Can Special Events and Major Gifts Sucessfully Coexist?

Nearly all development managers have experienced that gut wrenching moment when a special event threatens to engulf and overwhelm their entire fundraising program. This moment usually comes a few weeks before the event date. Minor, to perhaps major, crises seem to be popping up everywhere in the office and the Director is hard pressed to keep everyone on track.

Typically, everyone pulls out all the stops, the crisis passes and eventually the event comes off, hopefully with few hitches. The question is: at what cost?

True, events may make new money and new friends for the institution, But did the event have to disrupt the normal flow of activity and did it take key major gift solicitors and staff off target for the weeks before the gala, bike-a-thon, marathon or other activity? Many donors and volunteers LOVE events and advocate for them. They are usually fun-filled activities and are often high visibility and rewarding. But they are also expensive and can be disruptive to the institution’s primary, high return fundraising focus:  major gifts.

The highest priority of every development program should be the organization and implementation of a strong MAJOR GIFTS program.

So, what can be done to ensure the important success of the major gifts program while still participating in a selective number of strategic events?


·   The Strategic Plan of the organization must set reasonable dollar goals and staffing plans for all segments of the program, both for the annual cycle and the longer 3 to 5 year plan, including major gift pipeline development.  Realistic and detailed budgets must be set for EACH event and followed by staff and volunteer organizers.

·   The ROI on special events, when viewed strictly from a fund development perspective, can be quite low.  When evaluating the value of a special event, managers and the CEO must consider the opportunity cost as well as the opportunity for engaging major donors at the right level.

·   Guidelines that establish strict policies for the acceptance (or rejection) of every event must be in place. 

·   Staffing must be appropriate and in place to handle the events accepted by leadership.  Managers must consider the size and deployment of staff as well as the willingness of volunteers to participate and the staff requirements to manage volunteers.

·   The use of event consultants should be carefully vetted by senior leadership and utilized only as appropriate.  If the anticipated ROI warrants event consultants, they may well be worth the investment in order to allow major gift officers to keep their focus where it needs to be.

·   All staff must know and stick to their appropriate role in each event. The development leader must prevent non-event staff from drifting into unapproved event work, a common problem resulting from non- event staff willingness, however laudatory, to help their colleagues.

·   Volunteer management is time consuming and critical to successful event fundraising. It is important that lead volunteers understand the overall development strategy for each special event. They should be encouraged to avoid giving strategic orders to event staff without discussing with senior staff leadership first.

·   The solicitation of key event prospects who are also major gifts prospects and/or donors should be carefully coordinated and approved by senior staff to maximize overall giving by the individual, corporation or foundation involved.

·   Events can be great ways, if properly deployed, to engage, steward and cultivate major donors and prospects.  We advocate for a major gift strategy meeting with the event staff before and after every event to properly vet major donor involvement, cultivation and subsequent follow up. Work together!

·   Follow up is pivotal to making sure the full value of an event is achieved. Once the event is over, staff should follow up with great major gift prospects who attended.  We also recommend circling back three months post event to evaluate its success, and its future.


Events can be a terrific way to increase visibility, funding and pride for an institution.  With sufficient guidelines, focus, staffing and volunteer engagement in place and accepted by all, your institution can participate in these enjoyable activities while growing your critically important major gifts program.