Despite the fact that we are now in a world that depends more and more on remote relationships, in-person nonprofit events continue to serve as an essential strategic component of any nonprofit plan. ‘Communities’ that are only built around Facebook friends or Twitter followers do not have the power of personal relationships. And ‘connections’ that rely only on LinkedIn or Instagram interactions do not have the impact of personal relationships.

But personal relationships are challenging to start - and to sustain.

Meaningful relationships require an investment of time and effort to be effective. But because nonprofits rely on the power of relationships to survive, they have no choice but to find a way to accomplish this.

Volunteers, lay leaders, donors and the community at large become engaged and develop an emotional attachment to an organization when they have the opportunity to form a personal relationship. Events provide the organization with the chance to get in front of its best audience.

Events are designed to build bridges, share stories, cultivate interest, and nurture personal commitments.

As such, events are an essential component in any nonprofit’s fundraising toolkit. But they also require a significant effort to ensure they reach their goals. Whether it is an annual gala, a 5K race, a bowl-a-thon, bake sale, or car wash, each event requires a team that will be responsible for its success.

Technology and changing demographics are re-shaping nonprofit fundraising events.

At the recent Association for Fundraising Professionals NJ chapter breakfast, Wendy Tait, Managing Director and Sommelier at the Park Avenue Club, shared her observation regarding the subtle evolution from formal galas to informal fundraising events taking place today. As more millennials become involved in charitable activities, their priorities are influencing the format and focus on events. While some organizations are able to hold fast to their iconic ‘annual gala’ with its one hour opening reception, dressy attire and sit-down dinner, others are embracing different options. Cocktail parties with no formal plated dinner are growing in popularity as guests are increasingly expecting to have fun at fundraising events! In previous years, attendees who were passionate about the mission, or who were supporters of the honorees, registered for events - with no anticipation of having a terrific time. They were fulfilling an important philanthropic obligation and that drove their decision. In 2019 and beyond, the next generation is eager to have a fantastic evening out and at the same time have a positive financial impact on a social cause of their choice.

Some of the elements of a great event are consistent. 

An interesting and tasty/diverse menu, an open bar (and maybe a signature cocktail created for the occasion), short speeches and/or engaging video presentations, attainable auction items, cutting edge technology to make giving easy and seamless, and an extended opening reception to allow for more networking all combine to boost the event’s reputation and success.

What doesn’t work?

A boring agenda that includes lengthy speeches, expensive (and probably unnecessary) table centerpieces, a cash bar, and inefficient valet parking can potentially create a negative tone that runs counter to the goals of the event and of the mission.

Technology is also making so much possible that never was before. The silent auction can be open on line for a month before the event even takes place; there is no need to stand in a long line waiting to register based on whether your last name is under A-G or P-Z! After all, alphabetizing is out the window when people can check in on line; and text messaging is used to donate and text messaging can alert auction participants on the status of their bid throughout the evening.

From the first impression that begins when the invitation is distributed to the RSVP process to the on-site registration and run of show agenda throughout the event, technology contributes to making the experience pleasant and professional. Even those last moments as guests leave for home, a logo goody-bag, a gift from one of the children served by the nonprofit, a donut wall, or just well-wishers biding everyone a safe ride home and handing out bottles of water, can leave a final great impression. As a result, next year everyone remembers the event as a ‘must do.’

A few take-away tips.

After reviewing the best and worst characteristics of fundraising events – here are a few ways to minimize mistakes:

  1. Ask anyone with a speech to submit it in advance to you – edit as needed and remind everyone that their words are appreciated but their time limit is brief!
  2. If you can, use video instead of live speeches. This enables you to control the quality and the length of the dialogue.
  3. People care very much about the food and the bar. Do not skimp here – there are other areas that can be trimmed to manage costs.
  4. Centerpieces are superfluous most of the time. Work with the florist – ask for something clever and creative but not necessarily fresh cut flowers. Consider having clients of the organization make centerpieces. This is thoughtful, reinforces the message and is almost without cost.
  5. Be sure your mission is front and center throughout the entire event. This is a major opportunity for promoting what the organization does and why aligning with the nonprofit is a great idea.
  6. Use technology whenever you can to enhance the experience for your guests.
  7. Pay attention to the run-of-show schedule. Everything is more complicated than anticipated and something can, and will, go wrong. So be ready for anything and have one or two people designated as the ‘go to’ decision makers for the event to avoid miscommunication and confusion.
  8. Follow up after the event with everyone who was present.A thank you, a note about the impact of the event on the organization, a request for a future meeting for a first time attendee, or just a call from the Executive Director, Board Chair or other volunteer. (Use technology at the event in order to capture key data so this can be easily accomplished)

Remember – events create an environment where you can get at the hearts and wallets of your supporters in a very effective way. Use this time wisely! Good luck!