The Changing World of Nonprofits

Change can be hard. Change requires more time, more energy and just enough risk that it makes most of us nervous. We gravitate towards what is familiar and comfortable. And so, both as nonprofit organizations and as fundraising event attendees, we have rooted in a tried and true formula for the last few decades. Those of us who have attended nonprofit events know the format well: dress to the nines, drink a few cocktails, bid on silent auction items, eat a serviceable banquet dinner, and listen to a handful (or, sometimes, more than a handful) of talking heads telling you about a nonprofit mission and why you should support it. Maybe there’s dancing at the end or a nice takeaway, and you head home with a full belly and a surface level understanding of the organization you likely just wrote a check to.

As times have changed, so too have nonprofit supporters. Today’s donors do not attend fundraisers in vain, and certainly not because they have a free night on their calendar that they’re desperate to fill. Today’s donors are conscientious of their impact, invested in the causes they selectively choose to support, and expect comprehensive and clear messaging.

Does this mean you have to overhaul your event? Maybe not. Does it mean you should be looking, every year, at how to make strategic changes that will elevate your event and its potential to connect with your audience? Yes. It does.

Here are five essential elements that should be part and parcel in today’s nonprofit events that will improve supporter engagement:

1. Storytelling.

Bringing the real story of a mission to life and putting the emotion on the stage to be experienced by the supporter in a very real and tangible way is critical. And when this isn’t done, chances are guests will attend just another “rubber chicken dinner” where they feel obligated, rather than moved by feeling and understanding the cause. When an organization’s story is effectively communicated, an attendee is more connected to the moment and the mission, which maximizes the potential for support beyond the singular event.

2. Transparency.

Be real. Today’s donors are smart, and don’t want to feel manipulated into giving money blindly. At EPIC, we encourage our clients to let their donor base know exactly where their money is going. Donors then have the ability to choose if they want to join your cause, or wait for another. Does $500 pay for 250 meals? Will $1,000 pay for a child’s involvement for a summer? Sponsorship? Be specific in matching donor dollars to the benefit in your organization.

3. Target.

How often have you heard these trite messages: “It’s for the kids,” “Help the homeless,” or “Save the arts”? I am the first to advocate for these causes, and do so through my work as an event coordinator, but haven’t we heard it all? Every cause is a good cause. The key is communicating what makes your cause the right cause for the right people. Not everyone will connect with your organization, and that’s okay. Target a specific audience who will become invested for the long run.

4. Experiential.

The most engaging events are tangible and multi-dimensional. Don’t just tell them, find ways to create an experience from the time they park their car until they are walking out the door at the end of the night. They may not be able to pinpoint the individual elements that tied together to create the full experience, but the subtle reiteration of style, theme, and messaging will yield huge results in retention and engagement. Ambient entertainment can set the mood; food can be more than just sustenance; networking can be more than cocktails; and program can be so much more than just talking heads. The possibilities are endless, and the potential is worth the time it will take to creatively think outside the box (or hire some really great people to do it for you!).

5. Active investing.

Gone are the traditional days of donors passively giving annual contributions for purposes of tax break benefits. In the age of active participation, donors want to be fully invested in the organizations they support. Rather than throwing money at random organizations because it’s the thing to do (or their competitors are doing it), today’s nonprofit donors want to feel like they are part of the solution. They want to be more than their money. And if they aren't ready to donate a significant amount of money quite yet, give them a chance to get involved through volunteer opportunities. Long-term investing in tomorrow’s donors starts now.

If this list seems daunting, remember that while change may be hard, it is also progress. It is worth it – for your organization and for your donors. The results will speak for themselves – and if you don’t start working on small changes now, you may find other organizations following the principles above to great success. Don’t get left behind; be part of a new and exciting era of nonprofit events. And if you find you need help, we’re here for you.