The Right Way to Request Vendors for Charity Events

This is how you can schedule vendors for your next charity event without breaking the bank.
Mary Ellen SkawinskiContributor

This is a special guest article written by Jacob Weiss, PhD, of Playing By Air Productions.

When organizing a charitable function, consider event professionals as valued donors and sponsors. Focus on building long-term relationships with vendors who are passionate about supporting your organization. These professionals will continually exceed your expectations, and they can be an advocate for you throughout the year. Not to mention, you’ll be able to support them as small business owners in the process!

With a bit of extra effort and an outlook toward building mutually beneficial relationships, you can connect with incredible vendors in your community while staying within your event budget. Here’s a closer look at how your charity can develop its own approach.

1. How do I go about requesting event professionals to donate their time?

Just like approaching a major sponsor or donor, begin with a mindset that empathizes with the vendor's point of view before making the request. Take stock of your vision for the event, the target size of your audience, your overall event budget, any portion of the budget set aside for vendors and the estimated cost of each vendor. 

Then, ask yourself, "What would motivate me to donate my own time, paycheck and valuable professional expertise to a charity while I'm working hard to make ends meet building my own career?"

If you’ve allocated a larger budget for some vendor expenses (e.g., venue rental, catering) but are asking others to donate their fees and services (e.g., entertainment), you run the risk of slighting the latter party. Sincere respect for every vendor’s time and work will go a long way toward getting each of them on board.

2. We can’t afford to pay the vendors, but is there something else I can offer as compensation for their work?

Think of the vendor as an in-kind sponsor for your event. If a band's fee is $4,000 and if they are donating their entertainment, offer them the benefits of a $4,000-level sponsor. For example, your compensation to them might include:

  • Ad placements for the vendor on any event signage or handout;
  • Networking opportunities with key players on the charity’s board;
  • Media coverage with any press in attendance;
  • Professional photos or footage of the vendors in action for their promo reel (if a photographer/videographer is scheduled to be in attendance);
  • Reimbursement for travel and food expenses.

Simply offering "exposure" is a red flag for many vendors, and it can feel like an effortless gesture. By putting together a package of tangible perks in lieu of their standard rate, you’ll be demonstrating up front that you respect their time as a professional. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask the vendors what would be the most helpful for them in their own business and career.

3. I’m afraid I’m going to scare off the vendor as soon as I mention the words “work for free.” Is there a right or wrong way to position my request?

When you put forth a sincere desire to make the event a win-win for both your charity and the vendor, the vendor is less likely to be turned off by your request. Even if they can't help with a certain event, they will be more likely at that point to offer helpful suggestions and recommendations.

Position your request by thoughtfully conveying that you will go above and beyond to provide tangible value for the vendor (see #2) in return for a discounted fee or in-kind sponsorship.

On a related note, the IRS does not allow vendors to deduct donated fees on their taxes for pro bono services (only certain hard expenses), so offering to provide a certificate for a tax write-off may not actually benefit the vendor. 

4. How much time is acceptable to ask vendors to donate?

Your conversation with the vendor will shape the agreed upon donation. While you may have wanted them there for an all-day event, consider limiting your request to a block of time. It’ll look a lot less daunting for the vendor who is volunteering! In the end, you’ll want to consider the value of the provided services and adjust your time requests accordingly.

Note: Certain professionals may be more hesitant to donate their services for an event far in advance because they may get an important paying gig on that date. When securing pro bono vendors months in advance, always have a backup plan if they opt out. Remember to regularly check in with your vendors in the weeks and days leading up to the event to ensure all parties are still on board.

5. Is there anything else I should keep in mind when working with a vendor who’s volunteering at my event?

It can take a lot of time, energy and stress to seek out new partners for every event that you host. Your charity will be a lot more effective by finding and keeping trusted partners that you can count on. Don’t hesitate to go the extra mile when it comes to working with volunteer vendors. Carefully assemble a compensation package that’s within your charity’s means, turn the spotlight on them during the actual event for a heartfelt shout-out and send a thoughtful thank-you card within a week following your event.

Search online websites, like our marketplace, to discover vendors for your events. These online tools are a fantastic opportunity for you to introduce your organization to new vendors, and a handful of these leads may turn into great ongoing relationships.

But don't depend entirely on web searches and emails. Get involved by networking in your local community, attending other shows and events and supporting your local entertainers and small businesses. These face-to-face connections will be invaluable when meeting the vendors who will become your next big sponsors.

There are many vendors and event professionals who incorporate a charity mission into their business model, such as Playing By Air Productions’ approach to “Entertainment That Gives Back.” Vendors that incorporate charity into their work throughout the year can offer experience, creative ideas and innovative sponsorship strategies for highly successful events.

About the Author

Jacob Weiss, PhD, is the director of Playing By Air Productions, an entertainment company that bridges corporate events and social responsibility by donating performances to local causes. Through Creativity Moves, he works with entrepreneurs, charities and businesses to transform their organizations and brands through new approaches toward giving, listening and partnering with community members.