Special Events Secret Sauce

A development officer recently referred to special events as a love-hate relationship. You love them for the goodwill and needed funds they raise and almost hate them, concurrently, because they can be so all-consuming of your time and energy and overtax your valued volunteers. The key to successful and sustainable special events is multiple strategic outcomes. Events are not just something we do to justify our existence on a development, fundraising, or alumni relations team. Successful events should contribute to multiple outcomes, including growth in volunteer engagement, donor cultivation, generating fundraising income, goodwill and peer relationship building, memorable experiences, networking, milestone, and mission-affirming celebrations, etc.

Before your next event, identify at least two or more specific outcomes, such as funds raised and networking opportunities, or donor cultivation and community good will.

3 Primer Questions for Events

Ask yourself these primer questions to evaluate whether or how to proceed with an event you are hosting for the first time or improving for a repeat cycle:

1. Purpose. Will my volunteer opportunities for this event be meaningful and life-giving for volunteers? Will they be energized by serving or just dutifully helping because this is what we/they have always done?

2. Outcomes. Can the time and energy invested in this event achieve significant outcomes desired in moving forward donor relationships through goodwill, networking, or raising funds?

3. Capacity. Who of our staff and volunteer leadership is best equipped to accomplish this event? Is there space on our calendar, job descriptions, and organizational budget to be successful?

6 Examples of Events and Outcomes They Can Fulfill

Events that can generate more than one outcome. Here are some examples:

1. Business/leadership roundtables and networking events featuring a speaker or panel to inspire local community leaders. These can be a great way to meet new influential friends for a breakfast or luncheon and discover who in my community cares about my ministry. A business luncheon creates an opportunity to cultivate partnerships with corporate, foundation, and small business leaders while showcasing your organizational mission. These events can be hosted on-site at your ministry, or you can bring your ministry/client testimonials to these business leaders at a fun, historic, or a locally interesting site.

2. Banquet, golf outing, outdoorsman event, auction gala, or fall festival. These are great ways to have fun with donors, clients, staff, and prospective future donors who get a glimpse of your good work and help you raise funds.

3. Homecoming, grandparents’ day, parents’ weekends, alumni or former client/graduate receptions and reunions. These are wonderful opportunities to personally engage with old and new friends. Make the most of these opportunities to increase your database/relationship gathering information on current and potential donors. If done well, events like these promote positive engagement and can lead you to significant dollars.

4. Celebration and groundbreaking events (graduations, campaign completion benchmarks, etc.). Don’t miss opportunities to give God praise for the great things he is doing in your ministry.  Commemorate new beginnings and new milestones in mission fulfillment. Taking time to celebrate victories reinforces your mission, builds momentum, and strengthens your donor relationships.

5. Virtual events. Especially in the last year, many ministries have moved their events to a virtual format. COVID has forced us to discover ways of reaching your constituency that you might not have otherwise engaged due to geography or health concerns. Consider all types of opportunities, including live-streaming virtual concerts and performances, online fundraising galas, and specialized donor appreciation events, etc.

6. Vision-casting/donor briefing events. These present wonderful opportunities to test new strategic or fundraising initiatives with a select group of donors and prospects in home gatherings and/or affinity groups.

4 Essential Criteria for Successful Event Planning

When you plan, host, or retool past events, keep in mind these four tips:

1. Know your audience. Keep the time of year and event length in mind when deciding what, when, and where to host your event.

2. Know your volunteers. Match the personality, skills, and interests of volunteers with various committee, leadership, or event-day responsibilities that will maximize their strengths and passions.

3. Know your goals. By considering your primary outcomes intended for a given event, you can give your staff and volunteers a visual picture of what success will look like.

4. Know your results. Be sure you gather volunteer, staff, and participant feedback in a follow-up debrief meeting and/or surveys to measure how you met desired outcomes. Write down ways to improve the event in the future, if positive feedback indicates you should continue it.

When utilized effectively and focused on the right priority outcomes, events can help you cultivate donors, prospective donors, and volunteers. You can encourage greater community support, promote your mission, start new relationships, and build donor and volunteer loyalty. Done well, a strategic use of special events is a significant tool in furthering and funding your mission for assisting those you serve.

About the Author: Jody Fausnight, CFRE, has worked in the fund development field for more than 25 years serving as a director of advancement, a community/public relations director with four non-profit organizations, and as a consultant. Jody has expertise in Christian school recruiting, public relations, fund development, and major gift cultivation strategies. He has successfully raised many millions on behalf of numerous organizations and has grown ministry development programs from the ground up on more than one occasion.

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