Early in my career, I volunteered for a nonprofit organization that was trying to raise money to meet its daily obligations. When I joined, one of my first recommendations was to form a development committee to address organizational fundraising. It generally helps to solicit the input of the brightest minds around, whose singular mission is to help the nonprofit. These folks will usually participate in various ways to assist the organization’s development efforts.
Along came “How About Harry.” Harry was the volunteer whose help you do not want on a serious and focused committee. Harry usually came up with harebrained schemes that would fall flat on their face. However, Harry was a long-standing board member, affluent and influential when it came to persuading others to go along with his ill-conceived ideas. Get me the smelling salts now!
Harry’s contribution to meetings went something like this: “How about we have a carwash fundraiser?” This during the fiercest snow storm periods in recent history. Yes, what a great idea to mobilize volunteers to stand in the parking lot in sub-zero temperatures to wash cars in the freezing cold and have cars get dirty as soon as they pulled out of the lot. I kid you not.
At one meeting, Harry came up with this doozy: “How about a night at the races?” This was the game plan. A company he discovered, of course, provided movie reels (this was before the era of DVDs) with pre-run horse races that had taken place around the country such as at Pimlico, Yonkers Raceway, the Meadowlands Racetrack and elsewhere. The sealed movie reel cans are opened and the races shown at the event after guests are invited to place bets—show, place and win—at the betting booth we set up. No one presumably knew these horses, or the races they ran, and racetrack programs describing the horses’ race histories and related information were distributed to guests on admission.
Keep in mind that the nonprofit had to put up the money from the “pot” that would presumably be offset by the betting. The time devoted to betting, each race and collection from winnings was about 20 minutes. We would be in for a long evening with nine races! Of course, the organization also provided refreshments for the event. Alcohol would have been a good choice, but the strongest beverage was caffeinated coffee.
At long last, the night arrived and all the volunteers were mobilized to help in various and sundry ways. Harry was promising lots of folks, including many of his friends, who would attend. I had my doubts, but after offering my advice, remained a loyal team player. There just was no stopping Harry. Very little lead time was built into planning and executing the event, perhaps a few weeks to plan, publicize and run the event.
The evening ended with a total of six couples attending. Any bets placed were outstripped by the winnings. So after a lot of time devoted to this cause, the nonprofit invested many resources for an event that yielded poor results. So, was this a good teaching moment? What did we learn from this fiasco?
There are so many lessons from this affair, where to begin? Let’s start with the basic axiom I learned from a graduate school professor of mine, the six P’s: “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” We should seek the input of our board members and volunteers, but we must also think strategically and plan properly if we are to achieve fundraising success. This is why I strongly encourage nonprofits to benefit from the wisdom of a strategic
Space prevents me this month from describing the elements of such a plan, but suffice it to say that a properly designed plan becomes the roadmap to success for the organization. It is worth the investment of time to construct such a plan so that the nonprofit can follow a path to financial success.
So, are you prepared to gamble at the races, or would you rather ride all the way to fundraising success?
By Norman B. Gildin
Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $92 million in the process He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organization. He can be reached at [email protected]