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Maximum glamour, minimum impact

By Sarah Hedley 19 October 2015

Fancy spending the evening with John Inverdale? Or a spot of golf with Rick Wakeman? Perhaps a black tie ball with the chance to rub shoulders with Princess Anne?

Many charities are now in the business of organising glamorous and star-studded special events as part of their fundraising efforts. A night out for you and a donation for the charity—what could be better? Well, as much as these may seem like a win-win for all sides, these glitzy special events may not help the charity or its beneficiaries as much as you might think.

This is because while these events can often rake in a lot of cash, they are also extremely expensive to hold. The charity will need to shell out for the venue, entertainment, food, support staff—meaning that, once those costs are deducted, there’s not much left for the charity to put towards its cause.

Take two examples—both Wooden Spoon Society, a charity linked to rugby league and rugby union that raises money for children with special educational needs, and Sparks, which funds children’s medical research. Both of these raise money for very worthy causes. But, based on these charities’ most recent set of accounts, they only raised £1.26 and £1.49 respectively for every pound they spent. Not exactly a stellar result.

This is not trying to single out these two organisations in particular—the long-running fundratios survey shows that a low return on investment for these fundraising events is the norm across the charity sector. The 2014 survey of seventeen large organisations found that special events fundraising has a return of £1.91 for every pound spent, compared to an average return of £4.50 across all types of fundraising the study considered.

Some charity bosses have decided that the results are just not worth the effort. The chief executive of War Child UK, Nina Saffuri, said in a recent interview with charity trade mag Civil Society that while the concerts it put on were a great way to build relationships with donors, the charity’s strategy was now to focus on fundraising that provided a better bang for buck.

This isn’t to say that all charities should be ditching their events altogether. Events can be a great way to engage new donors and supporters, who may then become regular donors. For example, last year Wooden Spoon enjoyed a much healthier return from people who joined as supporters after attending Wooden Spoon events (this time getting over £6 for every £1 invested).

Events can also help to build a charity’s profile. Corporate sponsors might have particularly good reasons to want to be associated with a well-known brand. And events can bring in volunteers, the lifeblood of charities all over the country, who lend thousands of hours of support and deliver many important services for free.

But donors who have just received an invitation to a masked ball with the cast of EastEnders, may want to consider their options. Signing up to a direct debit could be more effective for the beneficiaries than another night in black tie.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.