I’ve been to a handful of fundraisers over the years. While some really tugged on my heartstrings, others had me wishing I’d chugged more wine prior to arriving. To keep your audience from devising an elaborate means of escape, it is essential to create an atmosphere that will not only encourage them to stay longer, but also inspire them to rally around your cause.
You want your event to be the subject of conversation at the office water cooler the next day. But how do you make a big impact? Think of your event as a piece of art that can relay a feeling – a sense of who you are and what you represent. Yes, you could throw some buckets of paint at a blank canvas and call it art, but to create a dynamic, vivid illustration you need to start by clearly identifying the message you want to communicate.
Knowing what that message is and how your event relates to it will guide you as you make choices about how to showcase it at your event to make a big impact.
Sticking to your roots
The process of creating your message starts with the theme you select. Sure, your theme could be a black and white affair, or something as simple as a well-decorated room of luscious hydrangeas and candles. However, if you connect your event theme to a message, it helps build a connection to your nonprofit’s mission and keeps attendees centered on your cause throughout the event.
For Kulungu for Congo’s formal dinner, the idea they wished to communicate was the opportunity to grow leaders in the Congo through education. To illustrate this message, their theme centered on a flavor of the Congo that showcased its national colors. The centerpieces utilized flags, burlap, and colorful mints to spruce up a traditional batch of mixed flowers and ferns. This added color brightened the tables and was complemented with event programs and brochures.
For your event, think of your tables as stages, ready to communicate a message to donors about why they are there. For instance, a dog shelter could provide nametags with a small description or picture of animals that need a home. Organizations that include child sponsorship opportunities could place letters from children in need on each place setting.
Your décor can bring your cause to life and give donors a vision of what their gifts can accomplish. It can get the donor to start thinking about how they can make a difference and take action.
Setting the right mood
Creating the right kind of atmosphere can tug on your donors’ heartstrings. Atmosphere can include lighting, music, or a responsive crowd to make people feel they are a part of something larger. Kulungu for Congo’s executive director, Doug Kulungu, used Congolese music to bring the spirit of the Congo to Fresno, California. Folks walked through the doors and were immediately met by the unmistakable sound of drums led by none other than Doug and a choir of African students!
His music created a connection between a distant land and everyone attending. He put his own story into his rhythm and voice, filling the room with a contagious vibe that even had me feeling groovy.
Some people can easily find themselves a little bored at events like this. Either they’ll be on their phones or stacking the delicious little packages of butter to fill the void. However, this performance set the mood for the evening, got everyone’s attention, and attendees feel intrigued to learn more about the Congo’s rich culture.
To set the mood at your event you don’t need musical performers. This type of pre-show entertainment can be a slideshow of powerful images or even videos showing your organization in action. These real life examples put things into perspective for the donors because they are seeing first-hand what their donations will be accomplishing.
Executing the main show
Think of your event’s atmosphere as the frosting, with the cake being the main show of your event. Without the cake you’re simply sitting there eating an entire spoonful of frosting. But of course, if you just have the cake, then it’s like you’re eating a muffin instead of a delicious piece of cake…which is just disappointing. My point is, create a fun and inviting environment that reinforces your theme, but also transforms those “feelings” into action by creating one heck of a presentation.
Choosing a speaker for your event is like choosing an outfit for your first day of school. As a kid you want your outfit to be a worthy description of who you are and what you believe in. The process for picking a speaker is very similar. Should you pick a notable figure that will draw a crowd, but may not be the most eloquent speaker? A vibrant entertainer that guarantees everyone will have a roaring good time, but doesn’t personally connect to your cause? Or maybe you choose an individual with a strong story of how their life was impacted by your organization and who has a stake in its outcome.
Doug chose speakers that were notable figures, but also personally invested in promoting change in the Congo. All of them, at some point in their lives, have travelled and volunteered their time in the Congo. The stories were filled with compassion for the cause.
Each speaker shared how their time and financial involvement in the Congo has changed their lives—explaining how something as simple as supporting education has brought Congolese families out of poverty. I felt inspired just sitting among them. It was a simple reminder that there are others in the world that need our help.
If you are executing the speech yourself and having a hard time finding the right words, check out MarCommunity’s ten essential steps for successful speech writing!
The speakers were on point, but there was another dash of perfection that even left Doug in tears. Brandon, the video storyteller at Aplos, helped make an impactful video for Doug to show during a break between the speakers. It was the sprinkles that topped the cake.
Save yourself some stress
After spending countless hours dialing in your theme and making sure every aspect of your event is perfect, the last thing you need is something unexpected to throw a wrench in your plans. Usually, you spend the whole night before your event tossing and turning. You can’t sleep – your nightmares are forcing you awake, taunting you with any minor detail you might have overlooked. Then, sadly, you find yourself in the kitchen at 2 a.m., dipping into your emergency batch of cookies you were saving until after the event. We’ve all been there.
To save yourself some sleep and a few pounds, make sure that you have your set-up scheduled out to the T. Having an itemized timeline of your day will help you stay organized. Include things like when A/V needs to be set up, who is decorating the tables, and when volunteers need to arrive. This solution might sound mildly obsessive and potentially put you in a category with Monica Gellar, but I promise getting it out of your head and onto paper will lower your stress level and keep you from forgetting those pesky little details.
That’s my kind of event
I left Kulungu for Congo’s event feeling inspired and I’m confident in saying that I don’t find that very often. While it was a very traditional event, there were many elements to it that made this occasion unique and memorable. Up until that night I’d never heard Congolese music. I also walked away with a complete understanding of how I could help Doug accomplish his mission to bring change to the Congo through education. The organizers did a great job of building atmosphere and effectively sharing their message.
Planning an event doesn’t always have to be about creating elegance. Focus your efforts on providing an ample amount of reasons why attendees should be actively involved with your organization. Show them what the heart of your organization feels like.
Tune in next week to find out how Doug was able to use the event to “ask” for financial support.
You stay sweet…