Making Data-Driven Event Decisions

Event season is almost upon us, but it’s not too late to set measurable goals to maximize your events. It’s also a great time to take a step back and determine if you should repeat this event again next year.

This month’s Chronicle of Philanthropy has a great article on Killing Sacred Cows, letting go of those time-honored strategies that might not be the most effective. One of the most prevalent examples of this is special events.

This isn’t a new topic. You’ve probably read many articles about event return on investment. But, have you taken the step of collecting data and doing an honest assessment of your events? Of course, this assessment is dependent upon knowing what our event goals are in the first place.

So what are your event goals?

Many people would answer this question with the dollar amount listed in their budget. However, there are several potential outcomes, such as identifying new prospects or generating publicity. And, while raising money might be the primary goal, these secondary outcomes are often the reasons given as justification for holding on to an event that might not be seeing an adequate financial return.

It’s completely legitimate for an evenevent decisionst to have goals beyond raising money, but they have to be deliberate objectives, not rationalizations. So, how do we make sure that we’re setting intentional, strategic goals, measuring achievement of these goals, and ultimately, using that data to make decisions about an event’s efficacy?

  • Raising Funds: If raising money is your primary goal, then you should be netting no less than 70%, including staff costs. If raising funds is not your primary goal, then you might be able to justify a higher cost per dollar raised, but this should be for legitimate, measurable goals and not arbitrary excuses.
  • Non-Revenue Development Goals: Events can play a critical role in building a prospect pool, engaging potential donors and stewarding existing donors. In fact, you may have several events that are intended solely for this purpose. In these cases your return in investment should be measured against the annual and lifetime giving of the donors engaged in these events. But, they should be real numbers, not assumptions about how the events are influencing donor engagement.  If events are a key strategy in your donor development program then you should have measurable new prospect goals – how many do you hope to attract to this event, for how many did you capture contact information? And, if you’re using events for donor cultivation, are you implementing strategic initiatives or “moves” at the event? And, did you secure a “yes” to a next step from at least 80% of those engaged?
  • Marketing and Public Relations: Beware, this one is a slippery slope. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy article pointed out, many organizations use the idea that an event generates publicity and builds awareness as a reason to maintain it. In some cases, this is true, but many events fail to generate the kind of publicity or awareness they are looking for to see long-term results. If marketing is truly a goal of your event then you have to measure it – how many media impressions did you receive, how many new attendees were exposed to your message, etc. And, to make this goal meaningful, you must have a plan for following up to further engage and enroll potential donors.  Identify your “think, feel and do” messages and make sure you deliver them in a mission-infused way. What do you want your participants to think about your organization because of this event? How will the program and activities during the event achieve this? How do you want them to feel and, most importantly, what do you them to do after the event. A good event should be part of a continuum of activity, not an end unto itself.
  • Attendance Goals: For too many of our events, we only measure attendance in quantity – last year 300 people attended and this year 350 attended. But what about quality – did the right people, the people you most wanted, attend? And, if your event is annual, are you looking at retention and what that number tells you about the event’s effectiveness in long-term donor strategy? And, don’t forget board participation. Your goal is to get them there AND get them working the room on your behalf – delivering messages, asking questions, helping you meet new people and securing follow-up visits.
  • Programmatic, Volunteer Recruitment: As with the previous examples, this is a completely legitimate goal for your event, as long as you’re measuring the event’s ability to achieve it. Anecdotes about meeting a guy at that event awhile back that ended up becoming a volunteer don’t count. Track the number of inquiries you receive from your event and the number that ultimately become involved in your program. If you can’t justify the costs of the event based on the number of volunteers you’re recruiting, then you might have to let it go.
  • Stewardship: An event isn’t worth doing if you don’t have a measurable follow-up plan. Do 100% of attendees receive a thank you note within 72 hours of the event? Do 100% receive a stewardship touch three to six months after the event? Make sure your plan includes special impact communications to top event donors, volunteer fundraisers, and hosts. And, don’t forget to follow-up with those whom you invited and wanted to attend but couldn’t.

True assessment requires brutal honesty. Data helps with that. It’s hard to argue with hard numbers. But, as we all know, it can be easy to put a spin on numbers that allow us to rationalize keeping an event that we know isn’t giving us the results we need. By setting measurable goals, we limit the ability to give anecdotal justification and are able to objectively analyze events and make data-driven decisions that can best benefit the organization.

For more information on making data-driven decisions, check out this webinar.