Events that shine: Not just special but spectacular

publication date: Nov 1, 2017
 | 
author/source: Janet Sailian

Many in the nonprofit sector help plan and execute special events that support our organizations, and we may volunteer to do so for a cause or charity in which we’re involved. Events, after all, are one of the unifying rituals of modern life. But let’s be frank. Recurring events – Convocation, awards banquet, reunion – can become numbingly familiar after a while. And landmark anniversaries, though each is unique, crop up year after year.

How can we avoid the dreaded “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle to create events that are not just special but spectacular? How do we breathe new life and excitement into a yearly gathering, campaign launch or anniversary?

Several recipients of awards in the 2017 CCAE (Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education) Prix d’Excellence point the way. You can surely find standout events within your own nonprofit organization.

Here are a few key principles for stellar events, followed by 3 inspiring examples: 

  • Allow ample time to plan; 12 to 18 months before a milestone event.
  • Be true to your school (or charity): connect brand, themes and components authentically to the organization’s history, character and aspirations.
  • Poll your target audiences about what they want and expect from a long-standing event, and how to transform it.
  • Think big, bold and compelling. Go for a “wow” factor.
  • Use multiple communication platforms and social media before, during and after.
  • Bring in sponsors to share the celebration and the cost.
  • “Layer” a milestone event with lead-up and after-events for niche audiences.
  • Always have a Plan B for outdoor events.
  • Debrief shortly after: Assess, measure, celebrate successes and plan improvements.

Revitalize a traditional event: Simon Fraser University’s Outstanding Alumni Awards Evening Simon Fraser University’s annual Outstanding Alumni Awards Evening had grown somewhat stale. Started by the SFU Alumni Association in 1983, by 2015 it attracted 60% to 80% repeat attendees (many of whom were both SFU alumni and employees).

An anniversary year (2016) and new Alumni Relations leadership with a change mandate impelled SFU to scrutinize and revitalize this event. Goals emerged to attract more young alumni and students, and more first-timers, and to build a more dynamic event.

The traditional awards dinner morphed into a TED Talks-style, stand-up reception featuring bold graphics and 10-minute presentations. SFU added a “Rising Star” award in all categories to include younger awardees with fresh voices. And the ticket price dropped from $140 to $50. Sponsorships helped maximize both reach and value of the event.

Through a post-event survey of attendees, SFU will assess, analyze and adjust year by year. The first results have been encouraging: increased attendance including more young alumni. And a 66% increase in expressed pride in alma mater. A win-win!

Launch with impact: The Campaign for York University York University was determined to combat donor fatigue and build the excitement required to propel a major fundraising campaign to success. The public launch of Impact: The Campaign for York University in April 2016 set the tone for York’s largest ever campaign, which aims to raise $500 million and double alumni engagement.

The immersive, multi-media launch unfolded in the High Bay Structure Lab in York’s newest building. The lab – designed to test materials like concrete and withstand earthquake-level forces – was transformed with dazzling lights, a roving rock violinist (a York alum) and a larger-than-life Newton’s Cradle featuring an aerialist.

At experiential exhibits, each based on one of the 3 campaign priorities, attendees interacted with students and professors working in those areas. Specialized research equipment let guests create real “impact” by crushing blocks of concrete.

Students from York’s Dance program emerged in a flash-mob performance to build the lectern onstage from life-size Lego blocks. 3D projection on the walls broadcast the campaign message and a call to action. Finally, a burst of virtual confetti transformed into a shower of real red and white confetti.

In the 9 months following the launch, $9.6 million in new gifts came from Campaign Leadership alone. By fall 2016, Impact: The Campaign for York University had raised $270 million – more than half its total goal.

That’s a campaign launch with lasting impact.

SAIT: An unforgettable centennial celebration When the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) turned 100 on October 16, 2016, it had one chance to imprint this major milestone on the minds of friends old and new. SAIT’s goal was to welcome 5,000 guests to campus. Instead, 20,000 showed up during the 8-hour festivities.

Planning began nearly 2 years ahead of this massive event. 209 volunteers rolled it out smoothly; beautiful weather helped. SAIT had a rain-day plan and tradespeople stationed across campus to trouble-shoot.

Events included:

  • Four sets of guided campus tours
  • Two historic time capsules
  • “100 Years of Wheels & Wings”: The School of Transportation Car, Truck & Helicopter Show
  • Family skate, swim and recreation in the gym
  • Multi-generational speaker series
  • The book Shapers, Makers, and Originals: The Story of SAIT’s first 100 Years, launched in conjunction with the centennial
  • A family zone with face painters, a bouncy castle, mini golf and more
  • Special incentives for students included a free meal ticket for the first 3,000 plus a commemorative t-shirt. The celebration included a service component: 100 charitable projects to be completed during the year.

The centennial showpiece was a 7-foot tall birthday cake decorated with stories from SAIT’s history. It took 1,200 hours to create and was devoured by the first 2,000 guests. Crowning the day: a 10-minute fireworks show starting at 7:16 p.m. (1916 on the 24-hour clock to symbolize the year of SAIT’s founding).

The attendance alone is testament to a hugely successful event. SAIT also quadrupled its social media impressions goal (4.8 million) and doubled news media mentions. Spectacular!

Janet Sailian serves as Communications Consultant for the bilingual Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE). She is also a writer, editor and international advancement programs consultant. She served as Director of Communications and Marketing at Laurentian University and at independent school Branksome Hall, and was the first Director of International Programs for CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) in Washington, DC.


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