My staff in a regional office of a national organization had been holding a successful annual full-feature auction event for many years. The event was a great activity that pulled staff members together. It allowed individual staff to assume important leadership roles as volunteers outside their regular work duties. It was a modest-sized event, drawing about 120 people, but the net proceeds were always impressive. Among the features was a very good evening meal served family style that was usually dished up quickly, with large bowls and plates of food either on tables when attendees were invited to be seated for the meal or served immediately thereafter. It was enjoyable, taking little time away from fundraising activities.
The event planners did not consider the meal to be the central focus of the evening, but attendees occasionally mentioned having good food when commenting about what they enjoyed about the event. I suspect that subtle message about good food didn’t register with event planners the year they decided to cut costs. One of the cost-cutting ideas was to reduce the expense of the meal, thus boosting net revenue. The notion was well meant, and members of the planning committee who were in charge of finding less expensive catering did what appeared to be a credible job locating a less expensive alternative.
Unfortunately, the lower-cost meal service did not go well. Maybe the caterer misjudged the help needed to serve or the amount of food required to feed the number of attendees. Or maybe the caterer simply undercut the service, skimping on quality and quantity to meet the bid price per meal. Either or both are possibilities, because service was slow and faulty, the quality of food was poor, portions were skimpy and served cold, and there was not enough food for everyone. The result was a lousy meal, if you were among the (un)lucky ones to get served, that affected the mood of attendees.
People grumbled about the food during the event, but most remarkable was the discussion among attendees long after the event. When asked about the event, people invariably mentioned the food was bad. Consistently, the key and often only thing people recalled about the event that year was bad food. Fortunately, the food that night was not as bad as it could have been. I don’t recall anyone becoming ill. Poor-quality food is an unfortunate yet familiar feature at many events. National survey results indicate event attendees rate food low on the list of reasons they attend events. But for years, people had been coming to the staff-run event and enjoying good food. Poor food service in that one year set the organization up for failure, maybe not because the food was so bad but because it was so much worse than what attendees had expected.
Event organizers were aware of the disappointment and learned from the experience. The next year the former caterer was invited back, and attendees were treated to the standard of food and service they had previously learned to expect. During that meal I paid particular attention to the food and service and conducted my own totally unscientific analysis. After all, I was curious. I had gone through the year hearing grumbling about the previous year’s food and had done some grumbling about it myself.
Were food and service truly great at the event held the following year? Not really. The food was just good but clearly much better than the cost-cutter meal the year before. It also marked a return to having the meal served “family style,” which the attendees seemed to appreciate. It was not any better or worse than in the earlier years when this same caterer had built a reputation. People hadn’t made too much fuss about the food one way or another during the many earlier years because it was just “good,” not necessarily exceptionally good. But when event attendees were presented poor food, the reaction was immediate and long lasting.
The lesson here is that food can stay in the background as long as it’s adequate to good. But however well intentioned the host, food and food service will not stay in the background if they are bad. Bad food can ruin an otherwise successfully organized and managed event.
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Fundraising events almost always feature some form of food and drink service. This may seem like common sense. After all, potential bidders and raffle-ticket buyers need to be kept comfortable. Attendees cannot be expected to keep their mind on event activities if they are thirsty or hungry. They may leave the event to get refreshments. Maybe they will return, but even if they do, event planners have lost valuable fundraising time. Attendees leaving because there is no food or drink, because food is overpriced, or because the wrong kind of food is served would be particularly likely if the event were oriented toward families and children were present. If there is no appropriate food or drink on-site, once the kids become thirsty or hungry, families will leave. Event planners often give too little thought to the kind of food and drink to offer or to the level of service to provide. They may consider food and drink service more an inconvenient obligation than a fundraising opportunity or requirement.
To Serve or Not to Serve
When should food and drink be made available? Provide food and drink when and where needed to keep people happy and focused on the objective of the event—fundraising. At well-planned events, fundraising opportunities are set in motion immediately upon attendees’ entry. As a result, if attendees are likely to be hungry or thirsty when they arrive, food and drink must be readily available when attendees arrive at the event site. An event starting on a weekday at 6:00 P.M. will probably be attended by many people coming directly from their places of work. They will be hungry when they arrive. Some attendees may not have eaten since breakfast. Sometimes a snack will be all that’s needed at first, but if the event is longer than an hour or two and takes place during a normal meal time, heavier food is usually required to satisfy people. This need not be a full-service meal, but both quantity and quality of food need to be sufficient to keep attendees satisfied and their mind on participating in the fundraising fun……..
Excerpted from the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising by Rudolph Rosen. Texas A&M University Press.
(c) Rudolph A. Rosen, 2012