To Be, or Not To Be a Park Foundation with a Special Event Fundraiser?

By Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Driven Strategic LLC

In my last blog, I shared the importance of writing an annual fund development plan. I also shared the key to meeting your fundraising goal, aside from making the goal realistic, is to establish an annual fund that has multiple fundraising solicitation strategies so that you’re NOT putting all of your eggs into one basket.

There is no one size fits all, cookie cutter, annual fun development plan for park foundations or friends groups. However, most organizations will have some common strategies and overlap. Two areas of definite overlap are a direct mail campaign and a signature special event.

Now that your direct mail fundraising is underway, and generating net contributed income (that’s what we call revenue in the nonprofit fundraising world) beyond expenses, consider establishing a signature special event.

So you’re scratching your head….what does signature special event mean? What makes a special event a signature special event?

A signature special event is a special event that does several things very, VERY well:

  • The event builds mission awareness through metaphors (i.e., missionizing the event)

  • The event deepens existing relationships with volunteers and donors

  • The event establishes new relationships with prospects

  • Your organization assesses your community’s unofficial social and philanthropy calendar, then carves out a date that the community essentially annually reserves for your organization. For example, your event might ALWAYS be on the third full weekend in September each year.

  • Your organization is KNOWN for the event!

  • Your organization MIGHT choose to use the event as a fundraising event.

Uh oh, I just perked you up….. your organization MIGHT choose to use the event as a fundraising event. Not all nonprofit special events are intended to be fundraising events. The key message here is to actually determine the role of your signature special event and then intentionally engineer the experience to achieve the goal of the event. Ultimately, the event is ALWAYS about your mission and vision, then the specific function of the event is determined by your strategic plan.

Special events can’t, CAN’T, C.A.N.N.O.T. be everything to everybody! You gotta be intentional!

You see….it’s hard to know when the communication, marketing, and public relations function of a friends group stops and when the fundraising function starts. These two critical functions are separate, but overlapping functions of a nonprofit organization.

Most special events are usually some of both and rarely just one or the other. However, many special events are disproportionately more of one than the other. For example, the event could be 90% communication, marketing, and public relations and 10% fundraising or vice-versa.

Signature special events that are 90% communication, marketing, and public relations-focused are what I call “Community Relationship-Building and Mission Awareness” events. The goals of these events are to build mission awareness; to educate the public about your programs and services; to deepen existing relationships with volunteers and donors; and to establish new relationships with prospects.

Park foundations and friends groups will lose about 20% of their donors each year, so you need a strategy to establish new relationships that allow you to capture personal data and contact information that can be added to your donor management system. This will significantly aid in the success of your direct mail campaign. The special event becomes a net to capture new prospects with the hope of generating a gift from them in the future through other solicitation strategies in your annual fund plan.

The downside to special events that are Community Relationship-Building and Mission Awareness-focused is that they tend to lose money, unless you’re REALLY good and generating in-kind donations of equipment, supplies, food, drinks, facility space, and television and radio spots. If you’re lucky, you’ll break even other than the time it took to plan and implement the event. If you’re REALLY, REALLY lucky you’ll raise a few dollars to seed the signature special event for next year. Gotta spend some money to make some money, eh?!?!

Although I recommend that all park foundations have a signature special event as a part of their annual fund plan, I’m not necessarily a fan of new nonprofit organizations predominantly starting their fundraising strategies with a large special event. The development of a signature special event should come long after establishing a case statement, donor management system, board giving policy, gift acceptance policy, and annual fund plan with a direct mail campaign, as well as long before you start dabbling in gr@#!?!s.

BUT, most of you are already running some sort of special event fundraising. It always seems like the thing to do for a nonprofit organization, especially a park foundation or friends group that is designed to support a park and recreation agency that tends to be program and special event heavy already.

Park and recreation people are program and event people, so you need to resist the urge to throw all of your eggs in one basket and plan a typical, marginal event that zaps the organization of time and resources that could be used on more efficient and effective opportunities to fund the mission and strategic plan of the organization.

Now, I’m not going to encourage you to stop the events you’ve already been hosting for a year or more altogether and start from scratch. However, I am going to ask you to be more strategic and intentional about the function of your special event and to get it within the mission of your organization. Then, I am going to encourage you to commit to the event and make it a signature special event.

Quite frankly, I’m tired of walking for this, marching for that, relaying for them, skipping for someone else, and running a 5K or 10K to benefit something else! Should I mention…I am a road and trail runner. I’m even a card carrying member of the American Trail Running Association.

It seems to me, right now, the only signature fundraising event that anybody can come up with is a walk or run type event. Every fall in my town, on the same day, there are four walks for medical-related nonprofit organizations: Walk Now for Autism Speaks, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Walk to End Alzheimers, and Walk M.S.

Walk and run events just seem to be the trend in the 2000’s and 2010’s. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was all about golf outings and back in the 1980’s it was meat shoots. I often wonder when we’ll get away from the walk and run events and I wonder what the next big thing will be in special event fundraising.

What I really want you to do is to be creative! If park and recreation-types can’t be creative with special event fundraising ideas that can TRULY become signature special events, then who can?

The other key to a signature special event other than being creative is to metaphorically tie your event to your mission.

Now I know that I just said I’m tired of walk and run type events as nonprofit special events go, but I will mention again that I’m a runner. I enjoy running the Longfish Dash hosted by the Friends of Shakamak at Indiana’s Shakamak State Park and I absolutely LOVE running the TRI-CAP MudSlinger Trail Run at Indiana’s Ferdinand State Forest.

However, as a nonprofit administrator and as a professional fundraiser, I really cringe at the quality of many of these events, AND I REALLY CRINGE at the lack of mission awareness built into the event. Whatever you do, even if it is a walk and run type event, be creative and tie the special event to your mission. I call this missionizing your event with a metaphor.

One of the best examples I’ve ever found of an organization tying a special event to a mission with a metaphor is the TRI-CAP MudSlinger Trail Run. TRI-CAP’s mission is to empower people in their communities to accept responsibility for achieving personal and economic well-being by providing health, housing, and educational services. In short, they address poverty.

TRI-CAP, for three years now, has hosted a 6K and a half marathon trail running event at Ferdinand State Forest. It is becoming a signature special event. They are known for it and it is always the 3rd Sunday of November. Personally, I have reserved the weekend on my schedule for four years running.

Now, some people would think….well here’s a social service organization that has simply went the easy route and jumped on the “run bandwagon” and offered a running event as a fundraiser. However, the difference is they have missionized their special event.

TRI-CAP missionized their event by not only naming the event the TRI-CAP MudSlinger Trail Run, but they created a unique event logo that looks like a splatter of mud and superimposed on the splatter TRI-CAP’s name, the event name, and the event’s tag line. The tagline for the event is “Get the Dirt on Poverty.”

They took a typical trail run special event, and graphically designed the logo to communicate getting dirty on the run with getting the dirt on poverty. Getting the dirt on poverty simply means to become more aware of poverty-related issues facing the tri-county area and the programs and services the organization provides.

The run itself has NOTHING to do with poverty, but the community relationship-building and mission awareness function of the event clearly communicates the poverty issue on the logo, web site, t-shirt, hats, and other participant gifts. TRI-CAP is excellent about including poverty and organizational information in the participants’ goody-bags at check-in, too. In this case, it is simply the little things that TRI-CAP does to spin the event to their mission with another run of the mill running event.

This is a tremendous example of taking a standard running event and using it as a mission-awareness and fundraising event and missionizing it with a metaphor back to the mission statement of the organization. All park foundations and friends groups need to take this lesson from TRI-CAP!

I encourage you to consider massaging an existing special event that your organization already hosts and develop a metaphor to missionize your event. Then, carve out space on your community’s social & philanthropy calendar to establish your special event as a signature special event that your organization is known for; communicates your mission, programs, and services; and raises some money if you intend it to. If your event includes charitable gaming, games of chance, like a raffle, pull tabs, bingo, rubber duck derbies, etc., you’ll probably need to gain approval from your state’s attorney general’s office long before the event.

Like gr@#!?!s, special events are major time-killers with often low financial return on investment. As I have said before, many times, forget about gr@#!?!s! And, now I am saying, limit your special event fundraising to one signature special event that is engineered to be intentionally mostly about communication, marketing, and public relations or mostly about fundraising. Find a metaphor and missionize your event!

NAPF Membership

Consider joining NAPF today! You’ll get the capacity-building resources to start, build, and grow the impact of your local park foundation or friends group!

Please, follow both NAPF (@the_napf) and I (@drschaumleffel and @drivenstrategic) on Twitter! Contact us if you need technical assistance or have questions about park foundations! We're here to help!

Also, sign-up for the NAPF e-newsletter, which is free for NAPF members and non-members, as well as subscribe to the NAPF blog via RSS feed.

Remember, neither Google Chrome or Safari have built in RSS readers. You’ll need to download a free plug-in!

If you found this blog helpful, please share on social media!

© Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA

Photo Credit: TRI-CAP MudSlinger Trail Run

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square

Contact Us


National Association of Park Foundations

54 E. St. Charles Road, Suite #7

Villa Park, IL. 60181



Follow Us

  • Facebook Reflection
  • Twitter Reflection
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon