4 Ways to Take Your Next Event From Ordinary to Extraordinary

In August, we produced a brief webinar in coordination with Greater Giving for their Apex: Greater Giving User Conference. We wanted to share some of the insights we’ve learned to help nonprofits create more unique and meaningful experiences, nurture donor relationships, inspire giving, and expand their impact. The webinar was hosted by Joey Goone, our President, and David Webb, our Director of Business Development (and a former professor at Washington University with a background in environmental and economic sustainability). This article is an overview of the content, but you can watch the entire 15-minute webinar here.

1. Start with the invitation.

Your invitation is a chance to make a strong first impression. To put your best foot forward. It affects people’s level of excitement for your event; it’s your opportunity to stand out from the rest of the potential engagements vying for the same space on someone else’s calendar. Creating a really thoughtful invitation helps you immediately get people’s attention, and one of the most reliable ways we’ve found to do that is through video.

Producing a video invitation has a ton of advantages, many of them just because of the nature of the medium. After all, it’s easier to connect with people emotionally through video than it is through text. It’s far more moving to watch a well-produced video, where you can see and hear from whoever’s speaking (and where they can be accompanied by compelling visuals and expressive music) than it is to read an email, for example.

Here’s an example of an invitation video we produced for Cultural Leadership:

Additionally, video allows you to more easily appeal to a younger audience, a group of donors we often refer to as “digital natives” (you can check out the episode of our vlog series, Insider Insight, where we break down the label here). Younger donors are more tech-savvy, and usually expect a fairly sophisticated level of video production from the organizations they choose to engage with. It can be an excellent way to reach this increasingly important group of donors.

Plus, video allows you to be more creative than traditional methods of communication. Your messaging could come from your organization’s recipients, helping connect people with your mission. You could show footage of volunteers at work or include interviews with donors discussing why they give. You could produce something more lighthearted, showcasing the joy your organization brings to those in need. The possibilities really are endless.

2. Focus on connection.

How many events have you attended where the main program is just, incredibly information-heavy? Where the CEO stands on the stage with a dense, bulleted slide behind them and lists everything the organization’s done? “We’ve raised this much money, helped this many people,” so on and so forth. It can be important information (after all, sharing your successes with your donors is an important part of any fundraising effort), but it doesn’t do much to help you establish a deeper, more meaningful connection with your attendees.

We are, all of us, motivated first and foremost by how we feel. To connect with your donors, you have to make them feel something. You have to pull on their heartstrings. You have to intentionally create moments of impact. We know that it’s easier said than done, but one example of an organization we’ve seen do it extremely well is Variety the Children’s Charity of Greater St. Louis.

“Variety Unbound,” their first live event since the pandemic, marked a notable departure from some of Variety’s tried and true traditions. An organization focused on the health, well-being, and dignity of children with disabilities, Variety wanted to showcase their work and recipients in a way that left attendees with a genuine connection to their mission. You can watch a detailed case study of what exactly made Variety Unbound so magical below:

3. Rethink traditions.

Tried-and-true gala traditions are great, but can sometimes feel a little uninspired. And often there are simple things you can do to make them more exciting without needing to totally reinvent the wheel. Consider putting a spin on some of the classics. Photobooths, for example. Instead of just taking pictures, you can have an additional camera there to capture interviews with people who are waiting in line. A member of your organization (or one of your recipients) can ask attendees simple, poignant questions:

  • “You could be anywhere in the world tonight, what moved you to be here?”
  • “What’s been your favorite part of the evening so far?”
  • “How did you learn about our organization?”
  • “Why do you give?”

This encourages your guests to reflect on their reasons for being at your event, and to ground themselves in the moment and in the experience. The footage can also be a great marketing tool for your organization. Particularly moving anecdotes can be posted to social media, live on your website, or included in your monthly newsletter. They can also be used to market next year’s gala, or repurposed as part of a highlight reel or a promotional video.

You can also place QR codes at the tables and ask your guests to fill out in-event surveys. Plenty of organizations send out post-event surveys, but attendees are far more likely to engage with your questions while they’re at your event. Here’s a brief clip from the webinar discussing the idea in more depth:

A little shaking things up can go a long way. Bringing novel ideas to include alongside your traditional ones can help make your event unforgettable, especially when you incorporate ideas that shift the focus from the center of the stage to the audience; when you allow the people in the room to tell their stories, too. And, of course, the more you know about your donors, the more easily you’ll be able to develop a thoughtful post-event fundraising strategy to engage them once the evening is over.

4. Nail the followup.

We know producing an event can be stressful. Some events can go on for days (to say nothing of the time spent preparing for them). We understand the feeling of getting to that last day, that last hour, and just wanting to be done. But, of course, when the event ends, the real work begins. The followup is everything. We just published an article titled “Test Donations: The Importance of Followup,” which dives into an interesting industry practice that really highlights this point.

To rehash some of what we said there, though: it’s important to begin reaching out to attendees as soon as possible, and in as personal a manner as possible. Calling every potential donor individually would be ideal, but we know that your nonprofit may have a thousand people at your event (and that you probably don’t have time to call a thousand people). Because of this, we’ve worked with larger organizations to create thank you videos, where you can feature your recipients directly thanking donors for their impact.

Here’s an example of a thank you video we created for Mount Notre Dame, an all-girls high school in Cincinnati:

Want to learn more about event planning and followup? What other questions can we help answer? If you’re interested in joining our community, you can find our nonprofit Facebook group here or sign up for our monthly newsletter here.

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