By Matthew S. Helmer
It’s a curious time across much of the world, as vaccine accessibility begins to break apart the dark clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the option (and in too many unfortunate cases, no-option mandates) to return to in-person work and the expiration of public health requirements, such as restrictions on crowd size, the much-anticipated “re-opening” has arrived.
And with it come many questions — some practical (should I still carry a mask everywhere I go?); some existential (are we hugging again?!). In donor relations, we are tasked with mapping a return to one of the most missed aspects of pre-pandemic times: in-person events. Here are five important considerations as we bring them back:
To be clear, we are not living in “post-pandemic” times. The pandemic is global, and it’s active—while some communities are starting to bring down infection rates thanks to robust vaccination availability, not everyone is. The resurgence of vaccine-resistant variants is still a possibility, and as we’ve learned by now, the virus is anything but predictable. Thankfully, contingency planning is nothing new for event professionals. If we stay attuned to public health guidance, we’ll be prepared for last-minute shifts in venue capacity and other restrictions, such as masks and social distance requirements —an especially important consideration when planning events outside our own communities. Disclaimers in event communications also will help prepare our constituents for this possibility.
Take time to understand what donors to our organizations want before we plan. Not everyone is ready to jump back into the ways of 2019 with gusto. This is a great opportunity to conduct a short survey of typical event attendees to determine their comfort level with various aspects — indoor vs. outdoor, types of food service, even a personal preference for online experiences. What we learn may surprise us and will be informative no matter what. There’s a timeless sagacity that applies here: just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
Don’t abandon what we’ve learned. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve benefited from an abundance of insights often obscured in the frenzy of our day-to-day: How to focus on engagement that is significant and strategic. Ways to maximize our ROI. Boundless opportunity to shed the things that aren’t working and try something new. If we rush to simply rinse and repeat the schedule of events from 2019, we will have missed an opportunity for a meaningful, strategic reinvention of event experiences that may never occur again in our lifetimes.
Inclusivity matters. Many benefits emerged from the massive shift to remote work, but perhaps none so important as the ability to bring other voices into our planning with ease. With enhanced communication tools, we’ve overcome traditional barriers of physical locations that can too often keep our work siloed, and the richness of diverse perspectives in our planning has never been more imperative. Hold onto this, because the result will be a more inclusive donor experience—one in which all donors can see themselves.
Create a diverse programming mix that includes virtual experiences for our audiences—and recognize that virtual events are not simply livestreams of in-person events. By now, we all have data that likely shows a noteworthy difference in participation between the in-person audiences of 2019 and those who showed up online in 2020/21. We have a responsibility to dig into this data and consider these segments as part of our planning. It has taken extra effort to participate in anything during the past 15 months, so let’s honor that commitment with more of our own. We must be intentional in designing programs specifically for these constituents. Many of our donors participated for the first time ever when we pivoted to virtual, and it’s imperative that we keep them engaged moving forward.
It’s an exciting time to design what’s next in experiential engagement for our organizations, and we’d love to hear from you—as we create the future, what are you taking with you and what are you leaving behind?
DRG Group member Matthew S. Helmer serves as Assistant Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for University Advancement at Colorado State University. He’s fully vaxxed, yet mostly still masked up—and most definitely down for hugs again! Connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or Twitter.