It’s no secret that the purpose of nonprofit events is to raise money for worthy causes. It therefore stands to reason that the bottom line of nonprofit events is, well, the bottom line.
Guests might flock to – and rave about – a gala with top flight entertainment, beautiful décor and a five-star menu, but if the money raised isn’t sufficient to offset costs, an event that looks successful on the outside may not be so robust when you start crunching numbers.
“Our sole purpose is to raise money for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra,” said Angela Pugh, Knoxville Symphony League vice president of public relations. “We make every effort to keep ticket prices affordable while still making money, but we also are very careful to maintain quality. Our reputation is on the line.”
The league hosts a number of successful fundraisers each year, and these are the big three:
- The Symphony Show House – $15 per person ($25 for a season pass). The Show House is a popular, longtime event held over a two-week period in the spring. Each year’s featured home, decorated by top area designers and opened for tours, is the star of the show.
There also is a café and gift shop, as well as the opportunity for private corporate parties and special tours. Proceeds benefit the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s music education and outreach programs.
- Elegant Dining, a series of fundraising meals hosted by friends of the symphony – $40 and up. “We host about 30 to 35 of these each year,” Pugh said. “The price is based on the level of interest, and demand is highest for events that offer unique experiences. We recently raised the price for our Foothills Parkway event that features Bill Landry, and we still had a waiting list.
Pugh added that expenses of these events are undertaken by their respective hosts so all receipts support the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
- The Symphony Ball, an elegant black-tie event held on the first Saturday of December – $200 per person and up. Table sponsorships range from $3,500 to $7,500 for a table of 10. Attendance remains strong, and the event, which is held at Cherokee Country Club, is an important fundraiser for the league.
Pugh noted the ball falls on the night of the SEC football championship. “The big TV set in the bar is nearly as popular as the vast array of silent and live auction items,” she said, only half-jokingly.
Knox Heritage also hosts a variety of events throughout the year with a wide range of costs from free to $250 per person. Fee or free, Knox Heritage events tend to fill up quickly and often develop waiting lists.
When asked for its secret for success, Mickey Mallonee, director of events, summed it up well: “We always give more than we promise, and we work hard to keep our events new and fresh.”
Knox Heritage’s wildly popular series of fundraising dinners, Summer Suppers, take place annually at some of the region’s most spectacular historic sites. The suppers are organized by host committees of volunteers who work together to plan every detail, including the price of admission.
“Summer Suppers are entirely committee driven,” Mallonee said. “The committee sets everything from location to menu and also the price of admission, which varies from $50 to $250.”
Because the committee covers costs, all proceeds go directly to Knox Heritage – making even the $50-per-person events important fundraisers.
Mallonee added the lower cost suppers are a good way to attract young adults who may lack the discretionary income needed to attend events with a higher price tag.
“We intentionally include less expensive events to get new people involved,” Mallonee said.
Knox Heritage also hosts some free events, which Mallonee referred to as “friend raisers.”
In September, the organization will host a free reception inviting its Sequoyah Hills neighbors to come visit the newly restored Historic Westwood home, which serves as the nonprofit’s headquarters. Knox Heritage also hosts a free “Lost and Found” Luncheon every other month. One luncheon, which included historic home movies, attracted a crowd of more than 100 guests and had to be moved to the Laurel Church of Christ.
“We were thrilled with all the interest, even if it meant being flexible in order to manage the crowd. Free events are a great way to draw in new people,” Mallonee said.
The Scruffy City Soiree is the organization’s annual fall fundraiser and its biggest moneymaker. The $100 ticket includes a scrumptious buffet dinner, wine and beer and live entertainment. The event also includes a live auction that features unique items and experiences and a silent auction with local art, crafts, excursions and tours.
“This event sells out every year,” Mallonee said. “People know it and like it.”
If you’re planning an event and wondering what – or if – to charge for admission, consider your primary goal. If raising money is most important, invest time finding ways to offer the best entertainment experience possible (to support a higher ticket price), while also holding down costs and/or finding sponsors to help cover those costs.
If, however, your event is more about introducing your organization to the community, focus on finding a “hook” to draw interest from a large and diverse crowd. Find ways to keep the price of admission as low as possible or free. Remind people why the event matters.
“The product we sell is very relevant,” Mallonee said. “People are interested in historic preservation and are willing to support it.”
Michelle Henry is a recovering event planner who now serves in a part-time role at Moxley Carmichael with a focus on writing. When not at the keyboard, you’ll likely find her at the pool or somewhere with her nose in a book.