3 min

Putting the party before the cause

Sure the gays know how to throw a great party, but do we hang too many of our fundraising hopes for queer organizations on special events? It’s one of the questions raised at last month’s LGBT Philanthropy in Canada Conference.

“They’re risky,” says Margaret Genovese, a cultural management trainer with Genovese Vanderhoof and Associates who presented at the conference. “There are many horror stories of events where they don’t break even, which is very scary when you’re a charity.”

Not only is the money raised from special events unpredictable, says Genovese, but they’re also less efficient than asking for money directly, can lead to volunteer fatigue because they’re so labour intensive and don’t necessarily build lasting relationships with donors.

“Some of the things that make them good are the same things that make them bad,” says Genovese. “You do get people to participate who aren’t interested in the charity but in that way you’re not building a relationship with the organization…. With special events there’s no fidelity, no loyalty to the cause.”

“Events have a special role in any agency,” says Lori Lucier, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). “They can raise a fair bit of money, raise the profile of an agency, connect you with different communities in ways that other fundraising doesn’t…. But at the end of the day they cost more to run than most other forms of fundraising and they’re a bit higher risk.”

ACT has some of the best-recognized fundraising parties — including Fashion Cares, the AIDS Walk and Snap — in a queer social calendar packed with benefits. But Lucier says ACT has been trying to get away from being financially dependent on money raised by those events for years.

“You make projections based on trends for an event, you look at actuals over the last five years, you try and predict what things you can do to increase growth and stabilize,” says Lucier. “But at the end of the day they’re unpredictable so for an agency like ACT to count on those funds is something the board of the agency and the staff felt increasingly uncomfortable with.”

Although Lucier estimates that special events make up roughly 60 percent of ACT’s annual revenue she says the agency is increasingly trying to diversify its fundraising efforts by moving toward sources like annual donations and major gift giving.

Another pitfall of special events fundraising is that it creates a disconnect between the money donors are forking over and the cause they’re supporting.

“‘If I buy a ticket for $75 what am I getting back for this? Two martinis and some special guest,'” says Genovese, illustrating what she says is all-too-common thinking when it comes to weighing an event proposal. “Then you’re really not talking philanthropy, you’re talking a sales proposition. So then people go out and get more donations so the quality of the event improves and so forth. But at the same time it can mean your net take goes down. It can be a slippery slope.”

It’s a problem that ACT has experienced with Fashion Cares. “Over the years it got so large and so sophisticated that people, even those who had been in from the early days, forgot what the origin is,” says Lucier. “We’re trying to bring that back home for people this year.

“In some ways they are purchasing an experience but it’s not the same as going to Cirque du Soliel. It isn’t a for-profit business where you’re purchasing something that someone’s making money of off. We want people to enjoy themselves but understand that bottom line is to ensure we also return as much money as possible back to the programs.”

Philip Wong, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal (LGCA) and part of the LGBT Giving Network, which organized the recent conference, speculates that for a long time queer organizations had little choice but to depend on special events for funding.

“We enjoy the social aspect of meeting each other, we like having a good time so that’s how it came about, I think,” says Wong. “But also when you look at what resources are available we haven’t always had access to sponsorships or foundation support so we’ve had to be creative.”

Wong notes that money raised from special events is also strings free, unlike so many foundation and government grants that are tied to particular projects and programs.

“That’s really beneficial because overall our sector doesn’t believe in funding core expenses,” he says. “Somehow we’re magically supposed to coordinate volunteers with no staff or we’re supposed to do audits or build our organizations with no staff.”

He says that while some queer organizations may be banking on what is essentially an unstable source of funding, special events will always be part of the picture.

“Events-based fundraising is a great opportunity for agencies to create excitement and interest in their organization and cause,” he says. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about the public relations.”