Look Before U Launch: 7 Tips for Campaign Events that Amaze…And Raise

When a university’s advancement officers sit down with their leadership team to start planning a campaign, their focus is on crafting the case, identifying key donors, building internal capacity, and testing and refining the message.

Events probably aren’t even on the agenda. But they should be. And we’re not just saying that because we’re in the event business. 

Events are about relationship-building. We’ve seen the vital role they can play in a community’s feeling about a campaign. Great events strengthen donor relationships, deepen alumni engagement, raise institutional visibility, attract new friends, and can serve as a galvanizing force among internal team members.

The work you do in the 18 months leading up to your first public event is essential to its success. An early start in planning how you will carry out and follow up on campaign events will pay off well beyond the campaign period—strengthening every aspect of your advancement operation by making your team more proactive, responsive, and strategic.

We’ve looked back on the most successful campaign events we’ve partnered on over the past few years and put together 7 tips for planning campaign events that amaze—and raise…the bar, school spirit, funds, awareness, morale, and so much more.

Happy planning!

Tip #1 – Mind the Gaps

Everybody on your team has a day job, and it’s unlikely your institution is suffering from an excess in capacity. An early start lets you take the time to develop a checklist of the expertise, resources, and hands-on-deck you’ll need to execute truly spectacular events and do the kind of follow-up that will be essential to the campaign’s success. Seize the moment to take a thoughtful look at your team and:

  • Identify any gaps in expertise and bandwidth and do any restructuring and backfilling needed within the advancement team.
  • Recruit and hire consultants and vendors who can help with short-term challenges.
  •  Reach out to other internal partners to ensure that you can have access to their expertise and resources when the time comes.

Tip #2 – Convene a Meeting of the Minds

As early as possible, forge the workgroups, committees, and one-on-one relationships that will form a multidisciplinary, campus-wide team that works like a well-oiled machine to achieve a shared vision for the campaign.

  • Do lunch with your facilities director to make sure you understand her priorities and challenges long before you start asking her to make major changes to your campus event venue.
  • Give your communications team opportunities to build a strong collaborative relationship with the central marketing folks.
  • Bring together the school-focused development officers, the alumni relations team, major gifts officers, and others tasked with constituency relations to discuss how they’ll assemble invite lists, share databases, and hammer out parochial differences in preferences for details like venue, event timing, catering.

The lead-up to the campaign launch should not be the first time these people sit down to work together.

Tip #3 – “Campaign-ize” It

Campaign-ize – v. recognize opportunities and use them to prime audiences for the big ask.

Take some time to consider every signature event during your campaign period—homecoming, giving society receptions, alumni weekend—and every routine moment of outreach as an opportunity to build excitement, enthusiasm, and connections for the campaign. Be strategic about how you push out engaging information about your institution, and repeatedly thank your community for making you great to remind them that their participation makes this all possible. Offer many opportunities to get involved. Start practicing “campaign” thinking long before you start asking for money, look at all of your outreach and communications as opportunities to lay the groundwork for the campaign.

Tip #4 – Test, Refine, and then Test Some More

Test your messaging for the campaign and for key initiatives in front of live audiences. Does this messaging resonate with key donors? AND just as important—does it work for the people who will deliver the messages? Is your president more comfortable delivering an informal pitch than a scripted presentation? Does your board chair love data—but your key prospect needs an emotional nudge to give? There’s a reason they take a show to Buffalo before opening on Broadway! What you learn during the quiet phase will be invaluable as you plan your launch event and campaign roadshow.

Tip #5 – Sharpen Your Ground Game

This is a great time to look at how your gift officers are deployed at events. Are they making the most of these opportunities? Are they only comfortable delivering a school- or project-specific message, or can they speak to institution-wide priorities? Do they disengage when the event message isn’t specific to their program or constituency? The lead-up period is a chance to bring all gift officers up to speed on the strategic priorities of the campaign. And it’s a great time to field test how you use your team and refine the role each person plays at events.

Tip #6 – Recruit Your Ambassadors

Don’t wait till you’re hammering out the details of a regional event to start putting together lists of possible names for host committees in key cities. Begin identifying and talking to current students and recent graduates whom you can tap to join you on the road as examples of what your institution does best. Encourage your team and networks to begin identifying talent in each key market who can offer entertainment that has an authentic connection to and meaning for your institution. Talk with major donors and friends about once-in-a-lifetime venue opportunities that they can provide access to. The months leading up to an event are so hectic and overwhelming, you’ll be tempted to reach out to the usual suspects if you leave this kind of research until the last minute.

Tip #7 – Blow Open the Doors

If major campaign events will take place on campus, look beyond the same old conference center. Take a fresh look at your campus—are there event venues you haven’t considered before because they just need a small upgrade in wiring, or a new exit? Or maybe the perfect spot is considered taboo because it would take “too much” time to figure out alternative solutions if it’s taken offline. If you start early enough (and have built strong relationships with your campus partners!), it’s amazing how a shared perspective can transform an already emotionally-resonant space into a new and exciting venue.

A campaign is not the time to default to the ordinary and expected. Campaign events are the time to go beyond the same old cast of characters and offer up something new, exciting, and compelling. By starting early, and looking at your campus and your processes with fresh eyes, you can achieve a truly spectacular result that brings your campaign initiatives to life in authentic, unexpected ways.

Best Practices
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