The annual fundraiser at the Napa Valley Museum

Year after year museums and historical societies and countless other nonprofit organizations host an annual fundraiser. These events range from multi-course dinners to cocktail receptions to backyard barbecues. No matter what shape the event takes, the goal is always to increase attendance and raise more money. But how? For the most part, the same core of members attend the event each year and bid on the similar auction items, followed by the fund-a-need.

Nonprofits need to rethink their annual fundraiser in a strategic way to achieve success. Yes, you need great auction items, a good cause and delicious food, but it’s all about getting the right people with the right money to attend the event. That comes down to marketing. A save-the-date postcard and fancy invitation to your same mailing list are not likely to significantly increase attendance or profits.

When I served as executive director of Napa Valley Museum, we needed to make a change in our annual fundraiser. The same people attended every year, and the same small percentage of them bid on everything. For a couple of years, we tried new things–nixed the multi-course dinner, added VIP benefits, streamlined expenses with the hopes of increasing profits–without much success. That’s when we called in marketing specialists. Fundraiser or not, this was still an event to which we not only needed to attract attendees, and we needed to attract the right attendees.


Napa Valley Museum

We chose, A. Bright Idea, an agency experienced in nonprofit marketing, and they developed a strategic event marketing plan tailored specifically to the Museum’s needs and event goals. The event marketing plan included detailed information based on primary and secondary research, so the plan could be used actively as a guide and resource when preparing for all museum events.

A. Bright Idea researched our competitors and partners to provide recommendations on how we could stand apart from the crowd. In such as small community such as the Napa Valley, it was very important to make sure our event wasn’t on the same night as other big events in Valley. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t because there are more events in Napa Valley every year than there are people. Researching the event from a staff, volunteer and attendee standpoint was very helpful as the next event was being planned. We surveyed these stakeholders about things such as how they heard about the event, how they want to hear about the event, why they attended, if volunteers felt prepared, what else they want at the event, etc. Querying the participants not only gathered valuable input for future planning, but also showed them how important they were to the institution.


The plan outlined the goals and objectives of the event, as well as the strategy for successful event promotion. It included detailed key messaging, recommendations for communication tools and tactics, as well as an implementation strategy.

Included in the plan were a myriad of tools and tactics, including advice on creating trade opportunities, leveraging partnerships to increase attendees, and working with potential sponsors to develop tailored packages prior to making the ask. One very successful tip was to analyze previous auction results to identify the most popular packages and the packages that received the most bids. With that information, the organization was able to spend dedicated solicitation time securing the best packages possible, instead of doing a blanket solicitation for general items.

A major component of the plan included an event planning timeline. This was unbelievably helpful to keep staff and event committee members on track, on time and on budget. What with worrying about funding your next exhibition to securing an extra volunteer to staff the museum, little event details can often slip through the cracks. The timeline included every minuscule detail–establishing the event committee, confirming our meeting schedule, approaching key community members to secure their attendance, double-checking the lighting and microphones, and so on. The timeline was divided into sections: 28 weeks prior to event, 24 weeks prior to event, 20 weeks, and so forth until we got to the two weeks prior to the event; then it was a daily schedule. The final component of the timeline included the post event activities with a 30-60-90 day follow-up plan. I know, after the event you just want to move on, but following up on relationships made, evaluation, and feedback for the event is almost as important as the event itself.


Once the plan was complete, the agency facilitated a small working group session to review the plan and its purpose for Napa Valley Museum employees and volunteers. They also developed event surveys, analysis templates and planning tools to assist in the evaluation of the event and begin planning for the following year.

By employing a marketing strategy with an agency’s support, we accomplished a 23% increase in attendance and a 100% increase in net income. Being strategic about marketing the event with the right messaging to the right people had a substantial impact on the success of the event.