For many nonprofit organizations, events are an important way to raise funds, gather close donors, and educate the community in a unique way. Current limitations for in-person gatherings present a challenge for organizations that were planning to hold events, particularly this spring and summer. An Assess-Decide-Communicate-Execute framework offers a process to clarify your event objectives and develop a plan to achieve them in this distanced period.

First, resist the urge to jump straight into the logistics. Many organizations fall into one of two buckets: 1) immediately canceling all upcoming events as they can’t see how a successful convening could happen virtually, and they are tempted to impulsively send out cancellations before making a plan or 2) transitioning all of their events to a virtual format as they want to make it happen in any way possible.

Before sending out a cancellation notice or purchasing new virtual event software, nonprofits should take advantage of this moment to review and assess the purpose and performance of their key events. This helps clarify the best event strategy to achieve your objectives this year, and to identify opportunities to enhance these high-capacity activities well into the future.

Take this short survey to help your organization determine the best alternative avenue for engagement.

STEP 1: ASSESS

Before you make any decisions, recall what the event was intended to achieve. Were you raising funds for a certain cause? Celebrating donors at a certain level? Educating the public? Or a combination? Taking the time to understand what goals your event was aiming to achieve, and where you were in the planning stage, will inform and elevate your transition plans moving forward. Conduct an event audit to determine:

The purpose and impact of the event

  • In a typical year, what are the stated goals, benefits, and motivations for this event? How does the event support…
    • Fundraising: Does this event produce irreplaceable funds for your program or organization?
    • Engagement: Who typically attends this event, and does your organization have another way to reach them?
    • Education: What important messaging does the event carry about your organization’s mission, impact, and/or people? Through what vehicle?
    • Stewardship: How does this event serve as a vehicle for donor cultivation and retention? What other platforms are available to accomplish that recognition?
    • Additional Benefits: What other positives have resulted from these events in the past?

What planning has already taken place

  • Where do you currently stand in your event preparation, and what resources are currently dedicated to this event?
    • Have you already raised funds or secured commitments?
    • What logistics or contracts are already committed? What are the options and risks associated with changing your plans?
    • What staff are still available for event planning – in past or altered format?

How timing considerations will make the decision for you

  • Does the date fall within the most up-to-date shelter-in-place restrictions for your city/state?
  • How many guests usually attend the event? How does this compare to capacities outlined in current social gathering limitations?
  • How many other events does the organization typically hold each year?
  • Is there an opportunity to combine this event with a future event? What challenges would arise from that option?

STEP 2: DECIDE

“To cancel or not to cancel?” is not the question. Your organization has options, and it is not best practice to go the route of wholesale cancellation of event fundraising plans. Your team may choose to postpone or make your event virtual. You can also redistribute staff efforts to build alternative strategies that advance the goals you identified in the assessment. Translate the insights from the event audit into action: develop an engaging strategy or program that achieves your original event objectives.

STEP 3: COMMUNICATE

Regardless of how you decide to move forward, stakeholders are interested in hearing from the nonprofits they support. Developing a tiered communications plan that prioritizes event volunteers, sponsors, and major prospective donors can support the messaging of your ultimate decision. Though the logistics of your plan is important, incorporating impact-oriented updates about how your organization or cause is faring and how supporters can help will be strategic during this time.

A few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Rethink your event name: Even if it is a close replica, a virtual event will not be the same as the original gathering. Your organization should therefore consider renaming the event to create something new (i.e., “The Pajama Ball: A Night of Giving in Your PJs”).
  • Facilitate connections: Consider incorporating a live Q&A session and/or allow an online “chat” function. Now more than ever, people want to connect with each other. Providing access to key executives or thought leaders can help keep your constituents connected to and excited about your organization’s work.
  • Generate excitement: Prominently display the event fundraising goal thermometer and donor wall throughout your event to build and maintain momentum. Brainstorm new recognition levels and benefits for virtual event donors.

STEP 4: EXECUTE

For an event planning team, this step may feel familiar. Develop the appropriate working group, action steps, and timeline to make the event a success. Though your plans have changed, you may not need to start from square one. Find ways to creatively repurpose the plans and speaking points you have already developed. This step should also include your follow-up communication and donor cultivation plan to maximize the success of your event.

A few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Think outside of the box: This moment creates an opportunity to think differently about execution. Your organization’s audience will likely be excited to see a unique effort being implemented on their behalf. Find out how a nonprofit recently created a new virtual event to inspire its community.
  • Secure sponsorships, no matter what: Focus on recruiting and retaining your sponsors regardless of your final plan. Get creative with ways to fulfill sponsor benefits. Be straight forward with your sponsors. Let them know what challenge is impeding your event and invite them to partner with you to identify the solution. Many sponsors already have their commitment set aside in their annual budget.
  • Expand your invitation list: Re-think your invite list. If you are transitioning to virtual, cast a wider net and expand the invite list to everyone for whom you have an email on file. Or, cut the list to only include your top prospects and donors for a more intimate gathering (either in person, or virtual).
  • Treat Your Event Like a Giving Day: Check out our best practices here and here.

What Can You Do Today?

The first step to initiate this 4-point plan is to meet with your staff and leadership to brainstorm ideas and solutions to obstacles. It is also useful to look at what like-minded organizations have already done. How can you set yourselves apart from the pack and create something that stands out? These are the key questions that will help initiate a thorough plan of action.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.

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About the Authors

Erinn Kenney, Executive Director, has fundraising experience in healthcare and global development. Bringing a background in public policy and strategic communications to her client partners, her work specializes in campaign management and donor engagement strategies.

Rebecca Kiely is a Senior Director with CCS Fundraising with experience in healthcare, higher education, and secondary education and with expertise in major gifts strategy, campaign management, donor communication, and interim management.

Annie Reynolds, Assistant Vice President, has nearly ten years’ experience in the arts and culture, higher education, secondary education, health, social and human service, and religious sectors, specializing in campaign planning, development audits, principal and major gift strategies, prospect research and management, and donor communications and collateral.