Non-profit fundraising changing with the times

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 108 views 

The pictures of bright lights, beautifully dressed people and well-prepared food show only one aspect of the countless fundraisers that are held in Northwest Arkansas every year.

What the pictures don’t show, what they can’t show are the countless lives changed by the money raised during those fundraisers. They also don’t show the many hours of planning that goes into making sure each event or other fundraising endeavor is something people want to attend.

Non-profit organizations continuously evaluate their fundraising efforts to make sure they are connecting with donors and being the most effective. Sometimes this means tweaking an event that is already well attended. Other times it means not holding an event so that the focus can remain on a few key fundraising events.

All of that planning and strategy is focused on making sure the non-profits’ mission is kept alive.

Teresa Mills, executive director of the Peace At Home Family Shelter, said that the shelter has made some recent changes to its fundraising strategy.

For the last five years, the organization hosted an event called Top Chefs and Rock Stars that was a night of live music, a culinary competition and live auction. They decided to not do the event this year and instead they hosted Dine Out for Peace, which encouraged people to patronize participating restaurants who then gave a percentage of their sales from that day to the organization.

“It was an enjoyable event and I think we will do it again,” Mills said of the Rock Stars event. “I think we all got a little fatigue and wanted to try something a little different and if it is as effective.”

Jennifer Maynard, executive director for Life Styles Inc., said that the organization has made changes to its fundraisers, but that the major fundraiser Polo in the Ozarks has been a mainstay in Northwest Arkansas for two decades.

“It’s such a unique event,” she said. “We had another event A Chair Affair but it ran its course. We decided to focus on (the Polo event).”

Trying to have two major events sometimes can split potential sponsorships because sponsors often choose which event they want to participate in for cash donations and in-kind donations. That increases the challenges of making both events an effective success.

Event coordinators also have to consider rising costs from vendors to determine if new vendors must be used for events to keep costs down, Maynard said.

Having a well-established event has proven successful for the organization. Even Mother Nature seems to agree.

“We have never had to cancel in 23 years,” Maynard said. “It does not rain on Polo.”

The event’s uniqueness, including the fact that it’s polo and that it’s also a kid-friendly event, is part of what helps make it so successful for so long, she agreed.

It’s not just sponsors who have to choose between the many events held in Northwest Arkansas every year. It’s donors, as well. Arkansas has the highest number of non-profits per capita, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals International, and many of those non-profits have some kind of fundraiser. That’s a lot of events.

Meredith Brunen, executive director of development for the NorthWest Arkansas Community College Foundation said that there are many established fundraisers in the region that have dedicated audiences but attendees have many other choices to examine for newer events.

“Because there are so many events, patrons are having to choose what they do,” she said. “Most (non-profits) do one major event.”

Sometimes making tweaks to the already established event is necessary to keep it fresh, she added. For example, the Foundation’s annual Scholarship Gala now has a theme and is now known as the Plant A Seed Gala. It references how the gala helps plant seeds of growth and education in students’ lives.

“There are so many brands that establishing a brand is important,” she said.

Linda Phillips, director of development for the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, said that the organization has several fundraisers that are coordinated by the shelter itself, but it also benefits from fundraisers that are coordinated by third parties.

The Shelter’s signature event is the Starlight Gala, which has tripled in attendance since starting more than a decade ago.

Event coordinators have increased the invitation list and strengthened the entertainment to include more high-profile names to increase participation, she said.

“We’re increasing the value proposition,” she said.

The shelter has two other signature events with the golf tournament and a tailgating fundraiser, both which continue to be successful. Part of that ongoing success has been because the events have been kept fresh including venue changes and scheduling changes.

The Kendrick Fincher Memorial Foundation has a well-established fun run that has been around for 15 years. Three years ago, the organization decided to build on its original event by adding the 5K.

“It’s always good to build around what you’re already doing,” said Rhonda Fincher, executive director. “It made sense to add to the Fun Run.”

The overall event has evolved in other ways to include more opportunities for adults to participate. The family components still exist, but now there is an evening gala designed for the grownups only.

The Foundation also continues to have its Beat the Heat Luncheon, which is more mission-focused but does bring in some financial assistance from ticket sales. Fincher said volunteer input has been a driving force behind changes that happen, including in fundraising. For example, it was a sponsor who suggested having the evening gala, she said.

Many non-profit leaders agree that time and technology enhancements mean changes to their fundraising methods, not just in events. In general, many non-profits are trying to diversify how donors can become involved, Phillips said.

For example, donors can give money, time, goods or services. The increase in the type of fundraisers also speaks to attempts to reach a diverse audience.

Brunen said that people are becoming more technology driven so having online access has become even more vital for organizations. Having the ability to donate via text message used to be a new-fangled idea now it’s almost the norm. Websites for non-profits also usually include ways of donating online, she said.