A: People are not going to like this answer.
Your staff, if they want to attend an event as a guest (meaning they are not working the event), should be expected to pay for a ticket. I have worked far too many fundraisers where the staff treated the event like one giant company party.
A simple and easy solution is to create a staff-priced ticket. Staff-priced tickets should still cover the price of their meal and a portion of the event expenses. You should not be losing money on ticket sales. Ever. For any reason, but especially not from your staff. Staff-priced tickets do two things. First, when staff pay for their own tickets they have to buy-in to the event and are guaranteed to show up and appreciate it. Second, it shows fiduciary responsibility in the eyes of your board and your donors. Your organization is not losing money on any of your guests and your staff are not being given a free ride.
If your staff cannot afford a ticket and would like to work the event, they should be given free access. However, they should be expected to work the entire time. They do not get any of the benefits of being a guest. They are not seated at a table, they are not given the same meal as a paying guest, and they do not get to leave the minute the event ends.
In order to be successful with staff working the event for free, set clear expectations in advance. Make sure everyone understands what working the event means. The goal of having staff work an event is not that they get free entry into your fundraiser, but rather that your organization saves money by not hiring event staff.
It is my opinion that when staff choose to, or are expected to, work an event they should not be expected to participate in any fundraising activities at the event. They have donated their time rather than their dollars.
The Gray Area
Many nonprofits struggle with navigating the gray areas of this topic. Do people who donate auction items get free tickets? Do people who help set up and create decorations get free admission?
I don’t have answers for every possible situation, but, for me the most important factor to remember when navigating this gray area is that this event is a fundraiser, not a party. The most important factor of any fundraising event is who is in the room. When the room is filled with people who are there because they received comp tickets or because they donated a few hours of their time, you will end up with a room full of partiers instead of donors.
My advice is to draw a hard line in the sand and stick to it for all your major fundraising events. For other events, feel free to invite anyone and everyone, including your volunteers.
Abra is a member of the National Auctioneers Association and is one of 28 people in California to have their Benefit Auction Specialist designation. A gifted public speaker, she regularly conducts workshops on fundraising auctions, and is a sought-after speaker at fundraising events both locally and nationally as well as an active participant in the Association of Fundraising Professionals.