Events play an important role in donor engagement and fundraising. They also require enormous resources to produce: time, energy, and, of course, money. Given these factors, how do you make the most of your investment and achieve the coveted trifecta of a meaningful, memorable, and maximized event? Below are a few key secrets gleaned over more than 15 years producing campaign launch and close celebrations, recognition galas, and other important fundraising events.

To Make It Meaningful:

Focus first and foremost on the audience and the desired outcomes.

It’s easy to focus on the fun aspects—food, flowers, décor, etc.—but the only viable reason to hold an event is to bring people together and motivate them to action. So concentrate your start-up energy on understanding who your audience really is, what you want them to do, and what they must see, hear, and feel to be inspired to take the appropriate actions. If you’re looking for a place to start, The Donor Development Chart is a great tool for analyzing and segmenting your audience by level of commitment.

Involve a wide range of stakeholders in identifying emotional hot buttons.

Every organization has its own values, language, and tried-and-true traditions. Weaving these distinguishing factors into your event will rekindle past connections and increase emotional impact. But it’s also important to look beyond historical traditions and uncover emerging trends that alumni and friends might find compelling. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through a handful of focus groups with a cross-section of constituents, such as leaders, donors, faculty, and students who represent the priorities that will be featured at the event.

Craft every element of the event carefully and intentionally.

A meaningful event is really just a three-dimensional story in which each attendee actually experiences the narrative as the hero of his or her own emotional journey. Map out the storyline for this experience. Where are people likely to be emotionally when they enter? Where would you like them to be when they exit? And what has to happen in between to take them there? Then produce speeches, videos, and entertainment elements that support each leg of the journey. Don’t let anyone just do their own thing; every song, speech, and video segment should meet a specific objective and carry the story forward.

To Make It Memorable:

Keep speeches, videos, and performance elements to five minutes or less.

Thanks to an onslaught of technology and on-demand information, the average adult attention span has decreased from 18 minutes to 12 minutes over the past decade (evidence suggests that Millennials are clocking in increasingly at a mere 5 minutes). To keep attendees engaged, divide longer events into 45-minute to one-hour blocks, and physically or visually move your audience to a new space for each block. Then fill each block with five-minute “bites” of speeches, video, and entertainment. Make very few exceptions. No one really wants to hear someone else talk for more than five or six minutes—even if he or she has the title of “president.”

Plan a few strategic surprises.

Nothing creates a lasting imprint better than something truly unexpected. An element of surprise is especially powerful when it highlights something unique about your institution or reinforces a key message. For example, you might commission a musical performance from the English professor who is not only a poet laureate, but used to be a back-up singer for a famous rock-and-roll band, or feature a dance performed by a troupe of robots that were “trained” through a collaboration course for dance and computer engineering students. Sprinkle a few of these gems throughout the event, and end with something truly spectacular to keep your guests talking long after the event.

Mind the details.

Little things can make an event memorable for all the wrong reasons—the microphone that never seems to be on when you need it, the video that does not play on cue, the speaker that doesn’t show up when he’s introduced. Don’t scrimp on the technical aspects of the show; done well, it will go unnoticed, but done poorly it will be a distraction. And rehearse—everything and everyone, separately and together. Your attendees are giving up precious time to come to the event, so make sure every minute is well worthwhile.

To Ensure It’s Maximized:

Think outside the event.

The big day (or night) can come and go quickly, leaving you and your attendees with great memories and a bit of a post-event letdown. But with a little forethought, you can leverage your resources to keep the momentum and your message going long after the party ends. Plan your post-event toolkit before the production process begins. What event elements might be repurposed for the website, regional roadshows, or one-on-one conversations? What additional questions should be asked during video interviews to make the necessary adjustments or produce additional media tools? Will you need professional video recording or photography at the event to create compelling follow-up communications? By planning ahead, you can save yourself future headaches and budget dollars.

Use the production process to engage key donors.

One of the biggest opportunities an event offers is the chance to involve a number of donors and potential donors in a variety of meaningful ways—in a focus group, in the planning process, as a featured speaker, or interviewed on video. For best results, it’s important to match the individual’s strengths and preferences with his or her assignment. The last thing you need is a “nervous Nellie” at the podium and an attention-hog on the planning committee. Be thoughtful about your selections.

Prepare your fundraisers to respond appropriately.

Taking time to prepare your fundraising team prior to the event can result in major rewards. Give them a sneak preview and clearly outline the role you’d like them to play. Are there any points in the evening that they should be prepared to engage in strategic conversation? When should they be listening or watching for important cues from donors? And, perhaps most importantly, how should they follow-up with attendees after the event?


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