Art and Science: Opening Hearts & Wallets at Fundraising Events

Many organizations spend an enormous amount of resources creating fundraising events that fall short of their goals. Typically, with underwhelming events the guests complain of being bored and the nonprofits complain about lack of revenue.

The sad thing is that none of these events needed to be a dud. They all had started out with the potential to be totally successful.

The key to successful and profitable events is having an engagement strategy. An engagement strategy is simply an outline of how you will use the art and science behind gathering to connect with your event guests in a genuinely meaningful manner.

If you take just a little time at the start of your event planning to create this connectivity roadmap you will see an enormous boost in your event’s profitability and have the ability to convert guests into donors. However, before you sit down to craft your event’s strategy, you need to understand the art and science of gatherings.

The Psychology of Gathering

Effective gatherings play upon the basic human needs of belonging, self-esteem, and the need to be part of something bigger than oneself. How can your fundraising event leverage these human needs to create engagement?

A sense of belonging can be formed at the start of your event by creating a welcoming environment. Create a written welcome protocol for greeting guests to help guide those working at the check-in point. Your board and staff should greet guests as they enter the venue and take time to introduce them to other attendees.

Guest self-esteem is boosted by making all guests at your event feel their attendance is appreciated. Staff and board members taking the time to go table-to-table (yes, all of the tables) to personally thank attendees for their support goes far to build a guest’s feeling of importance to your organization. Think beyond VIP lounges and treat every single attendee like a valued guest. It will create an overall community conviviality between guests rather than a segregation of the haves and have-nots.

The need to be a part of something bigger than oneself is what leads people to step up and join others in working toward a higher goal. Including a paddle raise during your event offers the community of guests a chance to band together, make a pledge, and raise substantial funds for a meaningful cause.

The Art of Pulling Emotional Triggers

Nonprofit events play into specific emotional triggers that will impact guests’ long-term impressions of an organization. This is good news for fundraisers who put effort into creating positive guest experiences, but bad news for fundraisers who pay no heed. Consider these emotional triggers when crafting your fundraising events:

• Feeling valued/feeling overlooked: Guests can feel important and appreciated or they can feel that other attendees received special attention and were more important.

• Feeling engaged/feeling disengaged: Guests can feel entertained and informed or they can feel bored. Boredom causes guests to emotionally/mentally check out or even leave early.

• Feeling impressed/feeling time was wasted: The quality of your event’s elements and programming can impress guests, or they can feel disgruntled that event was poorly executed and a waste of their time.

• Feeling generous/feeling annoyed: Guests can feel deep generosity in response to being mentally and emotionally engaged or they can feel overly pressured to donate to an organization to which they have formed no bonds.

• Feeling positive/feeling negative: Event guests who feel a bond with your organization may want to keep the relationship growing, but if they can feel antipathy towards your organization, they won’t want to hear from you again.

Planning for Event Success

Choices made during the event planning phases heavily impact guests’ emotional triggers. These three steps below will show you how to leverage the art and science of gathering to create a community of your guests, boost guests’ self-esteem, and make them want to raise their paddles and generously support your organization.

STEP 1: The Dinner Party Test

When inviting friends to your house for a dinner party, you most likely would prepare something special for them. You would probably choose a delicious menu, create a unique cocktail, set the table beautifully, and give guests ample time for socializing before sitting them down for dinner.

Now think about your nonprofit events. Are you doing those same things for your fundraisers and galas?

When your guests arrive are each of them greeted warmly? Do you give them plenty of time to socialize before ushering them into the ballroom for the meal and stage program? Do you put thought into the food and beverage you will serve with an eye to making the best impression? And, most importantly, do you keep the stage program moving along briskly so they remain engaged and interested until the end?

To improve guest enjoyment, maximize revenue and create post-event engagement you must change your mindset when planning your events. Stop thinking of big events as large-scale cattle herding and start planning them as you would an intimate dinner party.

STEP 2: Assess Your Event’s Impact Points

These elements directly impact guests’ expectations and emotional triggers. Are these elements helping or hindering your event’s steps toward making a positive impact with guests?

  1. Invitations – Guests who have positive expectations for an event are far more likely to have an actual positive event experience. Invitations are the gateway to your event and build expectations. An emailed invitation indicates a casual event, while an invitation received via mail lets us know this is a more formal party. Invitations that play up your event’s motif and theme trigger interest and excitement for your gathering.

  2. Welcoming – How you greet guests upon arrival can impact how they feel about the rest of the event. Ensure your guests feel appreciated right at the start by providing your registration team with a written welcome protocol and have your staff and board members assigned as greeters. As importantly, be organized to avoid annoyingly long check-in lines which detract from guests’ potential enjoyment of the event.

  3. Introducing Guests – A formal introduction for groups of guests helps break the ice and gives them a sense of belonging to a warm and inviting community. The first portion of your event is meant for socialization which leads to building personal connections. At live events, it is up to your staff and board members to act as goodwill ambassadors representing your organization, and their job is to greet guests and help start conversations.

  4. Inviting Ambience – It is a fact that preconceived notions of enjoyment translate to a higher rate of actual enjoyment. Guests intuitively sense that something special is in store for them when they observe a good deal of effort has been expended on details and making the room look lovely. This doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on table centerpieces but do put some thought into the room’s lighting and stage setup as that makes an even bigger impact at events.

  5. Food and Beverage Quality – Even if you are working with a tight budget, the quality and quantity of food and beverage you serve will impact your guests’ overall experience. Being generous with appetizers and hosting an open bar during the cocktail hour might seem like a frivolous waste of money, but these things help create happy, satisfied guests. This investment can pay off with a boost in guest generosity during the event’s paddle raise.

  6. Bad Service and Long Lines – Nothing kills that happy glow of an engagement event quicker than overly long waits to be served a meal, pay for auction items, or get a car from the valet. Long wait times at any point in your event make guests feel frustrated, and their positive feelings about your nonprofit event plunge. Avoid these negative trigger situations by investing in beefing up your serving staff, valets and training your registrations and cashiering teams in advance.

  7. Boring, Boring, Boring – People value their time, and it is important that you value it as well. A stage program with long-winded speeches and inane entertainment only detracts from your event’s impact. It causes guests to read text messages, chitchat amongst themselves, and leave your event early. Respect guests’ valuable time by crafting a stage program with concise timing, meaningful messaging, and genuinely moving moments.

  8. A Call to Action – Once you have successfully bonded with your guests, don’t let them leave the event without indicating that you want to take your relationship to the next level. All stage programs should conclude with a call to action. This could be an invitation to visit your facilities, or asking for help with a Sunday pet adoption, or a request for helping hands for a beach cleanup.

  9. Keep in Touch – After a successful event, attendees feel the happy glow that comes from an enjoyable, enriching experience. They are now emotionally primed to enter your cultivation funnel, so don’t let this opportunity pass you by. By following Step 3, you will be able to build upon the relationship started by your successful event.

STEP 3: Leverage Your Events’ Afterglow

The time and money invested in producing fundraising events is an investment in building long-term relationships. Hence, it is so important to properly engage your attendees in the days, weeks, and even months following your event. In the period leading up to hosting an event, create a post-event protocol for how you will continue to engage your attendees in a meaningful and engaging manner.


A.J. Steinberg is founder of Queen Bee Fundraising, a national event planning firm based in Los Angeles, Calif. Her email is aj@queenbeefundraising.com