Please don't make me attend another dinner where the emcee simply reads lists of board members, committee members, sponsors, staff, etc., then sends us nodding off into the night.
For the not-for-profit world and the people it reaches out to, the opportunity to sell your cause to a captive audience is golden. So take the time to plan your program. Give me a speaker who challenges and motivates me. Make me laugh. Raise my dander. Hand me a silly pen with a star on top that lights up when I press it so everyone can see me write on my pledge card (à la the Ringling School of Art and Design Dreammaker breakfast). Send me out into the parking lot charged up and ready to do good things for your organization. (But, unless you want an early mass exodus, please start the program before 8:15 p.m.)
If I sound cranky it's only because another feverish season of annual dinners, professional symposiums, donor solicitation cocktail parties, volunteer recognition luncheons and awards ceremonies has just ended. While we all catch our breath-and I calm down-I asked two inveterate event-goers, the Community Foundation's Wendy Hopkins and SunTrust's Veronica Brady, to share their insights on what makes an event successful-or not.
Public events are often more friend-raisers than fund-raisers, says Hopkins, so it is very important that people are made to feel welcome. "And that doesn't just mean checking in at the reception table," she says. Brady, who will chair next fall's mammoth USF Brunch on the Bay, agrees. "It's the board members' role to make sure people are feeling appreciated and engaged in the process," she says. When Brady chairs an event, she instructs her committee to visit every table to say thank you.
The choice of speaker is critical, says Hopkins, and can be one of two extremes. "Our Unsung Hero event honors people who are not public speakers," she says. "But what amazes us is how they come through with poignant speeches that really speak to the heart.
"Then there's the speaker you're dying to hear. Everybody's dream is to be able to hear somebody they've admired all their lives. When Maya Angelou spoke here a couple of years ago, the young girls at the next table mouthed the words to her poem as she recited it. It has to be inspirational. If you're springing for anything, spring for that."
And whatever you do, says Brady, don't introduce the speaker by reading the biography from the program. "If I can see it in front of me, you don't have to read it to me," she says, agreeing with me. (I like Veronica already.) "Instead, tell me something new and neat about the speaker. Girls Inc. does an amazing job of that."
One type of program that engages its audiences is the TV game show take-off, like the Community Foundation's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and the Senior Friendship Center's He Sez, She Sez. "It's tons of fun and the audience just roars laughing at the same time you're educating them in a fresh way," Hopkins says. "But it's horribly hard work and you have to weigh that."
"My biggest hot button," says Brady, whose job as first vice president in the wealth and investment management group at SunTrust ensures that she attends lots of public events, "is not to have inside jokes. You know, the funny gifty things people say and do that only made sense if you are in the trenches." They're meaningless to most of us, and, Brady maintains, backfire by making us feel like outsiders.
"My feeling is you're always looking outward," Brady advises. "You always have to appeal to your target audience: those who have given and those who are about to give."
Why is planning a program so important? Because you never know who will be listening. That hit home when I read a Chronicle of Philanthropy report about a wealthy businessman who'd attended Brown University for one year in 1939 and who last year gave the school $120 million. His only previous gift to the university: a $100 donation to the annual fund in 1977.