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Event Highs & Lows (Part I)

I’ve really enjoyed sharing practical tips lately – the basics of a great event and budgeting how-to – but this week I’m feeling more reflective and want to share some favorite memories from my career events.

Restaurant Industry Gala

I started my full-time career doing fundraising events within the restaurant industry. It was both profoundly fun and truly intimidating to plan events for leaders in the industry. I learned so much from that role and one of my favorite events was the annual gala. One of the reasons it’s a favorite from my portfolio (aside from the incredible food & drink and excuse to dress up) is that we weren’t afraid to take calculated risks and change things up. We had a basic formula that worked well – great food, active committee planning, collaborative sponsors, respected honorees – and each year there was also something new and exciting. During my tenure we:

  • Raffled a car which was showcased in the ballroom for the event

  • Co-hosted a special after-party with the honorees

  • Grew the VIP Lounge into a true red carpet experience

  • Transformed the event each year with a great theme using drinks, menus, décor, entertainment, and special details

  • Kicked off event planning and donation procurement with an inspiring launch party to build momentum

  • Built unique sponsorships that created value for the sponsor and the attendee, like the Valet Sponsor that left a logoed gift in each car

  • Created custom trophies and video tributes to honor award recipients

You must be wise with the risks you take and the resources you put into new ideas each year but this organization was poised to be able to try new things, and it was so fun to stretch our creativity and engage with donors in a new way each year!

Helicopter Ball Drop Raffle

While planning my 2nd golf tournament, I came across the idea for a Helicopter Ball Drop Raffle, meaning that for every ticket sold there is a numbered golf ball dropped from a helicopter over the putting green. The ball that lands in (or closest to) the hole is the winner. This was such a fun experience that generated a lot of excitement (I also had a blast riding in the helicopter!) It also took a lot of coordination and collaboration, and is a great example of what can happen when you’ve built strong relationships:

  • Our Raffle Sponsor was willing to increase their sponsorship to underwrite the increased costs

  • The golf course was willing to let us drop balls from a distance onto their well-manicured green

  • We were able to secure extra volunteer time to number 1,000 golf balls (and got the balls donated)

  • Our insurance company worked with us on special waivers needed for staff and sponsors to ride in a helicopter

It is also a good example of maximizing the benefits from elements you're already working on. We made the most of this opportunity by offering helicopter rides over the course to our top sponsors, and selling extra dinner tickets to non-golfing guests to come see the ball drop happen.

Culinary Competition

Another favorite event was a culinary competition. This event brought together our existing sponsors and donors to support high school culinary students in a local competition and send teams on to the state and national levels. I love fundraising events for their ability to create capacity for nonprofits, and an event that directly connects supporters to the mission is a win-win. Inviting donors and sponsors to engage in a hands-on way (like judging, coaching, or sponsoring students in the competition) builds lasting connection to the mission that can’t be manufactured. It was energizing as a staff member to work directly with some of our client base, and also stretched me as a planner to take on a brand new type of event.

Come back next week, when I’ll share some lessons learned from events that didn’t go quite as smoothly as these in Part II!

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