Crafting Intimate, Mission-Driven Events

Some organizations are consciously moving away from the classic big gala fundraising event, embracing smaller events to expand supporters’ understanding of their core mission. While organizations still raise funds, these events have a more important goal: building a deeper connection with current donors through experiences that are interactive, intimate, enlightening, and fun. The events also can introduce new donors to the organizations, expanding the circle of support.

Capacity Partners’ client Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL) in Rockville, MD, provides learning opportunities for multi-lingual adults for whom English is not their first language. MCAEL’s annual Adult Spelling Bee is a perfect vehicle to generate better understanding of the organization’s mission.

A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO) provides employment, training, and a welcoming community to people ages 15-62 with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). AFLO’s Feast in the Field is a multi-course dinner at one of AFLO’s locations. It provides a chance for supporters to meet the Growers (those employed by AFLO) and see the experience they are getting up close.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum says, “There is a feeling of community and family. It is personal and hands-on.”

A Window into Challenges

MCAEL’s Adult Spelling Bee format “showcases the difficulties of the English language,” says Executive Director Kathy Stevens. Supporters get a clear window into the challenges faced by the thousands of people who benefit from MCAEL’s programming every day. MCAEL programs help adults learn a new language to support any and all of their life goals, including employment, education, speaking with a doctor, and helping children with schoolwork.

The Bee will be in its 7th year in 2023 (there was a COVID hiatus). Various bells and whistles have been added and subtracted over the years. In its current form, there are celebrity judges as well as contestant teams from the ranks of the Montgomery County, MD, business, nonprofit, and political communities.

The teams compete in a traditional, sometimes raucous, spelling bee in front of an audience of people who have purchased tickets. Businesses and individuals also can get involved via a range of sponsorship opportunities, including by sponsoring specific letters (in honor of someone if desired).

Spot On for Mission

Stevens says a key to success is keeping the event “very accessible and participatory,” including a new audience participation activity involving Twitter, which was introduced in the past few years. Audience members can try their hand at spelling a word that is given orally – the first person to spell it correctly with the right hashtag on the Twitter feed wins a prize.

She notes MCAEL plans to continue with the Bee while making adjustments. At some point down the road, the organization will assess if the event has run its natural course. For now, the Bee “continues to be spot on in terms of our mission.”

* * *

The name says it all: A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO), in Loudoun County, VA, is not your average farm. Founders Greg Masucci and his wife Maya Wechsler, self-described former city dwellers, have always been committed to finding meaningful work for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), Masucci says.

Several years ago, they realized there was an absence of programs to help people like their son, who has autism gain job experience in a meaningful way as they grew into adulthood, as well as very few opportunities for social interaction. They created AFLO to address these gaps.

The organization’s mission is to provide employment, training, and a welcoming community. The organization employs about 25 people ages 15 to 62 with ID/DD, who are known as “Growers.” The program cultivates a sense of self-worth and independence for the Growers through a basic job skills training program, and through employment itself.

“We kill a lot of birds with one stone,” says Masucci: providing Growers with income, pride, and the opportunity to work; providing caregivers with some respite; and growing great produce that is donated to local food pantries and distributed through a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

In June, AFLO wrapped up its third annual Feast in the Field fundraiser, an evening farm-to-table gourmet meal served at AFLO’s farm in Leesburg, VA (a second farm site is in Lovettsville, VA). Every bit of the event is aimed at sharing an intimate AFLO experience with supporters. This includes keeping attendance to 100 – 125 people. Attendees can bring guests to introduce them to AFLO, which has expanded the organization’s support.

Much of the produce served at the meal was grown at the farm. Before the meal begins, Growers give small groups of attendees tours of the fields and other parts of the facility. These give guests a chance to interact with the people AFLO serves while getting a sense of the pride AFLO’s Growers take in their meaningful work on the farm.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum notes, “It’s not a ballroom.” Having the event on-site “is the best way to showcase the mission.”

‘A Gala Doesn’t Connect’

Masucci echoes that. “A gala doesn’t connect to what we are doing.” The on-site feast gives supporters a much greater understanding of the many goals of the organization. There is something therapeutic and rejuvenating about getting your hands in the dirt, he observes. Being on-site helps supporters understand that the work done at the farm by the Growers is a viable therapy model.

He also notes that people like to feel they are supporting something essential, adding, “Where would we be without farming?”

***

Here are six lessons from nonprofits who have created successful small events.


Attending to Retention

While the worst impacts of the pandemic may be subsiding, the so-called Great Resignation seems to be going strong. Nonprofits are feeling this at least as much as any other employer. Your people are your greatest asset in delivering on the promise of your organization. How can you keep them?

For many nonprofits, retention via better compensation is not an option. One key may be to better connect the mission of your organization to the people who work there. Working for a nonprofit often is a choice partially motivated by an individual’s identification with what your organization stands for and accomplishes. If you can’t pay people more, aim to build a culture that makes it easy for them to take personal pride in the work and your value proposition because they are part of something that is making a social impact.

Building culture and connection have become even more important with many workplaces operating in hybrid on-site/remote fashion permanently, naturally heightening a sense of disconnection.

Here are some tactics to strengthen your organizational connective tissue:

COLLABORATE

The hybrid workplace for many organizations is here to stay. This brings with it a natural tension – and potential resentment – regarding being in the office setting. But this also can be leveraged as an asset. Consider being intentional in terms of expectations about when your team must be in the office, so that those times primarily are dedicated to collaboration that works best in person.

Collaboration certainly is possible via Zoom. But different dynamics are in play when people are together in person which can spark deeper interactions. Rather than requiring someone to go into the office mostly for the sake of showing up to sit at a desk, make sure that those in-person times for your team are planful and include productive collaborative time together to exchange ideas and move projects forward.

Collaboration also is stronger through inclusion. A Capacity Partners client who is in the middle of a strategic planning exercise realized the pandemic and hybrid work environment produced a morale issue: those required to come into the office felt it was an unreasonable obligation to fill in for those who are working from home. The Executive Director decided to involve all the senior staff in the strategic planning process, who then in turn involved the rest of the staff. What began as a discovery of low morale actually became a strategy for inclusive collaboration. Together, they realized there is much work to be done in order to build a positive, forward-reaching organization. The outlook brightened for a renewed, transformed organization.

COMMUNICATE

Are changes coming up in your organization? Make sure those are communicated early and well. You want to give your team the sense that changes are happening with and perhaps even because of them (see previous bullet point on inclusive collaboration), rather than happening to them.

ELEVATE

Your team can help tell your organization’s story. In addition to validating their work, you will be emphasizing their importance in delivering on your organization’s mission. Consider featuring staff members and their mission-driven successes in fundraising pieces and general communications (social media, newsletters, short video interviews shared on social platforms).

ACKNOWLEDGE

The documented reality is that different generations view work and their relationship with it very differently. Recognize that a one-approach-fits-all is unlikely to satisfy a workforce that is diverse in terms of age, and adapt. Here are some ideas from LinkedIn on tailored approaches for Millennial employees. Acknowledgment also means recognizing people are dealing with many types of stress that can affect their commitment level and productivity. Show your colleagues your humanity by checking in with empathy and grace. During the pandemic, an Executive Director of one of the organizations that CP serves became a father. He readily acknowledged how his new role in the family dramatically transformed his ability to show empathy for his staff’s personal lives and commitments.

CP Vice President Michael Feinstein led a large nonprofit organization in the Washington, DC, area for more than a decade. When COVID hit and remote work became the norm, “I changed the cadence of my one-on-one, team, and staff meetings to check in more frequently and focus on how they were feeling in addition to what they were doing.” He notes that a key to being available to others “was managing my own stress, which meant regular exercise for me.”

EMPOWER

If you’ve hired the right people, give them the freedom to do their jobs. Let them know they have your trust to get the job done even when they aren’t sitting in the same place you are.

BUILD CONNECTION

In a hybrid environment, managers must be far more intentional about creating a sense of connection and belonging. Tactics can be simple but meaningful, such as every Monday morning sending out a message to your team asking how their weekend went and sharing a bit about yours. Intrusive? Perhaps. But people can share as much or as little as they like, and it will help them connect with each other too, especially at a time when they may no longer be bumping into each other in the breakroom. Make it easier for them to feel like they belong to a team.