Let’s Have a Party!

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 15th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I recently ran into a funder I hadn’t seen in a while.  In response to the standard question of “How are you?” she responded with a roll of the eyes and “This is ‘death by gala’ season.”  We both laughed, but it is so, so true.  Name the time of day you wish to eat, and there is a gala waiting—breakfast, lunch, drinks, dinner, dessert?  It is all there.  And it isn’t just killing funders; it is driving executive directors and staff over the edge.

There are simply too many events.   In the last year, I haven’t had a conversation with a group of executive directors where galas (or other events—big or small, for this discussion they are all the same) haven’t come up and always with wails of exasperation, and that is putting it mildly.

Staff of nonprofits understand the magnitude of work and money that go into pulling off a successful event; board members not so much.  Staff realize that the vast, vast majority of these events are not really fundraisers at all; board members not so much.

Far too often, organizations “forget” to figure in the cost of staff time in calculating their net gains; when they do, the little net gain quickly becomes a deficit.  But board members aren’t so quick to see it that way; they figure pulling off an event is part of a staff members job, anyway, so it really is a fixed cost to the organization and not a cost to be charged to an event.

But unless an organization is large enough to have a dedicated event planner or two on staff, events pull everyone in—from those on the org chart receiving the highest pay to those receiving the least.  Staff recognize the true benefit of most events is that they can raise friends—but only if the board and staff are willing to work the event; boards not so much.

So, why, then, does this happen?  Why, year after year, do we start in February and go through early June with event after event, from dances to drinks to golf to dinner and beyond?  A two-fold, interrelated answer:  executive directors don’t know how to say, loudly and clearly, “No!” to their bosses and bosses (boards) don’t listen to what they say.

There is the issue of pronoun confusion.  Too many board members apparently never learned the difference between you and we.  One of the things that really, really irks me in general is when I hear board members talking about “you” as opposed to “we.”

“You should be doing this,” the board member says, when s/he should really be saying “We–this organization of which I am a board member and I–should be doing this.”  But to give credit to this board member, s/he is at least being truthful as s/he really means everyone else should do this but don’t count on me to do any work.  Whenever I hear this “you” instead of a “we” I know I am listening to a board member who feels no ownership and I have to wonder why s/he is on the board.

But then there are board members who do say we when they really mean you.  And that is the first step in having so many events.  It often comes out something like this, “You know what we should do? We should have a _________!”  (Fill in the blank with dinner, golf tournament, silent auction, bingo night—whatever you want.)  Everyone gets excited and says, “Yes, let’s do that!”

And after lengthy discussion where it is made clear that staff has no room on its plate to take on this latest suggestion for how to raise money, the board says, “No problem; we will do it!”  A date is selected, but the board does nothing; eventually, a little planning may start to happen but regardless, the event is announced to the public.  No movement is made; more time goes by, and still nothing happens.  The date continues to march closer and closer and the board is doing nothing.  Staff starts to get worried, things need to get done if this event is to be a success–and we cannot risk a failure as that will unquestionable reflect badly on the organization.  So, staff does a little of the work, then more and more, until staff is doing it all.  Whether there really ever was any intention by the board that this event would be done by we—the board or we the board and staff together—is almost beside the point.

The fact is that the board said we—and it really meant you.  The executive director tried to say no at the beginning, by pointing out that staff plates were too full to take on anything new; but it was a soft no and, as a result not heard.  And I’ve yet to meet an executive director who is willing to put her/his foot down and say no once an event has been announced, or willing to take the chance of a failed event because the “we” who said they would do it never stepped up to the plate.

I’ve also rarely met an executive director who wants to dampen the enthusiasm of a board collectively or an individual board member.  Hence, too often events of disproportionate magnitude (for the organization’s capacity) or frequency (for the organization’s calendar) become part of an organization’s fundraising repertoire.  Too many executive directors are afraid even to suggest that an idea be “slept on” until the next meeting—which more than likely means it will be dropped.  And the thought of saying “You say it, you own it!” and holding fast to that is out of the question for 99.9% of executive directors.

The solution?  First, the board creates a policy that says “We will hold no ‘fundraising event’ that does not reasonably project a net of at least x% of its costs.”  Second, no “fundraising” event may even be considered by the board unless it comes with a detailed and reasonable budget demonstrating that if everything is done right that x% goal will be met—or better yet far surpassed.  In other words, let’s look at all of the costs of doing this event—from publicity to linens to food to staff time—and all of the income—from sponsors to ticket sales to the sale of auction items—and see if it is really worth it to us (this pronoun refers to board, staff and organization) to do the event.  (Unfortunately, none of these budget calculations can get at the cost of the drain on good will and energy that events bring nor the cost of the other work—the work on staff’s job descriptions–that isn’t getting done while doing the pre-, day of, and post-event work.)

Nice ideas, enthusiasm, a sense of obligation (every nonprofit should have a gala), etc. are not sufficient justifications for hosting an event.  We—board and staff–must be sure that the benefits truly and significantly outweigh the costs.  And we absolutely must be clear about our pronouns.


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