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In Pursuit of Purpose: 5 Questions You Should Ask Before Your Next Event

I love being a parent. It’s the most challenging, humbling and awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever done. Of course, as any parent will tell you, not every moment is a sparkly, magical cupcake. Truth be told, sometimes weeks go by between such moments. That’s why the Universe provides us with wine.

There is perhaps no parental task more exhausting than answering the question, “Why?” – without reverting to my own parents’ default answer: “Because I said so.” There’s actually something quite remarkable and beautiful about the natural curiosity of a child. It’s just that at the end of a long day, and after five failed attempts, I simply do not have a satisfactory answer for why what’s inside an apple is … apple.

Yet, if “just because” is an unacceptable answer to my four year old’s question about an after-school snack, how did it become an acceptable foundation for so many of the things we do at work? When and how did we lose that insatiable curiosity to understand why? And when did it become ok to accept anything other than a meaningful answer when we do finally muster the courage to ask?

In my own quest to promote a culture of purpose-driven events in organizations, I’ve been amazed at the number of times that, “We’ve always done it this way,” is presented as a legitimate answer. Quite frankly, this is not ok in answering a question about anything. But events, in particular, represent a significant investment of your organization’s time, talent and treasure. To be unable to articulate from the outset the purpose and goals of any given event is a waste of resources, at best (and I would argue it’s malpractice).

I get it. There isn’t always a clear-cut path to the core of why. Just like parenting, no one said this would be easy (and anyone who did was lying). We have to do the work. And then we do it again. And again. Because ultimately this work improves the experiences we offer our donors, and it makes us better fundraisers.

As our four-year-old muse would readily and repeatedly demonstrate, simply asking why is not always enough to grant you the meaningful purpose you seek. For example, wanting people to have a good time does not a meaningful purpose make. Sorry, not sorry. One of several outcomes? Sure. I have absolutely nothing against a good time. But a meaningful purpose should connect directly back to your organization’s mission and reflect what you are trying to accomplish as a whole.

Over the years, I’ve developed five straightforward questions that I recommend be asked and answered for every event. It’s a proven method for refining new event ideas or redefining those events that seem to have lost their way. And I find the exercise is even helpful for reconnecting to the core purpose of our most successful events.

  1. What are we trying to accomplish? At this stage, we simply outline why we want to bring people together through an event. Often the measurable outcomes we eventually establish first appear here. Once answered, this is a great time to ask an important follow up question – is an event the best way to accomplish this? Or is there a more resource efficient way?

  2. What overarching goal (for your organization/department) does this support? Events should tie directly to your organization’s mission through a link to annual or long-term strategic goals. Without a clearly articulated connection here, we are wasting resources.

  3. Why is this important to us? The answer should flow easily here if we’ve done a good job answering 1 & 2; if it doesn’t, start over. But don’t skip it – this is where motivation begins for every member of your team involved with the event.

  4. Who are we trying to reach? It’s more important than ever to be strategic with invitation lists for events. Inviting everyone to everything waters down the message, and the truth is we all have donors who don’t like connecting with us through events. To keep inviting them without offering another way to connect – their preferred way – is a recipe for disenchantment.

  5. Why is this important to them? By the very nature of their existence, events are not donor-centric. We say where, we say when, we say who. It’s a Julia Roberts-Pretty Woman moment replayed over and over. To be a cut above the rest, to take a step toward donor-centricity is to honestly assess what makes the event compelling and unique for our target audience. And here’s a tip: we can’t answer this question holed up in our office with two of our colleagues. Ask your donors.

Much like parenting, committing to a culture of purpose-driven events is a lifelong endeavor. A five-point questionnaire is only the start. You will toil. There will be mistakes. But the reward of watching your effort pay off in an event that soars will make every question, every moment worth it. Even the non-sparkly, magical cupcake ones.

And much like parenting, it’s important to remember you are not alone. Others will be asking these same questions. I most certainly will be asking these same questions – and I’m here to help. Consider me your one-person cheering squad and support group: YOU CAN DO IT!!

In return all I ask is that, if you have a better answer to the apple question, please, PLEASE give me a call.

With purpose,


DRG Group member Matthew Helmer serves as Executive Director of CSU Events & Community Engagement at Colorado State University. He is on a quest to transform every nonprofit event into a purpose-driven experience, and you are most cordially invited to join. Follow him on Twitter @ExperienceGuru or LinkedIn for more musings.

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