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How To Create Extraordinary Nonprofit Special Event Experiences

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The most extraordinary special event experience is one where, throughout the evening, your guests find themselves exclaiming (aloud to others or silently to themselves): Wow! Wow! Wow!

When it comes to nonprofit fundraising events, the road to success is paved with impress.

In our last article we looked at how to create first and last “Wow” impressions. Today we’ll look at all the “Wows” in between.

IN-BETWEEN WOWS: Sprinkle Extraordinary Experiences Throughout Your Event Program

Everything you do in between the first and last impression can be ordinary or extraordinary. Your job is to shoot for the latter. With intention. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when a guest tells you: “You didn’t miss a trick!”

Jeff Bezos once said:

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

You must do the same with your event guests. Consider what they hope to get from your event. How might they answer when they ask themselves “What’s in this for me?”

What matters most to your guests? Giving money to your cause? Meeting new people who share their values? Personal or professional networking? Doing a favor for a friend or colleague? A great meal? An inspiring program? A totally fun night on the town? Feeling included as members of a family?

There’s no one reason people attend events.  

It’s certainly not just to give you money. If that’s all it was, they’d have simply made a contribution and stayed home. Your job is to anticipate all the reasons they may be attending, and try to assure your guests’ needs are met.

Jeff Bezos also said:

“If you don’t understand the details of your business you are going to fail.”

Let’s dig into the details that make your special event experience a resoundingly positive one. We’ll take the example of a Gala event dinner — perhaps the most common type of special event, and something organizations of all sizes and shapes can master. They can be spectacular and fun, or ho-hum and boring. Your job, whatever you do, is to make sure yours doesn’t become one that’s considered a test of endurance.

To avoid the ubiquitous “just another rubber chicken dinner” syndrome, here are things to thoughtfully consider:


Where will you hold your event? Your choice will impact the impression your guests take away. For example, if you hold it in another nonprofit space, guests may think they attended an event for that nonprofit. I’ve been to events held in the local aquarium, for example, that left me more inclined to support the aquarium than the host nonprofit! A hotel is a safe bet, but know your audience. If you have a preponderance of union supporters, don’t book a non-union hotel. Think creatively about your own space. You may initially think you’ve got nothing that will work, but dinner on stage (performing arts company) or in the warehouse (food bank) can be a lot of fun (make sure you have insurance coverage). Finally, consider the size of the space relative to your crowd. You want big enough to accommodate, but not so big folks feel the space is empty. Rubbing elbows always feels more exciting.

Crowd Size

Set a goal for the number of guests you want. Sometimes less is more. I ran a successful event that built over time to 600 guests. We could have expanded the crowd to 1000. But our current venue only held 600. Rather than move to a larger, less desirable, venue, we decided to hold the size to 600; more would have made it impossible to retain a feeling of real community. And the venue we were in added a lot to the panache of the evening.

Seating Chart

People enjoy good company and come to group events to meet and talk with other people. Take the time to put them into groups of people you think they’ll enjoy. Ask them in advance to let you know who they’d like to be seated with (this can be specific names and/or categories such as “other single women,” “single men,” “finance professionals,” “young couples,” “mixed age group,” etc.)

Table Size

Tables too large for folks to talk to anyone other than the person seated to their right and left are a cardinal event sin.  Usually rounds of 8 work best for conversation. You can do tables of 10 if your space requires it, but really try to avoid 12-tops. Long tables are less successful.

Length of Speaking Program

Too many speeches and too long speeches will detract from your guests’ enjoyment. Think from their perspective, not that of your staff and volunteers. Sure, everyone involved wants to have their spotlight moment. But… too much is too much. A welcome from each of the Gala chair, Board chair, Executive Director and Sponsor representative is going to have people jumping out of their skin! Try to spread things out, and give some volunteers a spotlight in other ways. When it comes to length, I adhere to the two-minute rule. No one should speak longer than this, especially before food is served. Hold a practice session with your presenters, and time them.

How Long Folks Must Wait Before Food is Served

Making people wait too long for food will make folks cranky. If you’ve got a lot going on before folks sit down, make sure you serve appetizers. Once folks sit down, don’t make them sit through a bunch of speeches before they’re allowed to eat. Even when food is already on the table (e.g., bread and pre-set salads), it can be very awkward when folks aren’t sure if it’s okay to begin eating. It can help to schedule an invocation first, and make sure this is included in a written program so folks know what to expect.

Food Presentation

Food that looks ugly is a no-no. We eat first with our eyes. It’s amazing how far a little presentation can go. Always schedule a “tasting” prior to your event (always popular with volunteers!), and make sure the caterer takes a photo of the menu you select — as it was presented to you. (I once served halibut, rice and cauliflower that looked like a polar bear in a snowstorm because catering staff substituted a “seasonable vegetable” and the chef decided to make a white sauce for the fish. People did notice!).

Crowd Control

People talking over the program can destroy the sense of community you hope to create. This can be an outgrowth of too many speeches. Or endless introductions. Or anything that doesn’t command the full attention of the entire crowd. Even a live auction can lead to this result when it only has items a few folks are interested in or have the capacity to bid on. People get antsy and begin to chat. The event loses focus.  And folks may as well be anywhere. They start to ask each other “How long do you think this will go on?” Not good. The same principle holds true for moving folks efficiently from reception area to ballroom area. If it takes too long, it can throw off your tightly planned schedule. Consider in advance what you’ll do to capture folks’ attention at various points throughout the afternoon or evening.

Letting Folks Know What to Expect

People like to know what they’re in for. This is why when you go to a play it tells you in the program how many acts there will be, when and how long the intermission will be, and how long the show will run. Make sure folks have a program (either at their seats or on a slide projection), and try to indicate the time various portions of your event will unfold.

When Tables Will Be Cleared

Clearing plates and glasses too soon is a sure-fire way to drive your guests away. Have you ever been to an event, gotten up to go to the restroom, and then come back to find your dessert is gone? Or gotten up to go dance, and then come back to find your water has been cleared? Not good. Hotel staff will want to complete their work chores as soon as possible so they can leave. Work with them in advance so they know your schedule and preferences regarding event pacing. Remember: Your goal is always to be donor-centered and provide a transformational donor experience. Clearing plates, removing centerpieces and turning off the lights the minute the transactional elements have been fulfilled is not going with your donors’ flow.

Mission Moments

Failure to tell stories that demonstrate your impact and showcase your mission is the easiest way for your event to be forgettable. Sadly, I’ve been to too many “interchangeable events.” The hosts welcomes everyone to the event, people eat, some folks are honored, and people leave. There’s no real mention of what the organization does or why they do it. It’s easy to leave these events without even remembering the name of the host organization (though you may remember the name of the venue). Consider how you can wrap your mission into your event with signage, displays, presentations by folks you serve, testimonials and videos.


Beyond the mission moments, what will make the event fun and help it stand out from other events? There are ‘usual’ choices like a photo booth (which gives guests a little take-home gift). Or a killer band or DJ and dancing (Make sure you prime some of your volunteers to get the dancing started!) Or maybe try a sing-along if you’ve got a crowd that would enjoy this. I once wrote a theme song for our agency, distributed song sheets, and we led everyone in song. I know it sounds corny, but folks talked about it the whole year. Get creative! Think up some ‘unusual’ options. I once hired actors to burst into the dinner midway through, pretending to be the Gold Rush pioneers who founded the social services organization. Their conversation reminded folks of the roots of our mission. Another time a high school band burst in (this was related to our theme). If you have kids, consider having them perform (briefly). Or have a roving magician do card tricks at tables. Or maybe have a caricature artist on site so folks who want portraits can sit for them. Also don’t forget that fundraising activities, like raffles and auctions, can also be considered entertainment when done right.

SUMMARY: How to Deliver an Unforgettable Experience

Always think from the perspective of your attendees. Consider where they may be along a marketing continuum of just meeting you… knowing you… being actively involved with you… and passionately investing with you. What might they need to respect you more… like you more… enjoy being involved with you more… and, ultimately, love you more?

Focus on delivering the experience your guests need.

Being up close and personal with your constituents at your events gives you a not-to-be-missed opportunity to rub actual (not virtual) shoulders. To pat folks on the back. To introduce them to folks you think they’d like to meet. To get them together with beneficiaries of your services.

Consider what you can do with the venue, choice of activities and little extras that will showcase your mission and provide a warm and wonderful personal experience for each of your guests.

As they leave, your guests may be silently humming “thanks for the memories.”

Because you’ve given them a ‘gift,’ they’ll be more inclined to give one in return.

In Part 3 we’ll cover how to follow up with your guests so their experience moves from simply transactional to transformational.

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