volunteer committee” that doesn’t do much of anything but also doesn’t take up much time for your staff) and constantly adding top new prospects to the event committee.

Do this year after year, and before you know it, you’ll have a committee full of doers, and be raising far more for your event than you previously thought possible.

Create Events That Raise More Money

I’m not a big fan of large events that are intended to raise money. That’s because they are often costly, time-consuming, and over time become stale for all involved.  More importantly, the financial return is often far less than all that investment of staff time and ministry money. If your staff dreads your “big event” or is exhausted from the number of events, then something’s got to change and if an event is an absolute necessity, then here are some tips to help make it pay off.

Count the Cost and Be Honest:

  1. It has the potential to attract a different demographic from your typical financial supporters, like younger prospective givers.
  2. It does not add yet another obligation to partners who already give to you in multiple ways, avoiding the risk of over-solicitation, which can make them stop giving entirely.
  3. It does not run the risk of “downgrading” gifts from your current large-dollar contributors. For example, if a donor attends your event for a ticket price of $100 and gives another $1,000 at the event, will they say they’ve already given when you approach them later in the year for a $10,000 gift, which prospect research tells you they are capable of giving?
  4. It genuinely affords volunteers an opportunity to be involved in a rewarding fundraising experience. By rewarding, I mean that it helps galvanize their love for one another and builds their confidence which, in turn, makes them willing to get involved in more demanding ways, like opening doors with new prospective financial partners.
  5. The event has the potential for long-term sustainability. No event remains popular forever, but an event done once and never again is a waste of time, resources and volunteer goodwill.
  6. The event is not weather-dependent or extraordinarily high risk in some other way. If it is weather-dependent, there is a Plan B that can be quickly moved into place.
  7. The not-for-profit is not dependent upon the profit from this event the first time it is run. This requires a very strategic Board to take this into account. Usually, the reason why an untried event is on the table for discussion is that there is an anticipated shortfall. A first-time event should have a budget and the Board should be willing to lose money in order to test the concept for its appeal and future ability to earn ever-increasing NET revenue.

Give people a reason to come back to your fundraising event!  I’ve found that executive directors can become too caught up in the plea for help and forget to think about growing their fundraisers each year.  Here are a few “keys to growth” that should be a part of all of your fundraising events:

  • Make it enjoyable – Anyone who takes a few hours out of their evening to learn about your ministry had better find it enjoyable.  A boring speaker or a never-ending “hard sell” all night long is a great way to lose attendance the following year. What’s more, who would want to invite their friends to that again?
  • Food Better be Good – I understand why struggling ministries want to cut corners on food cost.  Hosting a dinner in the church fellowship hall and letting your volunteers serve spaghetti is a great way to raise money for the youth mission trip.  But if the food is bad, no one (except relatives) will want to come back next year.  However, when you get the hotel or country club ballroom donated and the food is exceptional, you will see growth.  And yes, I know that paying $25-$35 per head for food cuts into the bottom line.  But from my experience, you’ll see growth in attendance and giving over the years if you go the nicer route.  Besides, your wealthiest donors expect to eat well when they attend an event.  So make sure they do.
  • Build a Great Reputation – I think fundraisers should be one of the best experience an attendee has all year.  Which means you need some element that gets everyone talking about it.  Be known for the surprise guest, the celebrity appearance, the hilarious monologue, the great hands-on activity, the best parting gifts, the fun photo opp, etc.
  • Avoid Guilt – Guilt only motivates people to give one time.  They feel trapped and pressured to give, so they cut a check.  However, after a person gives from guilt, they run away.  They don’t want to be reminded of that feeling so they won’t return to your fundraiser or greet you on the street.  Instead of guilt, allow the power of the opportunity to pave the way for long-term giving.  I’d rather have a donor who gives $35 per month for life than one who throws me $100 one time out of guilt.
  • Follow Up – Everyone wants to feel appreciated.  Take time to have someone call or connect in some way with everyone who attended your fundraiser.  Everyone should get a note / thank you and everyone should get at least a call.  Otherwise, the next time they hear from you, you’re asking them to do you another favor.  And that’s not cool.