waiter carrying a tray with wine glasses at a donor event

University Donor Events: 8 Steps to Plan Them Perfectly

8 Key Steps for Planning Donor Events

  1. Determine the purpose.
  2. Establish the event objective.
  3. Keep costs in check.
  4. Appeal to the guest list.
  5. Plan the donor event carefully.
  6. Use VIP as leverage.
  7. Execute the event flawlessly.
  8. Show gratitude.

Universities host a variety of events, but none as important as donor events. That’s because donor support is vital to institutions of higher education: Philanthropic contributions fund endowed scholarships and campus improvement projects, as well as support annual operating costs and academic opportunities for faculty and students.

It takes a dedicated donor relations team to cultivate new relationships and nurture them. The strategies are long-term and multi-layered, and events play a prominent role. That’s because donor events offer the ideal social environment for dynamic interactions that lead to deeper connections. So whether it’s an intimate gathering or a large-scale gala, each occasion requires precise event planning. It all starts with these eight key components.

1. What’s the purpose?

There are three kinds of donor events each with an inherent purpose:

Donor Acquisition Events — Identified as the first stage in the donor pipeline, board members and well-established donors invite potential new donors to a cultivation event. These events are usually casual and held in the home of a board member or as an on-campus reception.

Major Donor Events — These are stewardship events that bring together all donors, so the university can express appreciation for their contributions and illustrate the impact they’ve made on the institution. Although it’s not a fundraising event, it sets the stage for further engagement and is likely to be an elegant dinner or a formal gala.

Special Donor Recognition Events — These exclusive events honor exceptional contributions to campaigns, capital projects, fundraising efforts, and endowments. They take a variety of forms, from a name being included on a donor wall to naming a building.

Ultimately, the purpose of any donor event is for donors to connect with the university on a deeper level and understand the value of supporting its mission-focused programs.

2. Determine the event objective.

It’s not enough to state the purpose of a donor event; universities also need to establish event objectives. These objectives create structure for the event, make sure the team is clear on their responsibilities, and provide a means to measure results. Try setting SMART goals:

SMART goals for donor events

  • Specific — establish well-defined, clearly understood objectives
  • Measurable — determine how meeting the objectives will be measured
  • Attainable — ensure that the objectives are realistic
  • Relevant — check that objectives are relevant to the purpose of the event
  • Time-Based — create timelines and deadlines to identify priorities and create a structure to achieve them

Objectives of a donor event might include:

  • Gaining a specific number of new donors
  • Moving donors further along the pipeline
  • Meeting a specific fundraising goal or increasing an individual donor’s contribution
  • Making donors feel valued as an integral part of the university’s future
  • Increasing board member involvement in cultivation and stewardship

3. Keep costs in check.

Donor events are fundamentally pricey because attendees have certain expectations of events meant to solicit money from them. This presents a dilemma. Universities have to to produce high touchpoint events without giving the impression that donor funds are being used to host lavish parties. More importantly, universities need to see a return on their event investment, so costs have to be wisely contained. It’s a juggling act to say the least.

Compromises can’t be made on food and drink, but adjustments in the event budget for linens, flowers, and SWAG can help balance the expenditures. One resource that offers a valuable, no-cost touchpoint is having student benefactors meet with the donors. Donors can see their inner spark and ambition, as well as hear first-hand the enthusiasm they have for the opportunities afforded to them through scholarships. This tangible proof that donor money is making a real difference is priceless.



4. Create and appeal to your guest list.

Creating a highly curated guest list requires careful consideration. Who will resonate with the event purpose and respond most favorably to the objectives? The answer to that question forms the basis of the guest list.

Next to contemplate is who will send the invitation. Oftentimes, it’s more effective if a VIP donor extends the offer. But sometimes it might be preferable for the university president or a board member to appeal to the target audience.

Sending the invitation is just the first step. Personal contact by development officers should follow, to not only create anticipation for the event, but reinforce the event purpose and message.

5. Plan the event carefully.

An event team will methodically coordinate catering, diagram the event layout, plan décor, book entertainment, and equip the volunteer staff with a detailed event action plan. However, long before the planning starts, the donor event needs to be imagined with a special focus on experiencing the university’s mission up close and personal:

  1. What will guests see, hear, touch, smell and taste? Does it result in a meaningful and cohesive experience reflecting back on the university?
  2. Does that experience align with the university’s culture and mission?
  3. What is the narrative of the event?  Can guests be taken on a journey with testimonials and student benefactor interaction? Is there a way for them to participate in the story rather than being an observer?
  4. How will the event differ from other donor events? What’s the WOW factor? What sets your university apart?

The donor experience is key. Penelope Burke, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising and Donor-Centered Leadership, found in her research that 33 percent of donors who attended a cultivation event made an unsolicited gift. And, 35 percent of solicited donors who made a gift credited the an event as the impetus.

When guests leave a donor event feeling emotionally connected, they will naturally feel more invested in the university mission.

6. Use VIP as leverage.

The donor leadership team — comprised of board members and VIP alumni volunteers — is a highly-valued resource. They undertake active cultivation and stewardship roles and are often the first impression of the university. So don’t underestimate their influence. When Penelope Burke surveyed the topic, she found that 88 percent of donors who attended a cultivation event said they most valued meeting leadership, and 83 percent said they liked meeting other donors.

7. Execute the event flawlessly.

Every piece of the event makes an impression — from the invitation, traveling to the venue, and being greeted upon arrival to experiencing it with all five senses, feeling a range of emotions, and even leaving. Every one of these moments creates an indelible memory of the event, the leadership, and the university. That’s why execution should be flawless. It takes a smart event planning checklist and an amazing team to pull it off. 

The truth, however, is that most events experience a few hiccups. Planning for flawless execution will minimize problems that arise out of nowhere, but you still have to be prepared for the unexpected. By being flexible and quick on your feet, you can resolve issues before guests even know about them.

Luckily, although donors tend to be of a certain affluence, they are still human and will understand when things don’t go as planned. It’s happened to them, too.

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8. Show gratitude.

After the event, send a handwritten thank you note to each person who attended, whether or not they offered a gift. Not only is this polite, but it offers another opportunity to connect with donors and further nurture the relationship. It’s also beneficial to reach out to those who didn’t attend, give them a brief overview, and invite them to attend in the future.

Now go plan the perfect event.

Donor events offer a relaxed social setting free of formalities and pressure to give, where university leadership can cultivate long-term philanthropic relationships. They’re also an opportunity for donors to be immersed in a university’s mission through a personal experience. By following these eight steps, you can create the perfect environment for both to happen organically.

Discover ebooks, case studies, and additional resources on our university event planning page.

Sherri Defesche

Sherri Defesche works at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, where she coordinates events and manages web content for the Center for Ethics and Leadership and the School of Arts and Humanities. She has 33 years’ experience in event management and is certified in social media marketing.