Welcome to Part 2 of Out With the Status Quo, In With Strategy. If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this article, or need a refresher, you can find it here. In it, I cover the first two steps of my 3-step framework for increasing event ROI: Evaluate, Set Goals, Build Strategy. Now that you’ve assessed the effectiveness of your event and set clear, measurable goals, it’s time for step three: building strategy!

In addition to measurable goals, there are two essential components to an event action plan: strategy and tactics. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact quite different from one another. Strategy is broad, overarching and focuses on the big picture.

Strategy is the ‘what’ and is developed in response to the question “What do we need to accomplish?” In contrast, tactics are the detailed steps and focus on the little picture. Tactics are the ‘how’ and the ‘who’, developed in response to the two questions “How are we going to accomplish this?” and “Who is going to accomplish this?”

There is a big tendency to jump into tactical details immediately, without first creating the big picture strategy. When we jump to tactics too soon, we end up with a long list of things to do, rather than the results-oriented plan we need to achieve our goals. Strategy and tactics work in tandem, but the strategy must come first!

Step Three: Build Your Strategy

Once you’ve done your event evaluation and set your goals (covered in Part 1), you are ready to build your new strategy. When I develop event strategy I use a 4-prong approach: audience development strategy, revenue strategy, inspiration strategy, and donor conversion strategy. While there is overlap among them and they are in many ways interdependent, in my experience dividing the big picture into 4 areas creates a manageable structure.

  1. Audience Development Strategy: “We need to get the right people in the room.” It’s a phrase echoed throughout development shops and boardrooms coast to coast. The reality is getting the right people in the room takes a lot of work — and it is the most important work you can do, since who attends will have the biggest ripple effect on your short and long-term success. Therefore audience development should receive more time and attention than anything else.
  2. Example audience development strategies:
  • Improve the Table Captain response rate (saying yes!)
  • Increase the number of event guests
  • Increase the number of new donor prospects in the room
  • Decrease the number of non-paying guests attending for free with sponsors

Tactical advice: When developing your “how”, whatever you do, do not send Table Captain prospects a form letter with an email follow-up and expect them to come running with 9 of their philanthropic friends! Invite Table Captains to be a part of your event in a way where they couldn’t possibly say no! Make it fun. Make them smile. Be intentional. Be inspiring!

2. Revenue Strategy: Some events have three revenue streams, and some have far more. Whether it is ticket sales, sponsorship, challenge pool funds, auction purchases or individual giving, the method for how you will arrive at each individual revenue goal needs to be determined before the total event goal is put in the budget. I can’t underscore enough how ineffective it is to simply tack on $25K to last year’s event actuals without determining how you’ll make that happen.

Example revenue strategies:

  • Improve sponsorship retention
  • Increase the percent of attendees making an individual contribution
  • Improve the performance of the live auction
  • Increase early-bird ticket sales

Tactical advice: Be specific. For instance, if your goal is to increase sponsorship revenue by 50% determine how you’ll develop the prospect list, who you will ask, by when, by whom, for how much, etc. Track as you go and make room for course correction. Have a back-up plan if Plan A is unsuccessful.

3. Inspiration Strategy: This one is my favorite. Inspiration strategy refers to everything your organization will do to inspire your event attendees before, during and after the event. How is your organization going to differentiate itself from all the other events out there? Build an inspiration strategy that leaves your guests impressed, thrilled, inspired and happy, ready to gush about your amazing event and champion your mission!

Example inspiration strategies:

  • Immerse guests in an experience of the organization’s mission 
  • Compel guests with an eye-opening, memorable, repeatable message
  • Provide registrants with an outstanding customer service experience
  • Provide multiple calls to action

Tactical advice: The experience your guests do or don’t enjoy at your event will have a huge impact on your success. Think about everything, and design a one of a kind guest experience. This includes the parking garage experience! There is nothing worse than a guest having an amazing night at your event, only to spend 45 minutes stuck in a parking garage. It can ruin all your hard work.

4. Donor Conversion Strategy: Because we are not in the business of the one-time gift, the real work of an event actually begins when the event ends. If you have your post-event plans outlined in advance you’ll be well on your way to moving event donors into your pipeline and converting them to repeat annual donors.

Example donor conversion strategies:

  • Provide powerful and memorable stewardship after the event to showcase how the donors’ money has been used to advance the mission
  • Communicate a range of ways event attendees can engage with the organization
  • Report back to sponsors on the benefits they received
  • Evaluate the gift capacity of all new donors

Tactical advice: Every organization has a finite amount of time after an event to sustain the interest of new donors, as well as keep the momentum going with everyone who attended. Plan a range of intriguing, mission-driven opportunities to engage everyone who attended your event in the first 30, 60 and 90 days after the event. Involve your Board and Table Captains in making the invitations, optimizing your chances for a yes!

The strength of your event strategy makes all the difference to your success because it drives your tactics, ensuring everyone’s time is focused on the right things. Don’t skimp on the process! This is a chance to really think outside the box and get creative. It’s a chance to shake up the way you’ve been doing it and try a new approach.

The Opportunity Cost: ROI Is Not Just About The Numbers

Finally, fear of change is the #1 obstacle holding organizations back from fulfilling the true potential of their events. This is no surprise. We’ve been resisting change since the dawn of time. It feels risky to depart from the known and do something different, but the risk of staying the same is far greater. The opportunity cost of sticking with an underperforming event model is truly immeasurable. It goes way beyond the numbers. Why? Because every minute spent on planning an event that isn’t meeting your fundraising needs is a minute not spent on something else that will.

Let’s change what events are famous for. Let’s deliver on their potential to be mission-driven platforms that secure as much short-term revenue as possible while furthering the more important long-term development goals. At the very least, change what YOUR events are famous for. You’re already working so hard – this is about working smarter so your events ultimately make your job easier.

Don’t wait. The clarity and appeal of your event reveal what kind of organization you are. Chances are your organization only throws its event(s) once a year. Make this next one the best one it can be. For this next one, create a ripple of philanthropic support that continues way beyond the final applause.