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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > March/April 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 17 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2003
How To

How to Successfully Plan a Gala Fundraising Event for a Library
by Shawn Elizabeth Personke

We've all heard the reasons why people don't support or utilize libraries—from "Who needs libraries when we've got the Internet?" to "I just buy any books I need."

As library professionals, we realize that the library's role is changing as our society changes, particularly with the advance of technology. We know that there are many who view the library as either unnecessary or less-than-exciting, if it's even on their minds at all. So it's our job to create support, to combat old stereotypes, and to present the library as a dynamic community resource for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Changing people's perceptions is crucial and should be considered a daily task, but awareness can also be created with one huge event—one that can raise financial support as well as encourage new attitudes. I'm talking about a fundraising gala.

Whether it's black tie or casual, such a two-for-one deal can translate into a higher, more exciting profile for a library. It can create a connection showing the library as an essential community resource. James Swan, author of Fundraising for Libraries: 25 Proven Ways to Get More Money for Your Library [Editor's Note: See the book reivew on page 9.], points out that it's also an opportunity to raise money and awareness with people who don't use your library. These include traditional non-supporters who enjoy an evening of socializing, and politicos who relish the opportunity to see and be seen.

One caveat, however: Fundraising events can be expensive and the return on the investment is less than that of other fundraising methods such as a major gift initiative or a direct mail solicitation. In Becoming a Fundraiser: The Principles and Practice of Library Development, Victoria Steele and Stephen D. Elder warn that gala events are not necessarily the best way to earn money. They cost money to organize, sometimes with minimal proceeds, and can be labor-intensive. But when you factor in the visibility you gain, you'll see that having a "fun"raiser can be an effective tool to promote your library.

How to Plan a Big Fundraising Event

Before you jump into the fundraising fray, do your homework. Research is imperative because it guides your choices. Take a look around and see what's been done in your community, what hasn't, what suits your area. Get a real feel for what your community will support, what they will get excited about. Talk to people—staff, patrons, community leaders, friends, relatives, and other organizers. In small communities, nonprofits often share experiences and know-how, so others may well offer advice. If possible, find out about their publicity plans, how they handled reservations, how much advertising they utilized, who catered the event, etc. You should also check into the success of your own library's past functions. Even if it's been some time since the library held a fundraiser, any assessment of what was done can provide guidance on what should or should not be repeated.

Swan recommends choosing a theme based on the interest of the people in your area. "Polka or square dancing is really popular in some parts of Kansas ... Wine tasting is popular in Napa Valley." Exotic or cultural locales make good themes for fundraising galas that can lift your library's image. Festive regional events like Mardi Gras or eras like the 1940s aim to also set the tone for a fun evening out—after all, that's one reason why people will buy tickets to your party. With a little ingenuity, miniature Eiffel Tower sculptures, sidewalk café tables, French bread, and wine can take guests to Paris. Be creative, think fun, sophisticated, elegant, or whatever ambience would appeal to your part of the world.

Then determine whether you have enough manpower to organize the event. Are there enough staff or volunteers to coordinate and carry out the details? The number of people available may help determine the size of the event. Swan advises, though, that organizers should "think big" and not get "bogged down" thinking you don't have enough time, energy, or staff. "You might be surprised to learn what you can do if you get the right kind of help to proceed with confidence," he writes.

You'll also have to decide where to hold the event. Ideally, the "party" should be held in your library to achieve the strongest associations of library-as-cool-place, but sometimes space is an issue. If so, do the research to find out what types of facilities are available, how much the rental fees are, and, ideally, whether the owners can donate the site or offer a discount.

You should check the community calendar before you set the date to find out what else is happening in the area. You won't want to schedule too close to another event that would be in competition for the same target audience. Also consider the time of year. Is it too close to a major holiday or other energy-draining red-letter days?

Planning Your Details and Timeline

Once you've done your research, you're ready to get down to the details: what, when, where, who, how to, how much, and finally, how did it go? You need to create a to-do list that covers everything from setting the theme to evaluating the event afterward. Include these items on your list:

• Date, time, location—Decide using your research.

• Theme, decorating, and entertainment decisions—What are the artistic elements that can create the sort of atmosphere you're looking for?

• Food and food service choices—How can the menu be tied to the theme, who will provide the food, how much will it cost?

• Publicity and advertising strategy—Who is your audience and how are you going to bring them in?

• Logistics of making reservations and ticketing—How will guests make reservations and deliver payment, how will they receive their tickets, who will track reservations?

• Setup and cleanup—Who will set up the event and clean it up later? How early can you get in for setup?

• Event program—What activities might take place (auction, dancing, door prize, etc.)? Will the director or another special guest speak to attendees?

• Evaluation—How and when will the event-planning team judge the success and make notes for subsequent planning teams?

When you've completed the to-do list, make a timeline, starting with the day of the event and counting backward by weeks to the first task, which will probably be setting the date and securing the location. Drop the tasks from the list into the timeline until you reach the week of the event. Then the timeline should shift into a day-by-day accounting, eventually moving to hour-by-hour for the party day. Assign a staff member or volunteer to be in charge of each task.

Some larger events are a year in the making, with planning for the next year's event starting immediately after the current event closes. Smaller events can be planned in a few months. Whatever your event's size, give yourself enough time to get it right.

Determine Your Budget Wisely

A budget can make or break an event because it helps you stay within your means and clear a profit. A budget also provides measurable objectives that you can use to determine your success in the evaluation phase.

A budget should include all estimated sources of income and all expenses. These can include printing, postage, advertising, food costs, staffing needs, entertainment, decorations, supplies, equipment, and anything else that you'll need for a successful evening. It's also a good idea to include a little cushion to cover any unforeseen expenses.

Remember that both budget categories—income and expenses—can be adjusted to affect how much money your event will raise. By lowering the expenses or raising the ticket price, you can increase the profit level. Just keep in mind that the ticket price must be acceptable to your public, but be high enough to make a profit. It's a delicate balance. Some communities may easily support a $100 ticket, while others may only be willing to spend $25. Your research can help you set the price. The ultimate goal is to have your guests' good time translate into good vibes for the library while making a profit.

Community sponsors or partners can help defray some of the costs, which in turn will yield a larger profit for your library. Newspapers, businesses, and corporations usually have budgets for this type of community support, so don't be afraid to ask. Be sure to emphasize that, in return, you'll thank them publicly, in your program, ads, etc. So sponsors stand to gain good will from their community and publicity for their business.

Swan says sponsors can offer other types of support, such as providing staff, donating goods, and lending credibility to your event. He also recommends looking for a business partner that has a well-developed mailing list, perhaps one used for billing. Asking that partner to place a promotional piece in their mailing can cut down on your publicity costs.

A local sponsor or partner could also be a source for ticket sales. Depending on their level of support and the nature of their business, employees can become a target audience. If so, find out about possible promotional vehicles, such as company newsletters or e-mail lists that you could use to notify this market.

Don't Forget to Evaluate and Learn!

The evaluation phase of any project is as important as the research phase and should not be overlooked. It not only reports your success, but can also point future planning teams in the right direction. Schedule the evaluation meeting for shortly after the event so memories will still be fresh.

The first and the most measurable point to consider is the financial success. When you set your budget, you estimated that if you had "X" amount of expenses and wanted to clear "Y" profit, you would need to sell so many tickets at a certain price. Compare your actual figures with your projected budget to get a picture of your success. Did you sell enough tickets? Were expenses higher than anticipated? If you didn't meet your financial objectives, try to determine why.

Less measurable is the awareness factor. If you achieved your attendance numbers, count that as a success. The nature and quantity of pre-event and post-event coverage by local media can also be used to determine awareness success. Gather feedback from attendees, as well as from staff and volunteers. Was the "buzz" good? Are people talking about next year? Also evaluate what went right and what went wrong in terms of entertainment, food, service, advertising, etc.

Yes, fundraising can be a big job. The keys are having a well-thought-out plan, a comprehensive budget, and good people to help make it happen. And when you pair the goals of raising money and raising awareness, you can end up with a satisfying, fun event that can help develop a new image for your library, one that builds a positive energy that will help meet many of your organization's goals and its mission.


Shawn Elizabeth Personke is the community relations and development coordinator at the Chelsea District Library in Chelsea, Mich., and a freelance writer. She holds a B.S. from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. She has organized a variety of community and fundraising events since 1992. Her e-mail address is

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