A handful of the nonprofit galas I work have a dramatically diverse mix of guests.
The crowd is comprised of three distinct groups:
- non-paying clients
- non-paying (or reduced-ticket-price) employees of the non-profit
- paying guests
Although I can appreciate why a handful of non-paying/free guests might be allowed to attend (e.g. a reward to an employee, or asking someone to speak), a few of the nonprofit auctions I’ve worked have seen the majority of the attendees — the majority! — be non-paying or reduced-paying guests.
Here are three reasons that inviting clients to your nonprofit auction might be a bad idea.
1. What is the purpose of your fundraiser?
When an event manager is given an assignment to plan any event, the first question they are taught to ask is, “Why are you having this event?” In other words: “What is the purpose of this auction … party … celebration … shindig?”
This concept was pounded into us students during my first class in event management at George Washington University. It’s a critical point because the answer to the question sets the tone for the entire event.
So what happens when you have non-paying clients, non-paying (or reduced-fee) employees, and paying guests?
It confuses the focus. The “why” becomes unclear because the event is attempting to fulfill three different roles: client appreciation dinner, organizational picnic, and fundraiser.
Which is it?
The event can’t successfully be all things to all people. Pick one goal and build the event to meet that goal.
2. The “wrong” people are offered an incentive to attend.
If the goal is to raise money for your cause, a free ticket structure works against your ability to raise money.
By not charging employees and clients to attend, the organization is offering those two groups of people an incentive to attend, yet these two groups will help the mission of fundraising the least.
If anything — and I don’t advise this — a “free ticket” incentive would be given to those who can afford to donate to the mission.
Clients and employees rarely have the deep pockets needed to help an organization raise significant money. Hypothetically, if anyone was offered free tickets, it would make sense to offer them to business people, thereby encouraging them to attend and support your cause.
3. Unscripted client interaction could prove risky
When you plan a dinner party at your home, you probably put some thought into who you’re inviting. “I’ll introduce my neighbors Joe and Julie to my friends Rob and Carol,” you might think, “They’ll get along great!”
Because you want your neighbors and friends to have a positive experience, you wouldn’t introduce Joe and Julie to your mean-spirited aunt and uncle … or your downtrodden and depressing friend Delores. In fact, you likely wouldn’t even invite your aunt, uncle, and Delores to the party because the aren’t a fit for the evening’s plans.
You recognize that the success of your dinner party — like the success of your nonprofit auction — depends in part on the personalities of the guests.
At many fundraising auctions, guests see the event as a way to network with other people like themselves. A widely disparate audience makes networking more challenging and likely decreases donations.
Consider this hypothetical situation:
If you operate a soup kitchen, and John Smith wants to interact with your clients, John will likely volunteer in the soup kitchen when you offer opportunities to do so. He’s willing to serve your charity in that way.
But if you’re throwing an elegant nonprofit auction with a $100 ticket price, John might not expect to bump into the same people he served in the soup kitchen. It might not upset him (because he volunteers in your soup kitchen anyway), but it might be a jolt to John’s invited guest, Tim.
Tim has heard a lot about your charity from John. But Tim is not the kind of guy who would volunteer in your soup kitchen. John and Tim could both be great supporters of your mission, but — like all of us — they are drawn to different activities.
All guests will certainly enjoy hearing a well-constructed testimonial from a client at an appropriate time in the evening. But if a guest interacts with a client who doesn’t give a well-constructed testimonial, who hasn’t been coached, or who hasn’t yet reached their potential from using your nonprofit’s services, the interaction could leave a less-than-glowing impression of your event to a potential donor.
Remember: Plan your gala with your end goal in mind. If your clients have the means to contribute money at your charity event (because your mission afflicts rich and poor alike), bring them in! If not, reconsider.