Major events are at the heart of many fundraising campaigns, and there is often a palpable sense of panic around the planning and preparation. These events require a tremendous amount of energy and effort to plan and execute, without even considering the team members’ “normal” responsibilities that still must be accomplished. It is no surprise that there are over five million results for “fundraising event planning” on any search engine.

To help, our creative services team has compiled a few best practices from our many years of working with nonprofit organizations. The examples come from their work in assisting our clients to plan and execute successful, strategic events.

What’s the Point?

Before you jump into the logistics of the event, take some time to decide on event objectives and your target audience. Make sure all key players (event team, leadership, and other stakeholders) are on the same page. Once you determine your target audience, make sure you know their expectations and level of experience with the organization—this will help you flesh out the program content.

Expert Level: Arizona State University

For the Campaign ASU 2020 launch event in January 2017, the audience had a wide range of experience with ASU. In terms of a university, a small percentage of donors were alumni and the majority were community partners. One key objective of the event was to create a sense of unity among the seemingly disparate groups.

Attendees were seated at banquet tables with strategically located development professionals. As part of the event content, we created an Affinity Video to open the evening, and then followed it with a plated dinner and specific table topics to drive meaningful conversations.

Who Can Help Pull This Off?

Brainstorm with your event team to come up with a list of internal and external partners. When you select partners, be sure to scope all elements of the event—entertainment, invitations, parking, décor, catering, etc.—so there are no surprises for you (or your budget) when the big day arrives. With the right partners, your event can deepen engagement with your internal and external supporters.

Expert Level: University of Delaware

The University of Delaware has many connections to great entertainment. One element of their campaign launch weekend in November 2017 was the Delaware First Festival. The Festival was an informal event on campus, geared toward students, faculty, and staff with giveaways, the marching band, cheerleaders, a campaign overview video, and lots of excitement. We worked with the UD staff to create a Today Show-style script that was hosted by Dave Raymond—a trainer of mascots, an incredible host, and the original Philly Phanatic. As an alumnus and avid fan of UD, Dave was thrilled to be included in the campaign launch weekend.

For the formal campaign launch event, the reception décor and catering was fully managed by the UD event team. Attendees entered the venue on a blue carpet runner, and the reception area was expertly styled with elegant wall panels, inset quotations, displays, and intimate lighting. The musical experience during the program was provided by Xiang Gao (world-renowned violinist and UD professor) and the international 6-wire Ensemble he directs.

How Can We Drive Results?

You must have a compelling message in order to drive content. It might seem obvious, but the message is conveyed through the program content. How do you capture attention and inspire or motivate an attendee to take action? Make sure the priorities or programs are clearly stated. If a potential donor doesn’t know the intended outcome, they are unlikely to give. Tell stories—people are more interested in giving to people than to bricks and mortar. Then, when the program content is finalized, make sure your team knows the content and how to use it.

Expert Level: University of Nebraska

In 2009, University of Nebraska was preparing for their largest fundraising campaign in history, with a $1.2 billion goal. The entire development staff at the University of Nebraska Foundation became a part of the fundraising event success strategy. After we completed the program content (including videos, speeches, and performance elements), all their development professionals were treated to a 45-minute “reveal” to explain the strategic design of the launch event. We described the arc of the program and the emotional journey every attendee would experience throughout the event.

The development staff was positioned to engage in meaningful conversations with the intention of deepening donor engagement. During the launch event itself, development professionals were strategically seated and helped facilitate discussion of the planned table topic questions during the event. The topics were comprised of questions such as, “Who from the university had the greatest impact on your life?” In the coffee and dessert reception immediately following the main event, development professionals were prepared to leverage the momentum created by the evening’s content and equipped with key concepts and communication tools to help drive philanthropic commitments after the event itself. In particular, they were encouraged to seek out donors from their portfolio and ask high-value questions such as, “What did you find most meaningful tonight?” or “What surprised you about this evening?”

The University of Nebraska was tremendously successful in this endeavor—they surpassed their original goal in the first 3 years of a 7-year campaign. At the mid-campaign rally, they announced a new goal of $1.8 billion, which they also surpassed by the close of the campaign.

With clear objectives, the right partners, and a comprehensive plan, your campaign event can drive exceptional results. Event planning isn’t for the faint of heart, but you are tenacious and you’ve gotten to the end of these best practices. We hope this has been helpful and you are now better equipped for your next event.

Interested in learning more? Our creative services team can help your organization leverage events for greater donor engagement.


For more information, download Campaign Events—A New Approach.