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Take Your Event from Good to Great, Even In a Pandemic

6 min read
Aug 25, 2020 12:39:11 PM

Kim Jennings Headshot-01
Written By: Kim Jennings
Advancement Strategist


Fundraising, friendraising, consensus-building, and more; your events meet a variety of needs for your organization each year. No matter what is coming our way in these uncertain times, those needs still must be met, perhaps even more so. The pressure for our events to perform and meet their objectives has only increased.

Regardless of your event’s format and purpose, there are a few key foundational elements that help make a good event truly great. Here are three of them.

Prioritize Your Priorities

We want to make the perfect plan for an event but resources are finite, stakeholders have opinions, and the list of tasks we want to accomplish simply can’t all be met. With so many priorities competing for a spot in our plan, we must prioritize the priorities.

Take a reunion for example, safety and health are unquestioningly at the top of your list, but also vying for one of the top spots is the depth of personal interactions among the guests, a critical part of the ethos of a reunion. Additionally, consider the emotional value of holding the reunion within their actual reunion year, instead of postponing it for, say, 2021 or 2022. Some won’t consider that a problem, but many others could. Another priority to consider is your desired number of guests, whether it’s held in person or virtual, your guest yield is going to be different than a typical year. There are still more concerns, such as raising money, networking, fun, and more.

With your volunteer reunion committee, lay out your wish list in writing. Be thoughtful. Once you have your list, I suggest deciding which of them is your “stake in the sand.” Commit to that stake as a team, knowing that you’ve made the right decision for your event for this year. Every other decision will extend from this, and you can’t keep everything. You are not required to keep good ideas simply because they’re good. Frankly, keeping a good idea that is wrong for your objective will actually make it a bad idea in that circumstance.

Having prioritized your priorities with reasonable consideration and team consensus, now you can move forward, understanding that though none of us can make everyone happy, you have an answer to those who disagree with your choices.


Brainstorm For Layers

Every good event has layers. Success comes from more than delicious food, mood-enhancing music, and eye-catching invitation design. Strong event design means planning the event, and then taking the time to go over it a few times to see what layers can be added to take it to the next level.

Consider the items I call “wallpaper.” At an elementary school gala I ran for a number of years, these items included large scale photos, quotes, and infographics around the room. They reinforced our message at every turn, especially at the bar, where guests tend to congregate. Often flower arrangements are beautiful additions to a table, but begin to think in layers. In what ways can your arrangements also boost your visibility about your organization, its mission, and the case for giving to that mission?

For virtual events, wallpaper can include digital “wallpaper.” An easy way to execute this is to send your guests themed and branded jpegs ahead of time to use as virtual backgrounds. Perhaps iconic rooms or classrooms from your school building. Maybe they’re backgrounds that indicate the guests’ interests; art, theatre, athletics, technology, etc. Let’s say the family has children in the theatre program; their virtual background could be a still shot from the recent play. This reinforces the breadth of your program, reminds the families of the amazing things your organization has accomplished, and refreshes memories of great times for their children at your school. All in a single image, understood at a glance.

The key idea here is layers. Try to leave enough time in your planning to evolve just a few more steps, from good to great.


Deputize Your Influencers

The true secret to good events is always going to be the right people in the room. I’m not talking about having some version of “Powerful People” there necessarily. Every event is different and aims to gather together specific groups. In order to get those right people in the room, you’ll need to deputize your volunteers, especially those who are influential in your community. If your event is going virtual, this step is even more critical! How are you going to build buzz, get guests to register and attend your event? It’s impossible to do alone, and stronger when it’s done with influencers.

The “right people” group looks different for each event and depends on your objective. When I designed New Parent Receptions for one school, I recruited and trained “veteran” parents to host and attend the receptions to create what I felt was the right proportion of new parents to veterans inside the room, ensuring no new parents would be left out of the action. Through several steps, my volunteers made our guests feel welcome and special, including:

  • • Personalized one-on-one, pre-event phone calls and emails saying “looking forward to meeting you” at the upcoming party.
  • • Direct interactions at the event with those same families.
  • • Post-event “glad to have met you” emails to the same families that included details of that night’s event.

All of that felt organic to the guests, but it was strategic and orchestrated, down to the draft of the email that each volunteer then personalized.

Because my volunteers were equipped, they engaged the right people (in this example, all the new parents that school year), invited them to the events, and then warmly interacted with them. The welcome was heartfelt and authentic from the volunteers, who felt empowered to proceed because they were trained, equipped with methods of interaction, and then deputized into action. Nervous volunteers are going to be less effective ones, so equip yours.

Identify and then nurture your influencers (remembering they could be different people or groups of people, depending on the purpose), organize, train and equip them, and then send them out to accomplish their mission, supported and encouraged by you at every step. The process I describe here for the new parent event could easily be adapted for any event. If you’ve never done this before, start small. Every step is movement forward! The key is you, as the pro, laying out all the steps and then communicating them clearly for your volunteers to follow. Empowered volunteers are going to be your best ones!

How Do We Decide If We Should Drop The Event Altogether?

If you aren’t already in the habit of assessing your fundraising elements, including events, now is a great time to start! Rather than starting your plan for next fiscal year with last year’s calendar, start with questions. Namely, what are aiming to do? Who are we trying to reach? What is the best possible way to meet this objective? Doing so will take your strategic planning to the next level, where you will more likely steward your resources well and raise your plans’ effectiveness in the process.

It’s time to be ruthless. Examine everything. We never had room for deadweight on our budgets, mental energy, and volunteers’ time - it’s just that now, we’re a little more clear-eyed on this truth, so we’re more prepared to make the necessary change.

If something or someone else within your organization could meet the stated objective better, cut your event or change it. Even if it’s a long-held auction that used to bring in a certain amount but now it’s netting a quarter of that. Cut it or change it. You have permission to be bold!

“But, our guests love this fun event,” you might say. That may be true! Even if an event looks and feels great, if it isn’t meeting the objective and it can’t be tweaked to do so, it’s okay to drop it. We owe it to our constituents, whose philanthropy, tuition, fees and memberships help pay our bills! We must be good stewards of the resources given to us.

In an organization in general, but especially a school where the turnover of incoming families to graduating ones means an almost entirely new body in a matter of years, the institutional memory of events can fade in a shorter time than you’d think. So don’t fret for long about that cut event. Most likely, over time, few of your constituents are likely to remember it existed.

Now, you’re freed to design something that meets your objective even better!

Be encouraged! Once you decide your event is worth keeping, you really can make it stand out, even in a pandemic. Commit yourself to keeping the main thing as the main thing. Focus on your objective, doggedly stick to your highest priorities, and let the rest fall away. Layer on the extras that make your message and mission stand out. Empower your volunteers to get the right people in the room (real or virtual) and authentically and deeply engage them. You’ll have guests buzzing about your event for weeks and months to come! And, my guess is, you’ll probably have hit your objectives, too!

Written By:  Kim Jennings, Advancement Strategist

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