Making Meaning, Improving Constituent Experiences, and Improving Results Over Time
Spring is often event season in the nonprofit world and I’ve been involved in my fair share over the past few months as a speaker at a gala, volunteer at a 5k fun run, an attendee at a “friend raiser” for a local politician and a few others in between.
Full disclosure: I’m not always a fan of events for nonprofits, primarily for reasons related to overhead, organizational focus, opportunity cost and challenges of demonstrating Return on Investment or Mission.
And, speaking frankly, events have become a popular means of community-building for virtually every flavor of nonprofit, corporate entity, and other institutions, and there seem to be a LOT of them these days. This saturation can present its own set of challenges, such as a palpable “event fatigue” among constituents and an indirect competition for prime times on the community calendar.
That said, events have a role at most nonprofits as they can play a significant role in a diversified fundraising strategy and, when executed well, can be a great means of building new relationships and energizing old ones. Indeed, for many organizations, events are the only opportunity to interact with constituents, donors, and other stakeholders face-to-face.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to incrementally improve the outcomes of established events, and hopefully your fundraising results, over time.
Clear Goals and Objectives
As with any initiative, goals and objectives should be clear, measurable, and aligned with the organization’s strategy and mission. However, a few informal surveys I conducted at recent events suggested otherwise, so I thought it worth repeating here.
Even if your organization has clearly defined goals for each event, I’d challenge you to push them a bit further this year. Try looking at a variety of meaningful metrics (not just dollars raised) to better understand the drivers for the event and provide feedback you can use for optimizing future events.
Your mileage may vary, depending on the event and its goals, but try looking at dimensions such as return attendees, new attendees, new constituents, reactivation, dollars raised pre-event and at-event, social media coverage, earned media coverage, Annual and Lifetime Value by attendee, etc., as well as year-over-year comparisons for each metric. Even if you don’t have historic data, setting the stage for a deeper and more robust analysis of performance will help you understand the outcomes of the event in a richer and more actionable way, set performance expectations for future events, and provide a baseline for demonstrating results over time.
Start Marketing Early
Marketing an event early (6 months, 12 months, or longer for some organizations) gives an event more exposure in general and could likely result in a demonstrable uptick in registrations and attendance.
For peer-to-peer fundraising events, this is a must: giving volunteer fundraisers extra time to recruit other fundraisers and raise money is one of the top ways to impact the bottom line of an event. If your organization is reluctant to start its marketing earlier, keep in mind that many leading events solicit registrations for the following year’s event on the day of this year’s event.
If there is one takeaway from this piece, it is this: Emotional Branding is the capstone of an event; constituents remember how they feel at an event more than any “messaging.” What do you want this event to mean to people?
What do you want attendees to feel, remember, do, and (perhaps most importantly) tell others about? Spell it out: “We want attendees to advocate for our organization (either formally or informally)…return to next year’s event…increase their annual giving…volunteer as a fundraiser…etc.” Don’t sell yourself short, either – event attendees will talk about the event and spread the word about your organization and you have an opportunity to directly impact what they’ll say. (Look into the Net Promoter Score concept for insight into how seriously corporations take this.)
With that in mind, I’d suggest focusing more on the meaning that constituents will make of an event and less on formal messaging, speeches, or other talking points. For many organizations this may be hard to plan out, but even so I’d encourage event marketers and planners to risk breaking precedent (even if only in a small way) and see what happens.
Customer Experience (CX) seems to be an ever-rising trend in the corporate world, and this shows nowhere better than at an event, where your staff and volunteers are interacting directly with your constituents and stakeholders. As mentioned above, the meaning that constituents make from an event is paramount, so make sure that all event staff and volunteers understand that the constituent’s experience of the event is the actual “content” of the event, and will likely be the predictor of future attendance.
As always, this is easier in theory than it is in practice, but here are a few ideas:
- All event staff should understand your organization and its mission and values, as well as the event and its goals, and know how to represent your brand appropriately.
- Front-line staff should be energetic (within reason and as appropriate, of course) and passionate about the event and your mission. At larger events, front-line staff are the only personal touchpoint between your organization and attendees. Make it count!
- Coach front-line staff and volunteers on the “blocking and tackling” of constituent service (don’t assume they know), and ensure that they know who to escalate issues to immediately. Most negative experiences at events are avoidable, and when properly and promptly addressed are relationship-builders rather than issues in the long run.
Perhaps most importantly, ensure that staff understand that every interaction with every attendee, regardless of who they are, needs to build the relationship with your organization.
Ensure first time attendees or new constituents are fully included in the event, and feel like they are fully included and “part of the club.” I don’t know of anyone who likes to eat alone in a huge banquet hall or stand by themselves in a large group, yet I see this all the time and can’t help but think of this as a wasted opportunity. Send your more extroverted staff and volunteers out as ambassadors, and try to ensure all attendees are personally touched 1:1 at the event. Ban staff from congregating amongst themselves during downtime. Circulate your organization’s leadership and any VIPs to make personal touches as well (more on this later).
Treat VIPs like VIPs…treat everyone like a VIP
Want to move the needle on retention for next year’s event? Treat every attendee like a VIP. When an organization strives for this it can make a real impression, even when not executed perfectly.
As an example, at a recent event the organization’s CEO was systematically working through the crowd (of about 300 attendees) and introducing himself…at the end of the event he was at the door thanking everyone for attending, largely by name. The extraordinary feat of memorization aside, this simple act was personal and meaningful, and I doubt I’m the only attendee to comment on this to others.
Get Rid of the Velvet Rope
If you have VIPs, speakers, media personalities, local celebrities (or even real ones), encourage them to mingle with the crowd. I understand the intent of the head table as a place of honor, but consider strategically positioning VIPs amongst your top volunteers, for instance, or beneficiaries of program services amongst select major donors. This dinner party approach takes some more effort (some organizations do this quite well), but I’d suggest it can make a significant impact.
As an aside, I’d challenge you to think about who are your organization’s VIPs a little differently for your next event. With the advent of large-scale peer-to-peer events and DIY fundraising, many volunteer fundraisers are your true VIPs when measured across lifetime value (for instance, their donations plus the donations they’ve solicited over the years). Advocates for your mission deliver value in significant ways, although often difficult to quantify. More on this in a future piece.
High-Tech and Lo-Fi
I’m an evangelist for technology, and there are likely dozens of ways to leverage technology to market, promote, register attendees, and raise funds for an event. But, if using a system slows down or adversely impacts constituent service for whatever reason (slowing down check-in staff is a common complaint), I’d advocate printing an attendee list, manually checking in, and updating the system afterwards (manually or through an import).
Attendees need to be the center of the event, not the back-office automation or administrative efficiency of your organization. Just make sure attendance, giving, relationships, interaction notes, and other meaningful data is captured for historic purposes.
Don’t Forget to Ask
Don’t be too proud to ask for donations at an event, even if the event isn’t a fundraiser or if the fundraising campaign preceded the event. Nonprofit events are inherently emotional experiences, as constituents have an opportunity to interact directly with your Mission, and a soft or “silent” ask (such as a donation bucket or its 21st century equivalent) can move the needle for your bottom-line results.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of most nonprofit events, and there are rarely enough of them day-of. Look to local service clubs or even a philanthropically minded Fraternity or Sorority for volunteers. Consider how your organization can systematically mobilize, and steward volunteers as well in order to streamline volunteer recruitment and management in the future.
Social media works best in real-time, so commit the time and staff to do it right (if social media is part of your event strategy – for some events this may not make sense). Have a staff member dedicated to monitoring and managing social conversations during the event. Encourage your staff and volunteers to actively participate, and work in suggestions to follow, mention, like, re-tweet, take and share photos, or comment. Announcing a hashtag (ex. “#EventName”) but then doing nothing with it is going to frustrate your advocates and others on social media.
As with the marketing schedule I mentioned above, start early: think about posts leading up to the event, social media-specific ways to market, and pre-planned interactions on social media during event (announcements and photo ops, for instance).
Throwing in the Towel
If you have disappointing results from an event, don’t despair! Try to understand what went wrong: a conflict with another event, a lack of awareness…or something more concerning? Most of the time these causes are addressable, and could represent an opportunity to dialog and engage with constituents on a deeper level. Survey your attendees, but more importantly engage those who did not attend (in particular those who attended in previous years).
I think it is worth saying: many larger organizations are actively quantifying the value of their event portfolio, with the goal of consolidating and/or eliminating under-performers and focusing on those with the most potential. I’d suggest most orgs should review their events in a similar light, and open up to reworking or completely reinventing events that don’t produce adequate yields…or re-purposing those resources to other activities.
The more the merrier
Events take a lot of time, money, effort and organizational overhead. I’d suggest smaller organizations partner (with other nonprofits, with affiliated anchor institutions, businesses, or other institutions) to share or offset some of these costs, scale the event, and maximize reach. While this may not make sense for every organization, and this suggestion is likely to be scoffed at by many organizations, I’d suggest new and creative ways to remix events will become increasingly popular in this “new normal” we all live in.