Realizing the Full Potential of Your Events

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The CEO of the regional office of a huge national nonprofit organization knew that something was wrong with the organization’s special events; could I attend the next one and observe?

That next event was a “thank you” affair for donors of fifteen years or more. By definition, the guests were older. Many were elderly. They were invited because their long history of giving led staff to believe they were good planned-gift prospects. The evening consisted of several brief speeches, some entertainment, and a dessert reception.

Several hundred guests had preregistered for chartered buses, which came from multiple points in the large metropolitan area. Others would be coming by car. Still others would likely just show up.

What I observed was extraordinary staff energy spent on making sure the event ran smoothly. Most of the staff had “been through this before,” and they awaited the guests with some anxiety. Wait, wait, wait . . . and then all of the buses seemed to arrive at the same time. Hundreds of people left their buses simultaneously and approached the long reception hallway. Each of the guests had to be registered on the way in and then given a name tag. The staff, seated behind the registration tables, arranged in two parallel lines, was overwhelmed for perhaps fifteen minutes. Then, many of the guests needed assistance with seating.

In advance of the speeches and the show, the board chairman took it upon himself to walk up and down the aisles, greeting and thanking guests. In front of the large room, several people, including the CEO, were involved with a group photograph. I recognized a couple, extremely wealthy, to whom nobody spoke.

The entertainment was fine and the brief speeches were on point. The dessert reception was lovely. The guests expressed their gratitude as they left the reception hall for the buses, with extra desserts and some mission-related brochures in hand. The staff went home exhausted.

This special event was a good example of a development team losing its way. So much energy was focused on the logistics that some of the basics of good development work were forgotten.

What are those basics?

Development professionals develop relationships with people. While we sometimes turn to mass appeal approaches such as direct mail, excellent interpersonal skills are central to our work. Sometimes, we talk about the Development Cycle, or the “5 I’s of Development”:

  • Identify
  • Inform
  • Interest
  • Involve
  • Invest

A fundraising event provides opportunities to advance each of these stages of development work. We must continually talk to people, interest and inform them, excite and involve them in our mission.

Sure, a brochure can do some of the work, but, as noted by the Center on Philanthropy’s “Ladder of Effectiveness,” a person to person conversation filled with information and enthusiasm, is the best form of fundraising.

A special event provides numerous touch points for person to person conversation. For the event described above, I first suggested placing energized staff members on the buses—to greet the guests, to handle some of the checking in procedures, and, most important, to talk about the good work being done.

Here are some more ideas:

Checking in

  • At the beginning of an event, place the CEO or board chair near the check-in area. That way he or she will have a chance to say hello to just about everybody.
  • Instead of a row of volunteers or staff being seated behind a table, why not have them stand in front of a table so they can more easily talk with the guests. Or you could try a podium, to look like the maître d’ station at a restaurant (“Oh, Mrs. Jones, so nice to see you! I have your table assignment right here”).


  • Ask a staff member or volunteer to be on the look out for guests standing by themselves. It is hard to come to a large event as a “single.” Make sure these guests feel welcome.
  • Avoid placing all the food tables against the walls. A table of dips in the middle of the room encourages conversation.
  • Provide each board member with background on two other guests who should be greeted during cocktails.
  • While the event described above did not have cocktails, there was a period of time when many guests were seated in chairs, waiting. Why not assign staff members (or board members) to various sections of the room to give thanks and simply make conversation. When I was waiting, I spoke to the person next to me, an older gentleman. I learned that he had no children, was grateful to the host organization for years of service, wanted to “do more.” Imagine if such simple conversations had been organized throughout the crowd!

Seated dinner

  • Place a senior staff member, a board member or a key volunteer at each table to serve as a     table host, with responsibility for introducing guests at the table to each other and for making a short toast: “Here’s a brief toast to all of you at Table 6. Thank you for your support of the XYZ          Association. Through your generosity, we’re able to do so much good work. Cheers.”
  • Use place cards. Make sure staff, board and volunteers are seated next to people you want them to get to know.


  • Informal passed desserts can provide another opportunity for circulation among the guests.
  • A round table with a tray of chocolates near the exit provides a way to slow the departure as well as another opportunity for conversation.


  • Make sure someone important is near the door to say, “Thanks for coming!”

In short, examine your event for every moment that encourages person to person engagement.

The kind of schmoozing that will engage a donor or prospect does not come naturally to every CEO, staff member, or volunteer. The chief development officer (CDO) has a responsibility to help all the players prepare for their event roles. Included in this responsibility is writing sample scripts for table toasts, providing background on everyone at the table, and making sure the CEO, board chair, and other members of the team have clear assignments, with suggestions on language that can be used (“Sam, I’d like to give you a call next week to talk about a project I have in mind”). In many ways, it is like choreographing a dance: every moment of the event should be carefully thought out.

Then, after the event, the CDO is responsible for debriefing (gathering the little shreds of information that were collected, like the man in my example who wanted to “do more”), reminding everyone to follow up on the calls to “Sam,” the thank you letters, the “good to meet you” notes, etc., etc.

For this to work, in addition to raising money, the cultivation and stewardship roles of your special event must be clearly identified up front as goals. Early buy-in is essential.

Your next special event does not end when the guests go home. Think of the event as the beginning of numerous cultivation opportunities for new and deeper relationships. And yes, the logistics must be perfect, too.

The party may be over, but the development work has only just begun.


  • Lisa Meller,CMP

    Great article! Attendee engagement is critical, and it is important that non-profits or any organization running on outside support, volunteers, donors or patrons understand how and why people got involved in the first place. They generally want to be a part of things and to feel like they are understood (as people) for why they have helped others. Listening and conversation are two basic forms of recognition, respect, and connection.

  • Gale Reece

    Good article — good tidbits to keep in mind about events.

  • Grey

    Great article. The “thank you’s” are SO important and, in my opinion, what would keep me giving. I’ve often gotten involved with this or that charity and then moved on to another one because I felt my gift was unappreciated.