The strategic purpose of event fundraising is to activate generosity through curated experiences. Events are opportunities for connecting people’s stories to impact beyond themselves. As an event fundraiser, this is your ultimate measure of success: did you successfully connect and compel others towards a story beyond their own?
If you are faced with the question of whether an event is an appropriate strategy for your organization, we recommend thinking of it from the lens of your donor base. Do you have donors or potential donors who are more likely to give in response to a transformative experience than in response to another type of appeal?
Events are inherently expensive. There’s not always a direct line between the investment and the return. But events are about bringing stories and impact to life. Events are storytelling at their finest. We care less about how many people attended the event, instead it’s about having the right people in the room engaged in the right way.
Because of the high cost of events, we must ask ourselves: Can our purpose be accomplished another way? If we want to justify the ROI, we need to be able to answer the question by saying, “There’s no other way to tell our story than to have this event.”
When to consider events as a priority strategy:
- Your programming benefits from telling a story in a specific time and place
- The life stage of the organization matches the lift necessary to host a successful event (i.e., the cost to raise $1 is less than $0.35 by year 3)
- You have the reach to efficiently exceed participation goals
The following overview provides insight on how to conceptualize and operationalize the event strategy.
Event Fundraising: Activating contributed revenue through curated experiences.
Transformational Experience: Any experience designed to change the way we think and act over the course of our lives.
Fundraising events versus other events
It is important to clarify the difference between a fundraising event and an event designed to support your other fundraising strategies. It is also important to differentiate between program events and fundraising events.
A fundraising event is designed to raise money on that day through sponsorships, ticket sales, an auction, a paddle raise, and/or a direct ask. Attendees are distinct from those targeted through other strategies.
For example, you may host an event to activate major donors. This would fall under your major gift activity versus a separate activity under your event strategy. For the sake of clarity, fundraising events are events designed to raise money on that day. In fact, if you are inviting prospective major donors to your fundraising events, it is important to communicate with them individually ahead of time about the “ask.” It is possible that major donors would respond to the ask at your event and give less than they would if you cultivated them through your major gift touchpoints and submitted a personalized proposal to them during the invitation stage.
The “social loafing” often occurs during event “asks.” This is the phenomenon where individuals contribute less effort in groups when they believe that they will not be judged individually. In a group environment, individuals will make a less generous giving decision because they believe the collective amount raised in the room will be sufficient. Therefore, it’s important to either not make “asks” when major donors are attending events or to prepare major donors ahead of time by letting them know that you are preparing to give them a custom proposal when the time is right.
Other types of events:
- Connector Event: A group experience designed to introduce new qualified prospective major donors to the organization. No financial ask is made.
- Cultivation Event: An event designed to deepen relationships with existing major donors who have not yet given this year. No financial ask is made.
- Stewardship Event: An event designed to demonstrate impact to major donors who have recently given. No financial ask is made.
- Program Event: An event designed to celebrate an element of your programming.
DNA of a transformational event
Transformational experiences are the ones that change our minds. While it’s easy to think about more traumatic transformational experiences, we’ve also experienced events that have shifted how we view the world for the better-–watching something unfold on the street during an international trip, participating in the birth of a child, or even marching in a rally.
Most of our transformational experiences happened spontaneously. Fewer are intentionally curated for us. It’s very difficult to design transformational experiences that have the power to change our brains.
It’s easier to design meaningful, moving, powerful moments. A gifted speaker with a powerful message or a terrible speaker with a powerful message, for that matter, can move us to action. Being moved to action is not the same as being transformed. Powerful stories make an impact on us, but unless we physically interact with them, they don’t move to the part of our brain that holds onto them. This field guide offers design and resources for curating transformational experiences that last.
Richard Rohr says, “Transformed people transform people.” They can’t help it. You will have more people talking about your organization after a transformational event because they will be able to talk about their own experience. They won’t have to regurgitate a timeline from a recalled agenda. Instead, they will speak from a vivid bodily experience.
Transformational experiences are part mirror, part reckoning, part community, and part invitation.
Part mirror: the experience holds a mirror for the participants to see themselves in a new way.
- Does this experience reveal something about me, or bring something personal to the surface that I have no choice but to face?
- Does it ask something personal of me?
- Can I see myself in the story?
Part reckoning: the experience asks people to juxtapose old knowledge or beliefs against new perspectives, knowledge, or ideas.
- Did the event ask individuals to consider or identify the ideas they bring into the room?
- Did the event include dialogue, where we learn through conversation with a different perspective?
Part community: the experience happens in participation with others.
- Did the event make me feel smaller and part of something bigger?
Part invitation: the event invited me to something bigger than whatever I do or don’t do today. To think differently. To act differently.
- Was there a clear theme presented that brought out the core challenge our organization is designed to address?
- Was a non-monetary, more profound invitation made related to that theme?
- Was the invitation explicit?
The event plan
With these mindsets in place, you’re now ready to develop your event plan. A plan is more than an agenda or overview of the day-of activities. It’s a blueprint for creating a transformational experience that begins with goal setting and moves all the way down to post-event follow-up. An event plan contains the following elements:
Clear Goals: We need to begin with clarity of purpose. Is this event primarily designed to increase the average gift amount, increase retention, or activate new donors?
A Donor-Centric Theme: What story or theme will pervade the entire event?
Day-of Design and Timeline: What type of event will we create? What will the event entail?
Program and Appeals: How will the program result in a transformational experience?
Logistics: How will the details of the event be managed to execution?
Pre- and Post-Event Communications: What types of opportunities for action will we communicate? When before and after the event will we communicate them?
The following milestones are necessary to fully operationalize an event strategy:
|MILESTONE||EXAMPLE OF SUCCESS|
|Develop and document weekly/monthly routine for event activity||A calendar of weekly/monthly event tasks and activities is created with assignments to all relevant team members; Development Director uses this calendar for one-on-one check-ins with each staff member|
|Establish/document routines for using CRM for event efforts||A protocol document is drafted, which includes guidelines for tracking all event activity and outcomes in our CRM|
|Establish clear metrics for event efforts||Use roadmap dashboard to determine metrics for each event; priority metrics include: # of participants, retention rate, new participants, ROI, major donor attendees, media impressions|
|Create/document event planning/management process||A template is created which outlines the organization’s methods for planning and managing an event; event follow-up process is outlined and launched for upcoming event|
|Create event logistics handbook||Event logistics handbook includes go-to vendors; logistics protocol; logistics planning template, etc|
|Identify brand/design partner||Identify internal resource for producing event design and print materials; Identify external agency to produce brand and design for event materials|
The most essential role in operating an events strategy is someone who can both manage the strategy and project manage the logistics.
Events Specialist: The Events Specialist is responsible for creating transformational experiences through your organization’s fundraising events. This position serves as a key member of the fundraising team who plans, coordinates, and executes events in line with your organization’s fundraising strategies.
Click Here for Seed’s Job Description repository.
Additional Resources: Do you want to spend more time on this?
20 min: Take Seed’s online microcourse on DNA of Transformative Events
Seed is a community of professional fundraisers and nonprofit leaders who strengthen and scale culture-building institutions in the social sector. Seed’s consulting team has supported REDF’s portfolio since 2019.