When I was growing up in the Congo, my father often told me stories about his childhood. In order to go to school, he had to cross a river. However, this river was filled with crocodiles. My dad was brave enough to cross the river each day, but his brother was scared of the crocodiles so he never crossed the river. Because of this, my uncle never got an education and my father did. This opened my eyes to the number of children in the Congo who aren’t able to have the education we have here in the United States. I want to change that.
As Doug Kulungu shared this story with me, revealing the passion behind his decision to start his nonprofit, Kulungu for Congo, I began thinking of the worst things I might have crossed while making my trek to school. Maybe I stepped in gum or walked through a puddle and had to go through most of the day with soaked shoes: a child’s worst nightmare.
It overwhelmed me to find out that the children in the Congo have to face life-threatening challenges just to go to school. I sat there wishing I could travel back in time and kick the elementary school version of myself right in the shins for whining about having to walk through the rain on my way to school (while probably dressed in my weather-proof clothing), crying over the fact that I let my Fruity Pebbles get too soggy to eat.
The audacity of Doug’s cause inspired me to share his story with you. Just as his father had courage to cross the river and pursue his education, Doug is taking a leap of faith and finding his courage. He’s one man with one dream of ending corruption, murder, trafficking, and disease in his home country through education.
Kulungu for Congo (KFC) is a newborn 501(c)(3) nonprofit led by Doug Kulungu. KFC has been in full swing less than a year and is already gaining momentum with a growing array of supporters who believe in its ability to make a difference. KFC’s core mission is to educate young leaders of the Congo and give children an opportunity to gain an education. Doug also strives to inspire Americans to join his movement.
When I look at education, like many Americans, I take for granted that I’ve been privileged to attend school for free. Unless you went to a private school, most of us were subjected to the horrors of public school lunches and wobbly desks. (#Firstworldproblems)
But it’s like the old saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Kids in the Congo would probably love to have a wobbly desk and eat the lunch lady’s mystery meatloaf! Doug simply wants to give them some of the things we have. That’s not too much to ask, right?
Following his passion to use education as a solution for the families in the Congo, Doug has an ace up his sleeve that is truly the driving force behind his successful start: tenacity. Describing Doug as tenacious would be an understatement. And it’s this persistence that drove him to create a strong, influential group of board members who equipped him to jump start his nonprofit with its first fundraising event.
This is where my journey with Doug started. In the midst of researching for this series, I experienced Doug’s tenacity first-hand. I discovered that Doug has a special gift; I’m not sure if it’s something in his eyes or his Congolese accent, but for some unknown reason it’s impossible to say “no” to him. Then again, he doesn’t give you the opportunity to say no. When Doug asked if I could help out with his event, I’ll admit, I tried to say no. But four short weeks later I was tying bows on cider bottles and decorating table settings.
While volunteering my time to help Doug with his event, I wanted to gain a better understanding of his organization, interview his board members, and uncover the underlying strategies driving each decision for the event. What I found were some helpful tips for common issues that every nonprofit faces in planning fundraising events, especially younger organizations.
Working through the kinks
The first item Doug and his board had to address during the planning process was: What do we want to accomplish with this event?
The goals for the KFC event were very practical, especially since this was an inaugural event for the organization. Doug planned to raise $25,000-$30,000 to support the building of a school computer lab and scholarships for students in the Congo. He also hoped to jump start his donor relations by attracting leads for 50 new, recurring donors and have 300 supporters attend the dinner event.
Beyond fundraising goals, this event was not meant to be festive, but to be informative about the needs present in the Congo and the mission of the organization. Doug chose to use this event as an opportunity to educate the attendees by deepening their knowledge of the organization. He wanted to create an experience for his supporters that would give them that “feeling.”
Bigger doesn’t always mean better
Having determined their goals, the planners needed to determine how to be impactful on a tight budget. Events can be costly, so it’s important to plan smart.
When I think of planning a dinner event, I imagine something Jay Gatsby would attend. Fancy tablecloths, champagne everywhere, a live band playing with everybody dressed in their suit and dress attire — maybe even a few fireworks shows or confetti showers. This would definitely leave your donors with a great impression of your ability to host a great party. It might even leave them eager to RSVP for next year’s event and bring a friend or two. BUT, the obvious downfall to planning an extravagant event like this is that you might end up spending more money than the event will earn.
With a budget of $10,000, Doug didn’t have the luxury of putting on a Gatsby ball. He needed to plan a cost-effective event to bring in donations, without having to overuse manpower and funds to make it memorable. There are areas of your budget where you want to splurge to make sure things are top-of-the-line, like sound equipment and lighting. However, there are also areas to save, like décor. KFC’s volunteer event coordinator, Brenna Blagg, found a number of décor DIY ideas on Pinterest to save money for other items.
Staging your event
Once you set your goals and budget, it’s time to pick the venue for your event. This can be tricky; there are lots of things to consider. Where is your donor base primarily located? What is their age range, and what types of events do they enjoy? If the average age of your audience will be over the age of 60, it’s best not to have an event in a grassy area with limited seating. Or, if you’re entertaining a 30 and under crowd, it would be best to consider planning a more cocktail-style venue with louder, upbeat music. Children in attendance? Include more open spaces for play areas.
Doug may have increased his event impact by staging his event in a non-traditional venue, such as a museum, art gallery or winery. However, since it was a first-time event with a small volunteer team, the KFC team chose a centrally-located, traditional reception hall.
A formal affair
When planning any event it’s important to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of those you are inviting. Since a large number of the KFC supporters are professionals, the event planners wanted to make sure the dinner was a high-class affair, even if it didn’t have fireworks like Gatsby would. They chose steak as the main course, but it also brought up the subject of whether wine would be served and whether it would incline donors to make more generous donations.
When planning a formal dinner, the subject of alcohol often comes into play. Doug ultimately chose to avoid having alcohol at the event for faith-based reasons, even if it meant fewer donations.
I haven’t found any firm research that says whether wine at your fundraiser will or won’t bring in more dollars for your organization. Some experienced fundraisers feel that offering wine at a dinner can incline donors to provide more generous donations and encourage them to stay longer to listen to your speakers. On the other hand, some venues don’t permit alcohol, there may be added measures needed to ensure the safety of donors traveling after the event, and you may even offend supporters that do not support the serving of alcohol at a fundraising event.
Remember, you are providing an enjoyable experience for your guests, so make sure that when you consider issues like alcohol, menu options, and music, you are making choices that are inclusive to those you are trying to reach.
During my first internship at a nonprofit, a colleague of mine asked me an important question while prepping for an event: “Do you drink coffee?” I said, “No.” She was quick to respond, “Well, you’d better start!”
I now understand why she said that. Events are demanding projects that can eat away at your daily focus. It requires a lot of organization and volunteer delegation to get the job done. There is no cookie cutter response for what type of event to plan or what’s the best method for doing so. It all boils down to what is appropriate for your organization and what works best for you.
Next time, I will go into more detail about how Doug surpassed his goal of 300 attendees without an advertising budget, and I will cover some best practices for promoting an event for free.
You stay classy now…