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14 Brilliant Ideas for Your Next Donor Event

A well-dressed woman posing for a picture with a support dog in a branded vest at a donor recognition event.

One of the most significant shifts we experienced during the pandemic was in the event space. We were forced to step away from "the way we've always done things" (🙌🏻) and pivot towards providing different experiences for donors. In fact, we don't even like calling them events anymore because whether it's a gala or a one-on-one conversation, it should be an experience.

If you've been following the DRG Group for a while, you know that nontraditional is kind of our thing. We like to think differently and find new and exciting ways to engage with donors. It's to embrace what we've learned over the past two years and start creating experiences donors actually want (Spoiler: it's not listening to talking heads on a stage while they feast upon your rubber chicken dinner.)

There are nonprofits out there dominating in this space, and if you don't keep up, donors will take notice—and take their donations elsewhere. Here are a few nontraditional donor appreciation event ideas to inspire you:

  1. Instead of hosting scholarship events for many, schedule one-on-one meetings with donors and their beneficiaries. Make it work for the donor and the beneficiary. This can be done in person or virtually.

  2. Move your displays outside. A museum in Southern California did a drive-by art exhibition. People could enjoy art and stay in their cars.

  3. Put your donors to work—give them a hands-on experience. If you are on a campus, invite them to speak to students. If you are a shelter, ask them to come and help serve food. If you are an environmental organization, have them help you clean up a field. You get the picture—let the donor live the mission.

  4. Use an unusual space—an airplane hanger, a vineyard, a barn, a shipping container, a museum, a baseball field, etc. Find something unique that the donor has not seen or would not have access to normally and make it part of your story.

  5. Bring in alternative food options such as food trucks! This gives your guests a fun and unique experience and allows them choice and control in their dining experience.

  6. Bring your campus or organization TO your event by setting up hands-on or educational "exhibits." Bring in your faculty, research students, alumni, grateful patients or families, rescue animals—anyone who has benefited from the donor's generosity—and let them shine! It demonstrates the impact of philanthropy on your organization, brings your mission to life, and is much more fun than a seated program.

  7. Consider how all event components can be repurposed into impact pieces—centerpieces, placemats, room decor, static screens, and more!

  8. For high-end or formal events that involve valet parking, surprise and delight your attendees with a special gift in their car at the end of the night. It doesn't have to be expensive—small but thoughtful wins the day! Our favorites are locally made sweet treats, bottled water, or a thank you note.

  9. Make sure it is a family-friendly event. Can the attendees bring their whole intergenerational family? Is there entertainment that might be fitting so that people don't have to arrange childcare?

  10. Hybrid events are here to stay. Make sure that your donor experience events have a dual component of both online and in-person—this maximizes inclusion and allows you to reach an even larger audience.

  11. Vary your storytellers. The person on the stage doesn't have to be a member of your leadership. In fact, are they even the best storyteller? Consider a donor or program manager.

  12. Use a virtual event experience to give your donors access to spaces and experiences they couldn't have in person. Have a researcher give a live high-level demonstration of how equipment or technology works in a laboratory and allow the donors to ask questions via chat or let donors "in" to watch portions of the assembly of sets for performance arts or installations of art exhibits.

  13. Gamify your events! This is especially important for the virtual and hybrid space, but it's also an effective way to engage attendees at in-person gatherings. By gamifying your content, you can provide and reward hands-on interactivity while also moving toward your overall event goals—sharing new information, inspiring others to act, and even demonstrating the impact of generosity. There are companies you can hire to run this aspect for you at a reasonable cost, or you can build your own—designing even a simple trivia game using Zoom polls is a great way to bring content to life in fun new ways.

  14. Our #1 favorite nontraditional approach to events is to replace the event with something more effective. For example, compelling video content can be sent directly to your audience and available on-demand. This allows more people to experience the message than just those who could attend at a specific time and place. Dig deep to determine the purpose and intended outcome of what you hope to achieve, and then ask yourself: is an event the best, most cost-effective way to reach this goal? Oftentimes, it's not—even if an event is "how we've always done it." Track your outcomes to measure success and compare it to the results you've experienced from previous events. You may be surprised by what you learn!

The possibilities are endless. The key is to make any donor appreciation event unique to your organization, rooted in your mission, and meaningful to your donors. Take what we've listed here and make it your own!

Have we inspired you, or have you already implemented other nontraditional experiences into your donor recognition and engagement plans? We'd love to hear your nontraditional event ideas in the comments below!


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