Event Planning

Creating a Budget for Your Nonprofit's Event: 4 Steps

Nonprofit event budgeting is a critical first step in the planning process. Build a solid foundation for your next event with these four essential steps.
A piggy bank in the foreground on a desk while a person uses a calculator to create a budget, portraying the budgeting and accounting work that goes into running a nonprofit fundraising event.
Nonprofit event budgeting is a critical first step in the planning process. Build a solid foundation for your next event with these four essential steps.

Nonprofits of all sizes know that events make fantastic fundraising opportunities. They can bring your community together, appeal to new audiences, and raise a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time.

However, events are also investments. They often come with many upfront costs, which is why budgeting is such a crucial component of effective event planning. After all, you can’t effectively measure a fundraising event’s ultimate effectiveness, its return on investment (ROI), if you don’t have a clear picture of the initial investment that went into it.

To help your nonprofit create an accurate event budget, we’ve broken the process down into four foundational steps:

  1. Set goals for the event as a whole.
  2. Determine your event’s upfront costs.
  3. Strategize ways to cut expenses.
  4. Choose revenue sources to cover the remaining costs.

Throughout the whole process, you’ll rely on your nonprofit’s bookkeeping and accounting systems and practices to stay on track—it’s recommended to review them beforehand to ensure they’re still serving your needs before diving into any hefty budgeting project.

1. Set Goals for the Event as a Whole

The entire event planning process should hinge on the event’s unique objective and goals. Otherwise, you might end up with a disorganized event that ultimately wastes time and/or money without actually furthering your mission as intended.

To measure your progress toward an objective, you’ll set measurable goals to serve as concrete markers of success. Common event objectives include:

  • Raising awareness of your mission
  • Generating supporter engagement
  • Acquiring a certain number of new donors
  • Retaining or re-engaging a certain number of previous donors
  • Bringing in a target amount of revenue
  • Reaching a certain registration rate

But to begin setting effective goals that support your event’s objective, you need to know how much you can spend. For this first step, roughly determine a topline total budget for the event. Look at your annual budget, results from any similar past events, and your overarching strategic plans to nail down this number with your team.

Hands typing on a calculator and writing on a receipt, representing an event planner creating a budget

Your budget plays a critical role in setting your goals. For revenue-related goals, this relationship is very direct—you’ll want to raise more than you spend in order to generate a positive ROI. For goals not directly related to revenue, like donor acquisition or retention, the budget is still essential because it determines the limited inputs that will need to be allocated during the event process.

For example, if you’re planning a silent auction, you might set both a revenue goal and a target number of new donors to acquire. The amount of marketing and promotion you can do to reach these new audiences is limited by the amount of time and money you can put into those efforts while remaining within budget.

2. Determine Your Event’s Upfront Costs

There are two sides to every budget: revenue and expenses. Or, as Jitasa’s nonprofit budgeting guide puts it, a budget “details both the costs that your organization will incur as well as the revenue you expect to receive over a set period of time.”

For an event, this period of time will consist of the event itself, and in some cases the weeks and months after if you expect to receive event-related donations during that timeframe. Certain types of pledge-based events like walk-a-thons might also involve generating revenue before the main event.

Two guests participate in a walk-a-thon, a popular nonprofit event you need to budget for

Thankfully, the expenses for fundraising events are usually clear-cut since they’re tangible, time-bound projects. This means that it’s often easiest to start by defining all your expenses when developing an event budget. Get these in equilibrium, and then determine where the supporting revenue will come from.

Nonprofit event expenses generally fall into a few categories:

  • Software, including both fundraising platforms for collecting donations and management tools for facilitating registration and check-in
  • Venue rentals
  • Catering and entertainment, depending on the event
  • Marketing and promotions
  • Event-specific supplies, like tents for a golf tournament or auction items and display cases for a silent auction
  • Event staffing, such as the cost of clean-up or trash pick-up

The key to this step is to list out all of your anticipated expenses before you assign them numbers. You need a full view of your expenses before you can begin thinking about how to allocate resources among them to prevent anything from being overlooked.

3. Strategize Ways to Cut Expenses

A person holds a bag of donated event supplies that will help cut the costs of their nonprofit event

With a clear list of expenses in hand, you should next brainstorm ways to reduce them where possible.

Some event expenses will be fixed. For example, if you know that you need new event-specific software for the event to run smoothly, you won’t have much wiggle room aside from shopping around and potentially asking for a discount from the chosen vendor.

However, other expenses might be more significantly cut down with a little planning know-how. For example:

  • Marketing. Marketing is an important investment that can ultimately determine your event’s success, but there are all kinds of resources and channels you can use that might reduce the upfront cost of this investment. Google Ad Grants, for example, offer free advertising for nonprofits and can help generate extra attention for your event when well-targeted and given enough time to run. Organic social media strategies are also free and can build a lot of buzz for the right events. Getting Attention’s list of free nonprofit marketing tools can help you kick off your research.
  • Auction item procurement. Procuring auction items should start with looking for in-kind donations from individuals and businesses.  Nonprofits also often rely on consignment services to provide high-appeal packages that can only be won above a certain reserve price, with the nonprofit then keeping a portion of the winning bid amount. If there are specific items or packages on your auction wish list that can’t be acquired for free, research potential discounts for nonprofits.
  • Catering and venues. As with auction items, in-kind donations of goods and services should be your first thought when planning the space, food, and entertainment for your events. Think about local businesses and venues that you or your colleagues already have relationships with, and reach out to ask for a donation or discount in exchange for plenty of positive recognition during your event.

When brainstorming ways to reduce costs, be mindful of the trade-offs they might create. If a free social media strategy will require tons of time from your team to have a positive impact on registration numbers, that time spent might otherwise have gone towards more directly impactful marketing activities. These considerations are highly individual to your event’s unique context and your nonprofit’s capacity, so take your time thinking through them.

As you work your way through your list of expenses, research vendors, and consider options for reducing costs, begin to develop more concrete (but conservative) estimates. Record and add these costs to come up with a working total.

4. Choose Revenue Sources to Cover the Remaining Costs

Letter tiles on a desk spell out the word “revenue”, representing the revenue sources nonprofits should choose when they create their event budgets

Once you have a total estimated cost, compare it to the amount of money allocated for the event. There will probably be a difference between them—even when not ideal, that’s normal!

Nonprofits typically need to find ways to fund the remaining costs of events. These options might include:

  • Upping the allocated funds from unrestricted individual contributions, like annual gifts.
  • Using previous earned income from fundraisers and sales of goods or services.
  • Securing a corporate sponsorship to cover a portion of the event’s expenses in exchange for recognition for the sponsor.
  • Using won grant funding (or seeking a new grant, time permitting) if the context is appropriate—i.e. the event is being held as part of the project or program specified in the grant proposal and won’t violate the funder’s requirements for use.

One or a combination of these options can work to help you reach the event’s total expenses. Always be mindful of any compliance requirements or obligations, such as funding restrictions, to avoid unnecessary liabilities or reputational damage down the line.

And as much as possible, do not expect to use revenue generated by the event to cover costs retroactively. After all, you won’t know how much the event will raise and whether it will reach its goal until it’s over.

Wrapping Up

These fundamental steps should help your nonprofit develop an effective budget for any event.

Plus, clear-cut and standardized budgeting processes give you invaluable insights for future event planning. By referencing your budgets, notes, and thought processes from previous events, you’ll be able to set even more accurate goals and learn from past mistakes. All together, these steps lead to better and more profitable events.

As you get started, prioritize record-keeping. Save your budget notes and documents for future reference, and your team and future attendees will thank you.

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