Large events and fundraisers can be a blast for your club, or they can be overwhelming. When complications threaten to derail your project, it’s time to call for help.
Story by Julie Saetre
For 21 years, the Asheville Kiwanis club in North Carolina has hosted its annual Biltmore/Kiwanis 5K/15K Classic. During the club’s biggest fundraiser of the year, 1,000 runners traverse the lush grounds of the famous Biltmore Estate, a U.S. National Historic Landmark and former home to three generations of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.
In its early years, the event could be managed solely by the Asheville Kiwanians, but as its popularity grew, so did its demands. So the club began to hire race-management specialists. For this past year’s race, however, members decided to go it alone once again.
“We managed it ourselves,” says Jessica Stavish, the club’s immediate past president. “Lesson learned. (There were) things that you don’t think about, like how are we going to get water into the jugs, getting Emergency Medical Services on site. All those small details.”
For the 2019 Classic, club members have hired Glory Hound Events, an event-management company that specializes in endurance athletic events such as marathons, triathlons and mountain biking.
“If you’re bringing in a professional race management group, that’s what they do for a living. That’s what they love to do,” says Stavish. “It makes (the event) feel so much more fluid.”
Greg Duff founded Glory Hound in 2006. The former competitive swimmer transitioned to participating in endurance running events and triathlons. His company now produces an average of 17 such races each year.
“We’re experts at what we do,” Duff says. “And we bring a certain level of expertise to the equation that in most cases the organizations (hiring us) don’t have. We have relationships in place with vendors, with public safety, that they don’t have. So we can do it a lot quicker and easier with folks that we trust. And they know us. There’s just a level of understanding and trust that we bring.”
Like Asheville, many Kiwanis clubs rely on one major annual fundraiser to support a majority of their service projects. Also like Asheville, it’s common for an event to grow while the number of club members able and willing to help plan and run it remains the same, or even shrinks. That’s when a professional event-management company can come in handy. But the decision to go with a pro has its own set of considerations.
Whether a club wants to launch a new type of fundraiser, make a current one more successful or get help with a longstanding event, its members should know one thing: Hiring a professional management company doesn’t mean everyone else gets a pass.
“Even when you hire help, events have to involve pretty much everyone,” says Susan Shattuck, co-founder of Special Events Unlimited, a New York-based event fundraising, management and marketing firm that specializes in working with nonprofits. “You can’t just leave it to a (management) group to handle it all.”
Adds Stavish, “It’s incredibly frustrating when the larger portion of the club thinks, ‘Oh, we’ve hired someone and we have a race committee — they’re just going to do it,’ and they can wash their hands of any responsibility. It’s everyone’s skin in the game. If we don’t make money, we aren’t able to donate to charities. We’re not able to provide the services that we want to provide.”
Many event-management professionals don’t handle the actual fundraising. They won’t show up at your first meeting with a list of sponsors willing to sign on the dotted line or donors eager to write checks. They most likely won’t recruit volunteers for the event either.
What a professional can do, however, is take over certain time-consuming demands: hiring and working with vendors, marketing, and/or addressing key details (like Asheville’s water jugs and public safety officials) that you might overlook.
Tori Gaines, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Issaquah, Washington, has worked on the club’s fundraisers for 26 years, including an annual auction. Five years ago, she and a fellow club member took on an additional event, Boots, Barrels & Brews, featuring line dancing and tastings of food, wine and beer.
“Last year, I told the club that I could no longer take on full responsibility for the event,” Gaines says, “because our club is getting smaller, and everyone can’t help as much as they could.”
Club members decided to focus on getting assistance with vendor services and promotion. Gaines reached out to a woman who does event planning as a side business.
“She’d get the drink vendors, the food vendors, organizing a lot of that. We already had some relationships, but she still was very good as far as getting the signed paperwork, following up. And she did bring us some new vendors and helped us with publicity and Facebook.”
Likewise, years ago Gaines hired a company specializing in auctions to provide an auctioneer and handle details on the day of that fundraiser. It saves members from the frazzle of running the event itself, but still allows them to do all the planning.
“We’ve done auctions for at least 30 years or more,” she says. “So we know as a club how to do them. By the time the event gets there, you already have all the moving parts in place. It’s just a matter of people manning them that night.”
A pro also can help you refresh an event that has become less successful as the years progressed. An experienced management company sees plenty of trends come and go. What worked as an approach or theme a decade — or even three years — ago won’t necessarily continue to bring dividends today.
“People of course will feel more comfortable with something they’re familiar with doing. To change things is a little nerve-wracking for people, understandably,” Shattuck says. “Because you’re not sure how it will be received. But there is a lot more leeway than people consider.”
And while actual fundraising might not be offered, some event-management companies will coach you on how to do so more effectively. Shattuck and her business partner offer workshops that help participants fine-tune their approach to making “the ask” for a fundraising event, whether it’s for a sponsorship or a major donation.
“It helps people not feel afraid of asking for money,” Shattuck explains. “Because people are just terrified. We humanize it for them and make them more comfortable.”
If your club decides an event could benefit from bringing in a professional, know that it will be an investment. Your cost will depend on the size of the event-management team, the depth of what you would like its members to handle and the type of fundraiser. Hiring an individual to work with vendors or handle social media obviously won’t be as expensive as contracting with a company to plan and run a 10K.
Before you begin your search, determine how much you can spend. What are your priorities? What parts of your event would benefit most from a pro’s help? What have your members most successfully handled in the past?
“The more focused you can be on what you want from the situation, what you’re hoping to get in return, that’s incredibly helpful,” says Shattuck.
An Internet search can help you find individuals and companies that manage fundraising events, but you’ll want to narrow your number of candidates. Experience with the type of event you’re hosting is crucial. A management company’s website will list past and current clients; contact a few who have held similar events and ask them about their experience. Think of events that you have enjoyed and find out if a professional managed them.
Better yet, go to such a fundraiser yourself. When Asheville’s Stavish, an avid runner, was looking for someone to manage the 2019 Biltmore/Kiwanis Classic, she remembered that she’d always been impressed with how races unfolded under the direction of Glory Hound Events.
“If someone’s thinking of hiring a race director, get a couple of members of your club to sign up for one of their races and run it,” she advises. “Did registration go smoothly? What were their frustrations? Was the event well put together? Were they able to address issues quickly? Get that firsthand management (experience) before you actually make a significant investment.”
Don’t limit your background research to guests of the event. You’ll also want to know how effectively the event manager worked with suppliers, vendors and other key partners.
“They need to have a good reputation, but that’s across the board,” says Glory Hound’s Duff. “It’s with the municipalities, it’s with the runners who are going to be participating, sponsors they’ve dealt with before. It all comes down to reputation and the way they handle themselves.”
Once you’ve selected a candidate or two, schedule a personal interview to discuss your budget and priorities.
“Ask them, ‘What are your methods? What is the scope of what they can do? How much does it cost to do what they’re talking about? What pieces can you give me for (my budget)?’” advises Shattuck.
Also keep in mind that you and your club members will spend a lot of time with the individual(s) you hire. Make sure you’re a comfortable fit on personalities as well.
When you’ve made your selection, a written contract should list in detail what will be handled by the event-management company and what will be done by your club members and volunteers. Stavish also maintains a spreadsheet listing every element of the Biltmore/Kiwanis Classic and who is responsible for each. This helps to prevent tasks from going undone and keeps pros and club members from unwittingly duplicating efforts.
Your contract should also spell out how the event manager and the club will communicate during the planning process. Will you hold regular meetings or handle most things via conference calls or group emails? The Asheville Kiwanians and Duff plan to meet monthly at first, then increase to twice monthly as the event nears and weekly during the four weeks leading up to the Classic. If you find you want to meet more often than your contract states, expect to dig deeper into your club’s funds.
“If you start calling your race director, emailing them, requiring a lot more meetings of them and requiring more of their time, they may have to charge you more,” Stavish cautions. “And they can’t get your stuff done if they’re (always) sitting in a meeting with you.”
And to make the most of your event manager’s expertise, eliminate this phrase from your club’s vocabulary: “But we’ve always done it that way.”
“There’s always going to be one person in your room who’s really afraid (of change),” says Shattuck. “It takes finesse to manage that and not let them control the conversation. Sometimes that’s where it’s helpful having someone like me around, because I can be the bad guy.”
Stavish adds, “You’ve got to trust this person that you hired. That’s one of the bigger issues I’ve always seen. Races start to fall apart when people are holding on to what they used to do.”
With the right professional(s), a solid contract and good working relationships, however, a club can roll out an event smoothly and successfully, without running members ragged in the process. Not only can that help increase dollars raised, but it can attract new attention — and possibly members — to your club.
“There are a lot of positives that can result from doing an event in a very effective way,” says Shattuck. “Events can have a tremendous impact on constituencies and also on new people. People are seeing you. And they’re going to judge you. ‘Will my money be used well? Where is it going to go?’ That’s what donors want to know. And they might not only donate money. They might actually join you.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.