Planning a Successful Non-Profit Event

Once the votive candles have burnt out and the silent auction items have gone home with their new owners, it’s time to evaluate. Was your non-profit event successful? Whether or not your event met all of your goals, there’s always room for improvement for next year. We talked with Dan Prater, Director of the Drury University’s Center for Nonprofit Leadership about planning a successful nonprofit event. Use his tips to start with a fresh slate.

Q: Do you have any tips for helping nonprofits set goals for their events?

A: Goal setting should come from first determining your organization’s mission and desired outcomes. If you know these things, then you can start aligning resources to carry out the plans and activities needed to accomplish them. Everything, including events, centers around your mission and desired outcomes. Such as, how many events do we need? When should they happen? Each event should have a specific dollar amount to raise as well as other goals such as public awareness, making new connections, etc. The desired dollar amount ties into the broader needs of the organization.

Q: What are some fun nonprofit event themes you’ve seen around the community?

A: We once did an event centered around the movie Casablanca, and everyone dressed in clothes inspired by the movie and era. The food also matched the theme, which was fun.

We also did a Mi Casa Es Su Casa theme (my home is your home). It had a Spanish flair, and everyone had a great time gathering in a fabulous home.

Another fun theme is the one at the annual Cattle Baron’s Ball hosted by the American Cancer Society. Business people who don’t typically look or act like a cowboy or rancher get to dress up like this once a year. It’s big fun.

Q: Do you have any examples of some creative ways nonprofits have raised money at an event?

A: Recently, my brother-in-law created an amazing piece of art (it was an Apache helicopter flying in to rescue a wounded soldier). He is a metal artist, and this piece was handcrafted out of metal. He donated it to Ozarks Honor Flight, and they spent a couple months selling a chance to win it. I didn’t see the final outcome, but I know they raised a great deal of money from people wanting to win this. This was a creative approach that created a lot of interest.

The events where people rappel off the side of a building are creative. These are fun to watch, fun to challenge people scared of heights, and a good way to raise money. Harmony House, our local emergency housing shelter for families escaping domestic violence, does an annual iCare Campaign, where they encourage people to wear a black sticker under their eye to raise awareness about domestic violence. During the day, they encourage businesses to help them fundraise by raffling off donated prizes. Wine Women & Shoes for the Victim Center is an example of another event that also raises awareness and money.

Q: Sometimes the checkout process and flow of an auction can get chaotic. What are some tips you can give for setting up a silent auction in a space? What about a live auction?

A: Try to secure a venue with plenty of room to set up tables for displaying items. If possible, have tables where people can walk on both sides (items facing outward to only one side). This opens up the flow somewhat.

It helps if you have a time set aside for just networking before the event begins. That’s a great chance to visit the tables and vote. My only tip on live auctions is to make sure you have an upbeat, fun person leading the bidding.

Q: How early should a nonprofit book a venue?

We book our venues 2-3 years out (if possible). If not possible, at least one year out. This helps you lock in a set date and allows you to start promotions early. In fact, you can even encourage attendees to lock in their early bird registration for next year while attending the current year’s event. Locking in the venue early allows you to start securing sponsorships 6-9 months out.

Q: Do you have any tips for estimating the right amount of food and drinks to order for the event?

A: Often nonprofits aren’t always sure about who will show up unless all the tickets were sold early in advance. This is definitely a challenge. I look at data from previous events and make estimates. The inaugural events are the hardest to determine. Most events are at places like convention centers, and they don’t have to know the final number of attendees until about 72 hours out. So we make it clear that registration has a cut-off date. No exceptions. My experience is that I most often underestimate the number of people who attend. We worry and fret about it, and then there’s always a surge right before the event.

Q: Do you have any other advice to offer to nonprofits about the logistics of planning an event?

A: My advice is simple: Preparation prevents predicaments. Delayed organization almost always leads to disaster and failure. Start planning 9-12 months out. Get a committee of folks involved. Break the assignments into categories like venue, marketing and promotions, graphic design, sponsorships, etc.

You should also build a budget up front. Make estimates of costs and anticipated income. Once the basics are determined, you’re ready to build materials that you can show potential sponsors. As a group, determine which people and companies are most likely to support such an event. You should use your board members to get ideas and open doors for this. Once you have some of your major sponsors, you are nearing the time to begin marketing. Again, you should determine who might want to attend and how to reach them. You’ll probably use a combination of email/social media, print materials, and traditional media. Build a PR plan to determine when these messages will be sent out. Don’t be random about it.

Q: How important it is to give back to your community & be involved in non-profits you are passionate about?

A: There’s a time and place for almost everyone where they realize their true purpose is much more than making money and buying things for themselves. They realize those don’t lead to life satisfaction. Often, that’s the time when people look at causes or community needs to see if there’s a way they can participate in.

Nonprofit organizations do some of the most important work in every community. They address needs and assist people that no other groups are willing to help (or don’t have the ability to help). This is often helping vulnerable population groups. The organizations have the passion and the methods to help. And they often have people eager to do the work. But what they often lack are the resources to execute their grand plans. This is where the community steps in.

Individuals and companies are the critical link between the organization and the people in need. When the public steps in to volunteer their time and provide the needed resources, the organization can carry out their important work.

The issues and needs of every community are too great for any group. The nonprofit sector is a critical component, but they cannot do it alone. Their missions are reached when they have partnerships with caring companies, donors, and volunteers. It takes all of them, working with a shared vision, to have success.

Q: Do you have anything else you would like to add?

The Oasis Hotel & Convention Center has been a tremendous resource to the Drury University Center for Nonprofit Leadership. And because our center is a regional hub for nonprofit organizations throughout Southwest Missouri, the partnership with Oasis has helped hundreds of organizations.

Missy, Sarah, and their team are absolutely the best to work with. They bend over backward to make our events very successful. They don’t do just what’s required; they always go way above what is expected. They take a personal interest in making sure our conferences and events are exceptional experiences for all the nonprofit leaders who attend.


At Oasis Hotel & Convention Center, we believe nonprofits are crucial to the health and success of every community. This is why we are proud to host nonprofit events year round. If you’re planning an event in Springfield, Missouri, we’d love to show you our space!