14 ways to make fundraising events more community-centric

Written by Vu Le

Hey everyone, before we begin, here’s a cute and short video about foundations and their investments, which is a topic I’ll likely rant about later (after “Ask Vu: Love, Dating, Romance, and Relationship Advice for Nonprofit Professionals, Part 2,” which tens of people have been asking for. Here’s part 1).

I usually don’t write much about fundraising events. There’s been a general agreement that auctions, luncheons, golf tournaments, and their ilk are soul-crushingly awful and would make good deterrents for crimes: “You have been found guilty of armed robbery. I sentence you to be the event planner of four consecutive fundraising galas!”

As our colleague Paul Nazareth commented on Twitter: “The dislike I have for what was just weak fundraising strategy of charity galas; the garish glee of dress up, worshipping of wealth and culture of white supremacy, is evolving into disgust.”  

I am not on the hate-all-events bandwagon. Marginalized-communities-led groups often rely on them for a significant part of their revenues, and when done well, they can do a lot to bring people together and build community. Here, in no particular order, are a few ways we can make these events more aligned with equity and with principles of Community-Centric Fundraising:

Reconsider your ticket prices: Some galas are $100 or $150 or more per ticket, plus the expectation that you donate on top of that. This leaves out a vast majority of people. Comp tickets are nice, but they often make people feel like they snuck into some place they don’t really belong. Think about lowering your ticket prices.

Mix up your seating arrangement: Good seats are usually reserved for major donors and sponsors, with the top tiers going towards those who contributed the most financially. This just reinforces the message that the more money you have, the more special and important you are. That’s silly. Mix up your attendees. Seat clients at the front. Or randomize it.

Treat volunteers thoughtfully: While donors of money are worshipped, donors of time are treated like an afterthought. “After you finish setting up all the centerpieces, feel free to scavenge through the dumpster for your dinner, since we reserve the gourmet food for guests.” OK, I exaggerate a bit, and volunteer food (usually pizza) is not bad. But if we’re going to be community-centered, then volunteers are an essential part of the community, and should be treated accordingly.

Make the event accessible: Ensure spaces can accommodate guests and speakers who use wheelchairs. Make the event hybrid. Have captions and ASL interpreters. Ensure all your videos have captions and images have alt text. Have every speaker use the microphone. I was at an event when a speaker decided to skip the microphone; I was at a table near the stage and could only catch half of what she said.

Welcome kids: Children are an important part of our community, but from the looks of most fundraising events, kids might as well be nonexistent. This is weird, considering so many events are about making the world better for future generations. If we mean to do that, then let’s make more fundraising events children-inclusive. Have activities geared toward kids. Invite kid poets and artists to perform. Hire professional childcare providers.

Nix the VIP pre-event: This is once again another way of reinforcing the idea that people with more money are more special and therefore deserve upgraded experiences. If you’re going to have a pre-event, think about making it community-centric. For example, have an opportunity for donors, volunteers, clients, and staff to mingle and get to know one another and learn about the programs.

Lighten up on the dress code: The more formal the dress code is, the more exclusive it is. Many people can’t afford the fancy clothes, but even if they could, it doesn’t mean they would feel comfortable at events where everyone is dressed that way. I mean, just because I have a monocle and a diamond-tipped cane, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like a fraud at your fancy ball.

Highlight partner organizations: Chances are, your org relies on other nonprofit organizations’ work, since all missions are interrelated. Your event provides a great way to publicly acknowledge these partners and bring attention to their missions. The community will only benefit from nonprofits being generous with one another.

Skip the tiered sponsorship levels: Yet one more way we perpetuate the idea that people and corporations should be treated based on how much they contribute financially. The sponsors at the “higher” levels get more marketing, better seats, more recognition, etc. Let’s move away from this. Here’s a great article on this topic from our colleague Phuong Pham.  

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.