Lessons from a benefit dinner

I was nervous planning my first benefit dinner for our nonprofit organization. I’ve planned a few events before (family parties and a wedding, exhibit tables and trade shows), but never something that was supposed to raise money. I felt a lot of pressure to make the event memorable and successful.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to start from scratch. I could follow the event plan from previous events, with a few updates. The event taught me a lot about fundraising, planning, and expectations.

Here are five things I’ve learned from planning a benefit dinner:

Start planning earlier than you think you need to. The biggest thing I learned is that there is never as much time as you think. If you’re hosting a benefit dinner, you need to start “selling” tables, finding a Master of Ceremonies, and booking entertainment six to eight months in advance. We waited too long – not because we were over-confident, but because we had so much to do and limited staff. By that time, any organizations and groups already had plans, or could not make a commitment in such a short time.

“No” is not personal. At first, I was uncomfortable asking for silent auction donations. I had to constantly remind myself that I wasn’t asking for me, I was asking for my nonprofit. It was hard to learn that “no” (or no response at all) isn’t personal. I won’t lie – it was never easy, but it got easier to make the ask.

Make a connection between donors and beneficiaries. I was really anxious about making a short speech, and I spent a huge amount of time writing and re-writing it. I knew that I didn’t want the speech to be about me or the organization. I wanted to focus not on our organization’s achievements, but on how our donors and supporters make our work possible.

You can’t thank people enough. It was really important to thank people for supporting us. We thanked donors and sponsors in the welcome speech and in the dinner program. We also took some time to do a thank you video. We asked each of our staff to say a few words, and put it together in a short video. It was a nice way for staff members to remember why we were there that night. And after most people went home, I surprised our staff and volunteers with a small handmade gift to show my appreciation.

Expect that not everything will go as expected. Event planners follow checklists, make schedules, and plan for contingencies. But at some point, you have to expect that not everything will go as expected. And that’s okay. For example, our silent auction was successful – everyone paid, everyone went home with the right items, and no one was angry. Only I knew that it didn’t go as smoothly as I planned.

At the end of the night, we cleaned up, packed up, and headed home. I knew that I couldn’t rest yet – small nonprofits can’t take breaks – but I was thankful that we came together as a team, pleased our guests, and made a positive impact on our beneficiaries.

Have you attended a benefit dinner or gala event? What are the most memorable and enjoyable fundraisers you attended? What do you wish more fundraising events would do?

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