Events have long been an important component within our fundraising toolkit. They enable us to celebrate accomplishments, major gifts, or any number of other achievements. They also allow us to engage and inform a specific group of people who we aim to better connect with our institution and institutional mission.
But what they don’t do is provide an efficient means of raising money. As my colleague Suzanne Hilser-Wiles has written, galas are the least effective way to raise money given the significant time and energy required to throw a great event. That’s why we have long advised our clients to avoid hosting events that primarily aim to raise money.
With the COVID-19 pandemic driving us to rethink and reimagine our work, now is the time to develop an events strategy that’s aligned with our broader organizational fundraising objectives. Here’s where to start.
What’s your goal?
Before you begin considering whether an event should take place in person or virtually, we encourage you to focus on one essential question: What is the purpose of the event? The answer can guide your approach. For example, if your goal is to celebrate or create meaningful moments, then an in-person event makes sense because those types of memories typically stem when we are part of a collective experience. If you aim to share content, a virtual event is ideal given that it is cheaper and easier to produce than an in-person event, as well as easier (and less commitment) for donors and prospects to attend.
If your objective is to raise significant funds via an event such as a gala, we suggest you conduct a serious analysis of the cost of raising a dollar via events compared to other fundraising methods. Our experience is that galas often have a much lower return on investment than other approaches. That’s because organizations often fail to do a full accounting and honest assessment of the time and energy required to throw a successful party. For example, institutions often treat staff as a sunk cost rather than an allocated resource. Moreover, organizations need to consider the opportunity costs involved in hosting fundraising-focused events given that galas and other events can steer valuable staff resources away from more productive modes of fundraising.
What makes for a successful in-person event?
Before I discuss what makes for a successful event, I want to note that we are in challenging times and that in-person events may not be possible—or desirable—in certain areas, or with certain demographic groups at this moment in time.
That said, whenever in-person events are possible, they should focus on building connections among a group. That may be to celebrate a donor who endowed a program or position at hospital or it may be to mark the launch or conclusion of a campaign. After all, donors often want to be part of a celebration with family and friends where those touched by their gift—academics, physicians, researchers, performers, or curators—can say thank you and detail how the donor’s gift will produce a meaningful impact.
For example, my colleagues Andrew Allred and Suzanne Hilser-Wiles recently attended an event marking the public launch of Kutztown University’s campaign. The event, which was largely held outside where attendees did not need to wear a mask, was “unbelievable,” according to Andrew. “To see smiling people gather together, in nice clothes, enjoying each others’ company was incredibly special,” he says. “There’s no way to recreate that feeling of people coming together to mark a special occasion.”
Of course, putting on a great celebratory event requires a significant amount of work—from building a seating chart to developing a list of who the president or CEO needs to talk to during the event (and staffing the president or CEO to ensure that he/she actually talks to those individuals) to working the room to ensure that you are building connections among attendees such as introducing two alumni who may share something in common.
Because fundraising is not the objective, there’s no one way to gauge success. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have measurable goals.
Those measurements should have a clear purpose: To support the already established goals for the development department. The events should be designed to support those goals and have clearly defined ways to do so. We advise institutions to set a measurable goal ahead of time, which may be different for every institution. For example, a museum might host an event for current museum members with the capacity to give a leadership annual gift with a goal of upgrading 25% of donors to the next level.
What makes a successful virtual event?
Virtual events should primarily be about sharing content in an engaging way that may create opportunities for future follow-up/engagement opportunities. That may be getting the word out about a new program and creating an insider feeling where supporters at this level get this information first, it may be a behind-the-scenes look at what a researcher is doing, or it may be a discussion among key figures within the institution. The common thread is that it feels special and engages them and/or informs them of what’s going on at institution.
For example, one theater that I’m a fan of has hosted a number of virtual “lunch and learn” sessions where a producer interviewed an artist for about 30 minutes before moving on to a question and answer session. The event allowed me—in Chicago—to attend, even though the theater is in Boston. It also kept me informed and engaged with the institution. Moreover, when the theater was dark, the event enabled the theater to continue engaging its constituents.
Like in-person events, fundraising isn’t the objective and measurements shouldn’t be for measurement’s sake. Institutions should design the event around their objective and determine metrics that support that objective. That may be something as simple as registrations or it could be post-event contacts with attendees.
Events serve a valuable role
We know the pandemic forced institutions to rethink the value proposition for all events. My colleague Colin Hennessy points to a prime example of that approach at the University of Chicago where, prior to the pandemic, the University’s central alumni engagement team hosted in-person events around the globe to increase engagement and connection with alumni and friends wherever they may be. The team also collaborated closely with regional volunteers and faculty to bring the intellectual riches of the University to the broadest possible audience. But when the pandemic forced the University to pause in-person gatherings, the team pivoted quickly to redeploy signature events digitally.
One such signature event, the faculty-led Harper Lecture series, brought in more views and participants through digital delivery than ever imagined. The first lecture had nearly 8,000 registrations, and more than 4,000 guests watched live (and the recording has almost 150,000 views on YouTube). What’s more, one major gift officer alone had over 60 conversations with prospects following the lecture who wanted to learn how to be more engaged.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the need to pivot. We all need to rethink what we are doing and redeploy the best offerings using new channels and technologies while sunsetting things that don’t work or have little return.
The key to success for the UChicago team was to identify the events that brought value to their audience and helped extend the intellectual reach of the University. For example, coupling the lecture series with personalized outreach helped engage prospects in new ways. As you consider what to do with events as the world opens up, we suggest taking stock in what is essential, what brings value to your audience, and what moves the development conversation forward.
Now is the time to stop doing events to take up space and instead focus on bringing relevant and meaningful content to our audiences that bring them closer to our mission and their passion.
If you need help rethinking the purposes of your events, please contact Anne Kohn at AKohn@grenzglier.com.