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Volume 3, Issue 3

Event-Based Fundraising: What’s the Real ROI?

Community colleges should reconsider holding special events like galas and golf tournaments to raise money as they often have a poor return on investment, say two CASE faculty members.

Steve Klingaman, development consultant and author of Fundraising Strategies for Community Colleges, says that nearly two-thirds of community colleges he recently surveyed received a significant percentage of their overall fundraising revenue from special events. He notes that community colleges tend to promote the net revenue they make from these events but adds that this often doesn't take into consideration the cost of personnel who plan these events and gifts-in-kind of food or space. For example, an average community college event that raised $50,000 might end up costing $30,000 in staff time and donated resources.

Such one-day special events often monopolize staff time and resources throughout most of the year, Klingaman says. He notes that community colleges would be better served by investing those resources in the creation of an annual fund with multiple methods of outreach—such as a student phonathon or an employee giving program.

Still, Klingaman says it is often hard to convince institutional leaders that special events are not solid investments. He adds that, among the community colleges he consults, fewer than 20 percent end up moving away from them and reinvesting in something like an annual fund.

"Events have a way of entrenching themselves in the culture of institutions that is beyond rational thinking in terms of the bottom line," Klingaman says. "Academic leaders say, ‘This is where we show the flag. This is where we tell our story.' What they're really saying is this is where we have a captive audience."

The Clark College Foundation, which supports the community college in Vancouver, Wash., recently moved away from relying on special events to fundraise. But Ara Serjoie, former senior vice president of the foundation, says the change was not without some growing pains.

Serjoie, who is now vice president of university advancement at California State University, East Bay, conducted a cost-benefit analysis of all the special events when he was at Clark College—including an annual golf tournament, a gala dinner and alumni trips to professional sporting events. The analysis indicated that many of these events weren't ideal fundraising ventures and weren't doing the "friend-raising" that their organizers had intended. For example, Serjoie found that although events like the gala had been going on for years, a relatively small number of attendees had been more than once. In addition, surveys showed that event attendees weren't engaging with the college's mission.

In 2010, the foundation eliminated the golf tournament and took the resources it used to plan that event to create a year-long student phonathon to support its annual fund. Also, the foundation changed its gala dinner into a reception showcasing student art and focused more on donor stewardship. Serjoie says the changes have been fruitful. In 2012, the Clark College Foundation received a CASE Educational Fundraising Award for Overall Performance.

"We started to see a change in terms of the quality of data we have on alumni—what they're doing, where they're working, what their affinity is to the institution," he says. "Also, we're starting to see non-donors become donors. After two-and-a-half to three years, we're seeing non-donors who attend these events over and over again or who we call via the phonathon now donate."

Serjoie says advancement leaders must take time to convince institutional and volunteer leaders that event-based fundraising may not be in the college's best financial interest. He also stresses that advancement leaders must provide a comprehensive plan for what would be done in place of these events.

"You need to create a vision and strategy," he says. "Board members are quantitatively driven. You should ask them, ‘When is the last time we did a cost-benefit analysis? If this was your business, would you continue to do this?'"

Serjoie and Klingaman will present a session on the limitations of event-based fundraising at the Conference for Community College Advancement, Oct. 2-4, in San Diego, Calif. Serjoie will also present a session on how to build a comprehensive advancement program beyond special events.

Please share your questions and comments with Marc Westenburg via email at or +1 202 478 5570.

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This article is from the September 2013 issue of the Community College Advancement News.