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The 4 pillars of creating impactful event programming

By focusing on just 4 specific event pillars, crafting effective programming becomes much easier than you might think. Dare I say, it’s a breeze!

Aysia Woods
February 10, 2021
Nerd Mr Butter

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As fundraisers or business professionals, you’ve got the weighty responsibility (aka opportunity!) of finding ways to position your organization as an industry leader. One of the best ways to do this, especially in this digital age, is through events. By utilizing creative and strategic programming, events -- whether virtual or not -- have the power to strengthen your organization’s community and industry impact.

Over nearly a decade of working with corporate clients, Events by AW has identified a dependable method to developing event programming that has measurable, lasting impact, versus one that merely “gets the job done.” By focusing on just 4 specific pillars, crafting effective event programming becomes much easier than you might think. Dare I say, it’s a breeze!

1. Uniqueness ✨

Priya Parker, master facilitator, strategic advisor, and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, spent ample time in her book explaining the importance of creating an experience that is “irreplicable.” Her belief is that a key piece of what adds to that mystifying event magic we all crave is that the attendees cannot get that exact experience anywhere else. Let’s hear that again. The attendees cannot get that exact experience anywhere else, ever again. People talk about, share, and pay attention to what is irreplicable. In essence, an event with one-of-a-kind programming “sells” itself.

Now, fundraiser. Business professional. I know being challenged to think uniquely about an event, especially if you’re new to the event space, can be intimidating. However, it doesn’t have to be and won’t be as you keep reading. When I start working with a new client, I pose a particular series of questions to encourage their thinking towards identifying what sets their organization apart. I recommend you ask yourself the same questions as you start brainstorming for your own event.

What does your organization have or do that sets it apart from the others in your industry?

Think literally here. Any differentiator, no matter how large or small, is enough to shape a unique program. Let’s say you are an associate at a locally-focused environmental advocacy organization tasked with planning the annual spring fundraiser. Is your office walking distance from a pond, creek, or river? Does a similar organization across town have that same access to water? If not, bingo! Utilize that unique access by having a local scientist guide interested attendees on a nature walk to learn about the river’s precious ecosystem, thus truly immersing attendees in your organization’s mission and inspiring giving.

Now, let’s go virtual. Let’s say your education consulting firm is reputable for its policy and administration work, but it’s especially renowned for its cutting-edge technology expertise. Create a virtual event that highlights this specialty by demoing a sponsor’s new product or inviting an executive from an education technology company to speak. Don’t be afraid to go niche with your event program -- it makes capturing the attention of your ideal audience much simpler.

What is something only you can provide?

If you’re having a tough time thinking about what makes your organization unique, no worries. Shift the question to reflect on what makes you special. Perhaps now you fundraise for an international nonprofit, but your career path actually began in mechanical engineering. This allows for a special cross-disciplinary perspective that’s completely unique. Can you create interesting fundraising-related content that explores this? À la “Exploring International Aid Logistics: The Role of Engineers.” That’s a freebie, now somebody run with it!

I’m sure you’re getting the gist of it. Here’s another question you can think about:

Is there something that industry colleagues tend to compliment you or your organization on?

2. Attendee state of mind 🧠

The adage, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” doesn’t only ring true for people-first fundraising, but it’s also a sure thing for creating the most impactful event programming. By putting yourself in your potential attendees’ shoes, you can determine what your programming should accomplish and what attendees would be most excited about. If you’re unsure what your audience would like to see, don’t be afraid to ask. Publish some polls using social media to eliminate guessing and hear directly from your audience. This Later.com article has some terrific tips if you’d like additional guidance on this strategy. Below are some common audience goals and relative programming activities that I’ve found work well for a variety of organizations.

1️⃣ Your audience values access to industry leaders

Event activity: Secure acclaimed speakers in your industry to contribute their voices as keynotes or on exciting panel discussions. Be sure to host a Q&A portion so guests can engage with the speakers. To entice deeper participation, perhaps VIP attendees or the largest donors get an exclusive, intimate “fireside” chat with the speaker before the event.

2️⃣ Your audience would like to meet fellow attendees with similar interests

Event activity: Customize your registration form to gain more information about your attendees as they sign up for the event, such as their hobbies, career level, or geographic region. Based on that, organize virtual networking (Hopin has a wonderful networking feature!) or breakout rooms on your chosen virtual event platform that unites similar attendees.

3️⃣ Your community is seeking specific hard or soft skills for career advancement

Event activity: Design your event program like a workshop. There should be a teacher educating on a skill relevant to your audience, discourse between speaker(s) and attendees, and guided exercises. For extra points, create a funky digital certificate that attendees receive once the event concludes. They’ll be encouraged to share it on social media, and it’s a win for all involved.

3. Dynamism 🧨

A rule of thumb at Events by AW is that every event needs to have at least two contrasting activities (e.g., contrasting energies). For example, a presentation contrasted with an engaging game element or a lively DJ followed by a roundtable discussion. Keeping event programming dynamic helps keep your attendees focused and engaged on the valuable content you’ve worked hard to create.

One of my fondest event memories is a past client’s book launch. We knew we wanted to create an experience different from a traditional book reading, especially because hers was a groundbreaking book. As attendees entered the venue, they were each given a notecard with a fill-in-the-blank prompt and were instructed to complete and hold onto the card until the end of the event. After my client finished her book reading and interview, we encouraged the audience to share their completed notecard with the person sitting next to them. By that point, the attendees were bursting at the seams with thoughts and reflections after the evening’s conversations, and the room erupted into chatter for an hour beyond the event’s formal end time (Thank goodness for flexible venues!). Based on the overwhelmingly positive event feedback, one of the attendees’ favorite parts of the evening was that final community-building event wrap-up element. The prompts were downright entertaining, and the chatting led to networking.

I share this story to say, imagine if we had ended the event right after the interview. The majority of the attendees would have simply gone home and not had such an opportune chance to get to know one other.

4. Change the world 🌎

Just like that, we’re at the 4th and final pillar. Now, this is a bit of a given when talking to amazing fundraisers, nonprofit professionals, and mission-driven business owners like yourselves. However, it’s a simple one that even the best event professionals sometimes allow to slip by the wayside when not careful.

Double-check that your event programming is making tangible steps toward advancing your organization’s mission. Do you want donations to support your organization’s newest initiative? Do you want to add new, supportive people to your listserv? Do you want to celebrate your organization’s newest partnership or sponsor? Whatever your way of changing the world is, make sure it’s front and center throughout your event.

You now have the 4 pillars to event programming success! Go forth and change the world one event at a time.

Givebutter made a $100 donation to Aysia's charity of choice, The Four Women Fund, for this guest blog.

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