Spring and Special Events – Magical or Deadly?

Published by Karen Osborne on

For readers in the northern hemisphere, spring special event season is just around the corner. And they can be deadly.

MagicalBack-to-back events, exhausting staff and volunteers, not netting enough, no time for follow-up from one because another is on its heels.  Poor donor retention from one year to the next, so you have to find NEW people to attend.  The returnees are bored and want NEW, exciting venues, more sparkle and entertainment (or so the lead volunteers report).  Major gift work?  Who has time for that?

Or, they can be magical.

Here are eight steps that can work for you and your organization.

1. Assess your current efforts 

We all have (or had) events that seem to have lives of their own.  A volunteer leader loves it.  We do it every year no matter what.  Or maybe someone thinks you need a signature event just like the NGO down the street.  Did you know they raise one million and we’ve never raised more than twenty-five thousand?  Hmmm. Let’s examine the metrics.

  • What were you trying to achieve and how did you do against those goals?  Net a certain amount of money, introduce your cause to x new potential donors, retain 95% of previous attendees, 75% increase their giving from last year, and/or convert 55% of attendees into leadership annual donors?
  • How much did it cost?  In money, staff time, opportunity costs (what didn’t get accomplished that needed doing), volunteer time?
  • Did you accomplish enough to make this event worth doing again?

Sometimes, people tell me that the event is a “cultivation” event.  “Our goal was to cultivate current and potential donors.”  Ahem. Cultivation is not a measurable goal. 

Every event should have SMART goals – specific, measurable, results-oriented, reachable, and timed.

2. Drop or plan to fix the failing events.  Better to do a one or two high quality, productive events that a lot of poor performers.

3. Set SMART goals for the events you are keeping as discussed above. Include THINK, FEEL AND DO messaging.

What do you want your participants to THINK about your organization?  That you are forward looking, solving an important societal problem; that your leadership manages your organization well, guided by shared values.

What do you want your attendees to FEEL about the organization?  Is your event mission-infused? Would every attendee know what problems you are solving, who you are helping, why you are relevant?  Will the event tug at their hearts, inspire? If the answer is, “Yes, because we put brochures on the table and the CEO gave a speech after dinner,” chances are the event is not mission-infused.

Most important, what do you want your participants to DO once they return home?  A credible message bearer needs to invite everyone to a next step. “We’ll be in touch after today. Please say yes when we call.”  “We’re having an open house next month.  I’m looking forward to seeing you there.”  “Please visit our website and checkout our new videos. Do let us know what you think.”

4. Develop an attendance strategy for getting the right people to attend.  Start with a realized table-of-gifts from previous years


Identify your critical few – those donors who are most important.  Have a personalized plan 12 to six months in advance for engaging them in the mission, vision and work or the organization.  Is your event next month?  Do it now.

Develop a retention plan for keeping a high percentage of last year’s participants.  Start with stewardship.  Six months before the event, for example, send everyone an impact communication – thank you again, this is how we spent the money raised and this is what the money accomplished.  If it wasn’t a fundraising event – thank you again for coming.  Your participation helped us (fill in outcome). We look forward to seeing you again. Event is in April.  Share the stewardship now.

Enroll and engage volunteers who can help you bring back those who missed last year.  Have a pre-event six months in advance for volunteer leaders.  Enroll them in strategy development – “how will we bring back our past participants?”  Ask them to help you implement the plan.

5. Plan the program in keeping with your goals.  Golf event?  Include a clinic for the people you serve taught by donor/attendees.  Gala? Have a beneficiary of your services at every table.  Videos and pictures adorn the space. Timing is also important.  Delivering your messages after a cocktail hour, three-course meal and several glasses or wine is not productive.  Cocktail, program, dinner, “Do” message. Check out this podcast on hardworking special events. 

6. Execute individual “moves” or strategic initiatives during the event.  Every board member and high-level staff member should have an assignment.  “Say this to Mr. S.” “Thank Ms. J.” “Invite Mr. and Mrs. L.”  Work the room with purpose, strategy.  Plant follow-up seeds.


  • Thank you notes within 48 hours to attendees, volunteers and non-fundraising staff who helped
  • Send handwritten notes to critical few
  • Make phone calls
  • Reach out to those who couldn’t make it, but you wish they had
  • Debrief with staff and volunteers about the critical few
  • Implementation of next “move” or strategic step for each of the critical few

8. Provide wonderful stewardship to every attendee.  Magic can only happen when you “WOW” your constituents.  Surprise them.  Exceed their expectations.  Connect them to the impact of their investment in you. For the most important, make it personal, tied to what matters to them the most.

Karen Osborne

Internationally recognized as an expert consultant and excellent presenter, Karen receives invitations from all over the United States and the world to make presentations and consult with NGOs, universities, justice, social service, and health organizations. The Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) awarded Karen the Crystal Apple for outstanding teaching and Ashmore Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession. Published and often quoted in industry books, newspapers and magazines, Karen serves on the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and teaches a graduate course on philanthropy for Johns Hopkins University.


Beth Herman · February 26, 2014 at 14:53

So so practical, great advise. Just shared with EBH Consulting LLC clients who have small staffs and lots of calls on their resources. Thank you!

Rose McSween · March 1, 2014 at 18:19

Fantastic article! Thank you, Karen.

Marsha Andersen · March 1, 2014 at 23:15

Thank you, there are some things in your article that we need to start emplimenting immediately. I forwarded this to my crew
@Homes of Hope for V.I.D.A.

Richard Radcliffe · March 5, 2014 at 20:45

Hi Karen been busy and only just seen your blog. There are in my view some key really important issues not in this blog but it is a short blog.
Events for older people – some vital pointers.
Timing – late morning is best
Accessibility: they need to know how to travel and that parking is easy
Toilets – for god’s sake have a sign so they can relax
They need to be able to sit down and also have a place to put coffee/cups so they can shake hands
I have recently attended so many events with older people and had some truly hysterical situations it is almost worthy of a book!
Hope you are well
Richard .
Now I must go to the toilet quickly – where the hell is it?

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