With fall fundraising season around the corner, it's important nonprofits put themselves in attendees' shoes and focus on improving the guest experience. Smoothing out the experience at your event, from start to finish, ensures not only this year's success but long-term sustainability.
In a webinar held earlier this year with benefit auctioneer Renee Jones, one strategy we discussed at length was soothing "guest anxieties". What pain points are preventing guests from fully engaging with your event? What can you do to address those problems?
From getting lost on the way to the bathroom to finding where to park to over-serving alcohol - today we'll look at 12 practical ways to soothe the most common anxieties guests have at fundraising events.
1. Put up signs to the bathroom.
"This is the number one, most important, most-asked question at an event to this day: 'Where is the restroom?'," Jones says. "A difficult-to-find restroom is mentioned all the time in post-event surveys, too."
Brainstorm simple solutions that can get someone from the ballroom or tent to their break and back, be it visible signage, greeters or escorts. The simpler and faster the process is, the sooner donors are reengaged into the event.
2. Send instructions for parking or valet ahead of time.
In the same vein, it never fails that people need to use the bathroom once they arrive! Be sure guests know exactly where they're going to park the car. If they don't, the issue will come back to you almost immediately upon arrival (i.e. someone seeking validation when there is no validation for valet).
"That's always a question on my mind once I arrive at an event," adds Ian Lauth, VP of Fundraising at Winspire. "The last thing you want is a couple getting into a little tiff over parking before they walk through the door... They're not going to spend as much money if they're not having a great time."
Remember, any information you can put in front of guests in advance eliminates anxiety.
Share in advance - from the save the date invitation to all of your social media communications and email communications - what the options are for parking and associated fees. Even if you don't have valet, be very clear with directions on where to park. If parking is not provided (and you're in a major metropolitan area), you might mention apps like Spot Hero that can be utilized to facilitate self-parking.
3. Have parking volunteers direct guests.
More on the importance of parking: When the pressure is on, have a person or multiple people standing near the entrance to direct guests.
"You can recruit volunteers to help with parking," Jones suggests. "Try reaching out to different service organizations that can help guide your guests into particular parking areas, like going to a concert or theme park."
This can really make a big difference in revenue, she adds. When guests walk in from a smooth parking experience, they're feeling good and ready for the night to begin.
4. Put up signs to the event entrance.
Now that guests are parked, minimizing the amount of time people feel lost is the name of the game. Good signage, information tables and point people all help.
"Even if you're on a school campus, you have to remember there's usually one primary parent that's dropping that kid off, and where drop-off usually is, may not be where we're doing the on-campus event. So you really want good signage," Jones says.
5. Mind the 'alcohol bell curve' of energy.
Ever heard of 'the witching hour' of fundraising? It's the time where, if you're serving alcohol, guests have loosened up and are ready to bid generously on the live auction.
Now here's a term that's even more important: the alcohol bell curve.
As benefit auctioneer Scott Robertson shared with us in a prior webinar, alcohol consumption is tricky. There is an optimal time to be doing a direct appeal and live auction, but that energy can quickly turn into tiredness, or worse, overconsumption.
Here's what Jones recommends for different types of event:
- If the event is a seated meal, typically we try to get all the fundraising portions of our program completed prior to dessert.
- If it is a heavy hors d'oeuvre, standing, or 'noshing' event, we typically begin 45 minutes to an hour into the program. Those are usually shorter programs with a very specific ask and typically no live auction.
- For golf tournaments, we're already battling the buzz from them playing and drinking on the course. So you have to keep the live auction short and as soon as possible.
6. Slow down alcohol consumption when necessary.
While many organizations do have cash bars, it still means that your guests are consuming alcohol.
"Personally I suggest you look to having a signature drink or pass wine upon arrival, typically in the pre-function area," Jones says. "I don't suggest having multiple heavy bars open if it's an event that's 400 guests and under. We can have bars in the room, but we sometimes shut the bars down during certain portions of the program based upon the audience noise level."
You might know your audience is inclined to be a little rowdy - for example with some school clients, parents love getting together without their kids, get boozed up and have a lot of fun. While this is a fun party, look for smart ways to keep consumption under control. Ultimately there is a liability to the nonprofit organization of a guest or supporter being over-served.
For more, check out tip 7 on this post:
7. Prepare ways for guests to get home safely.
If the libations will be free flowing, try to get an Uber account set aside, or even get a yellow cab sponsorship.
"I know in Houston in particular, they've always been very good advocates to my nonprofit clients that if someone shouldn't be driving, never hesitate to stop them. Save a life, save a parent," Jones says.
And if you have an event that's alcohol-free, congratulations! Dry events typically have one-third less expenses than their peers.
8. Eliminate alphabetical check-in lines.
One important event logistic that can get overlooked is the flow for check-in.
"Please move away from the A to D table, and the E to G table, and the alphabetical sections," Jones suggests. "This strategy is typically thought to reduce wait time, but in my experience, there's always a line at the J's, the M's, the P’s for example, and nobody over in the A’s and the B’s."
Let people check-in wherever they have an open station, and eliminate the lines.
9. Get guests' mobile numbers beforehand.
"If you're using mobile bidding technology and you don't have anybody's mobile numbers to where you can send out that initiation text to get things started - there's a problem. It's going to take an extra 10 seconds per guest to get them checked in on average," Jones cautions.)
Even with a run-through, there will still be little aspects of the event that you'll have to tweak to ensure, and these come with time and expertise.
10. Don't let long-winded speeches derail a timeline.
It's important to keep your fundraising event running like a Swiss clock.
"If you know your speakers are out of control and can't respect a 3 to 5 minute time limit on stage, film them in advance and have them wave from the side stage and do photographs off stage," Jones says.
It's all about maximizing your guests' time, and speakers can be a surprising time suck that ultimately doesn't generate revenue. Look for those opportunities to cut your timeline down to where you can get to having fun - after you've raised all the money you can extract from the room.
11. Before the event, put yourself in the guests' shoes.
"I always put myself in the position of a guest and look for the pitfalls: all the simple things that you would never want to experience as a guest," Jones says. "I look to the layout of some of these hotels that we go to, and they're cavernous. It's like, 'Where am I going?'"
Before your event, pretend you're a guest. Go through the check-in process. Know how guest data will be inputted. Walk through the steps to ensure a positive experience.
12. Educate new guests about your cause.
The final guests anxiety we will address today is not knowing enough about your cause or organization to fully participate.
"Anything and everything we can lay out in advance to a guest is very important to soothe their anxiety," Jones asserts. "Education prior to the event about your cause is the same way. It gets new supporters into a mindset of giving, socializing, networking, and rallying for the cause."
In many ways, it can be very difficult to be a new supporter to an organization. They're overcoming some obstacles. Perhaps they have been invited as a guest of another supporter. Perhaps they're members of a corporate table. Maybe they're aware of what you do and have made the investment to buy two tickets, but they're not fully aware of the goals of the organization or event.
A major goal of special events, for new and old supporters alike, is to create advocates for your organization. These are new cheerleaders that will work on your behalf as an extension of your volunteers, or your development office, or your executive director, when they're out and about in the community.
Bottom line: While you may not be able to avoid every slip-up, communication in advance of the event helps mitigate any negative experiences that a guest might encounter prior to the end of the evening.