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Most development offices rapidly devise a programme of events to support their work. These can range from exclusive lunches with the vice-chancellor and a small group of high-ranking supporters to events with several hundred guests.

Whichever events you choose to host, there are some important points to consider:

Why am I holding this event?

What aspects of the fundraising cycle will this target – to allow prospects to self select by their attendance (identification), to raise awareness or strengthen a relationship (cultivate), to raise funds (solicitation) or to say thank you (stewardship)? You should never begin to organise an event unless you have a clear idea of what you want it to achieve.

Does a cost-benefit analysis justify the event?

Events can be costly. Sometimes costs can be defrayed by charging people to attend (although this can have a negative effect on attendance) or finding event sponsors. Be sure that investing in an event will boost your fundraising and will justify the cost.

Who is the target audience for this event?

With all events, it is useful to have a target audience in mind so that you can tailor the event to the audience’s expectations and needs to ensure its success – and to ensure that you have enough contacts and leads to get this target audience to attend your event. Remember, it may not always be the audience you expect, which is when your database, contact reports, prospect management system and savvy hosts are especially important.

Cutting the cost

Events can be one of the biggest drains on the development office’s budget, but there are a number of ways to cut the costs:

  • ‘Adopt’ existing events. Most universities already have an events programme of sorts with special lectures, choir performances, sports matches, open days, etc. A clever development office can ‘adopt’ these events and invite prospects and donors along, boosting audience numbers while avoiding the burden of organisation.
  • Charge an entrance fee. If you are going to charge an entrance fee, the cost should be affordable and reflect the value of the event you are offering. Do not forget to take into account the extra time and administrative costs of processing ticket sales.
  • Negotiate with your suppliers. If you are regularly holding events on campus, you might be able to negotiate with caterers and other vendors for a discounted rate. Local hotels might be able to offer overnight guests special package details that tie in with your events. University suppliers might be prepared to donate items such as wine or food to support an event.
  • Find a sponsor. It might be possible to find a sponsor for all or some aspects of your event. You might also find that some high-level supporters (individuals or corporations) are willing to host events on your behalf at their homes, clubs or businesses.
  • Use your volunteers. Volunteers can be a great source of help when organising an event, especially large-scale events. Make sure you brief them properly and thank them. You might want to consider developing an ‘event information pack’ to assist people who want to organise their own events for peers (e.g., alumni reunions).

Some tips for a successful event

You can find many resources online that will help you organise a professionally run event. These resources include information on events details such as the etiquette of name badges, the importance of parking and other practical issues. Here are some broader tips on how to make your event successful:

  • Identify your hosts and make sure you have a good ratio of hosts to guests. Brief hosts well on the purpose of the event, their guests and their responsibilities. Make sure you debrief (and thank) them afterwards.
  • Build strong relationships with the people who will make sure the event is a success – caterers, venue managers, security, parking attendants, etc. Make sure you thank everyone involved after an event so they will continue to do their best to make your future events a success.
  • Avoid the generic and make an event memorable. Adapt menus, décor and promotional materials to reflect the nature and purpose of your event. For example, a university’s centenary dinner recreated the menu that was first served to celebrate the award of its original charter.
  • Anticipate problems and have contingency plans in place. What will you do if it rains, someone falls ill or the venue is unavailable at the last minute? Every event should have a risk analysis and mitigation strategy.
  • Identify significant guests and those who might require extra attention and ensure they are well cared for.
  • Have an event timetable and make sure everyone sticks to it (but do not be overly rigid) – food should be served on time, speeches should not run over too much, etc.
  • Have at least one readily available emergency point of contact for guests and organisers alike.
  • Follow up. Thank your guests for coming, upload souvenir photos to the website, put a report of the event in your newsletter. If the event has generated cultivation leads, then follow them up promptly (e.g., a phone call to get feedback on the event, scheduling an in-person meeting, inviting them to a campus visit, etc.). Debrief with staff and use the experience you gained from one event to make the next one even more successful. Bear in mind that staff members are often so relieved that the event is finished that they underestimate the follow-up activity, where the real success can be generated.
  • Above all, be endlessly polite, smile and never look like you are panicking!