Sprinkler Systems and Special Events

In Fundraising by Karen Buck

My friend Jill* breathed a sigh of relief.

She was exhausted from working long hours planning her organization’s annual fundraiser, but she was thrilled with how the event was going. The 500 people filling the ballroom seemed to be enjoying their dinner. The auction had raised more than anticipated and the keynote speaker kept it funny, compelling, and brief.

Jill signaled the banquet captain and the doors to the ballroom swung open. A small army of waiters began bringing in the dessert course – individual chocolate lava cakes, each topped with a lit sparkler. The guests started to clap as the waiters spread throughout the room.

And then the sprinkler system went off.

Jill held her clipboard over her head and helped usher the now sopping wet guests out of the ballroom. The best laid plans…

Controllable vs. Uncontrollable

That’s the way it is when an organization hosts events. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how hard you work, or how well you plan – sometimes the smoke from 500 sparklers sets off the ballroom’s fire suppression system.

I spent many years as an event planner and have my own share of horror stories (although Jill’s takes the cake). But while some events are disrupted by uncontrollable circumstances, it’s more often the case that an event is unsuccessful for reasons well within our control:

  • A fundraiser ends up being deemed a “friend-raiser” because little money was raised
  • Planning tasks overwhelm or burnout staff or volunteers or detract those human resources from doing other, more directly mission-related tasks
  • Attendance falls every year, but the event persists because “we always do it”
  • Up-front event expenses negatively impact your organization’s cash flow

Test Feasibility and Maximize Success

Whether your event is intended as a fundraiser or for some other mission-related purpose like education or advocacy, the best step you can take to increase your event’s likelihood of success and decrease avoidable problems is to evaluate the event’s feasibility before you commit to moving forward.

Use this special event feasibility worksheet to evaluate existing events and to test new event ideas. This is a rigorous and thorough tool that helps you clarify:

  • The event’s goals and purpose
  • Who you expect to attend the event and access to same
  • Who you expect to do the work of planning, producing, and promoting the event

It also includes a budget template where you can estimate both revenues and expenses. Fill out the worksheet and use it to make decisions, communicate your plans throughout your organization, and then to evaluate your event.


Special events can play an important role in an organization’s overall fundraising or education operation. But they are time and resource-consuming and may not be the most effective way to reach your goals. Another’s success with a similar event says nothing about your organization’s ability to replicate that success. Test every event’s feasibility prior to committing your resources and avoid the avoidable.

And remember, those sprinkler systems are very, very sensitive.

* Yes, it’s a true story. But Jill isn’t my friend’s real name.