Advancing Philanthropy

Meetings and Events: Fundraising Events—Facing Future Responsibilities

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The last time I penned an article for Advancing Philanthropy it was Forecast 2021—What the Future Holds for Events. In that article, I focused on the positives that arose from the COVID-19 experience, sharing stories of organizations’ successes with virtual events and forecasting that we could confidently move forward with our fundraising events in 2021.

It turns out that wasn’t really the case. Last year, we continued to see a dizzying see-saw of changing regulations and restrictions. Requirements for vaccinations, masks, and gathering limits shifted from one month to the next, leaving us scrambling to reconfigure our scheduled events. To make things even more confusing, each state and county had its own set of rules for group gatherings.

It became clear to all of us who plan events that we must remain vigilant about COVID-19 restrictions and safeguard our guests’ health and safety for many more years to come.

It also became evident that the pandemic created some long-term challenges that make producing fundraising events more complicated than in the past.

Here’s a rundown of how the new normal will affect our future fundraising events.

Problem: Hospitality Woes

The hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 3.5 million jobs lost in 2020, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. On top of this, many of those workers aren’t planning to return, says Robertico Croes, a professor in the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

For those of us who work side-by-side with banquet staff and hotel liaisons, it isn’t hard to understand why these workers are turning to other careers. Hospitality jobs traditionally come with long hours, inconsistent schedules, and low pay. On top of that, there is very little upward mobility for these workers, which makes for low job satisfaction.

Your guests not only need to be informed of your policy, but they will need to be continually reminded of their responsibilities with regards to providing either proof of vaccines or a negative test result.

So, it comes as no surprise that these workers left the industry to find better jobs. Many moved away from big, expensive cities to start anew in more affordable communities. Who could blame them?

This exodus of skilled hospitality workers has a clear impact on your events. Venues are scrambling to find trained staff to fill the vacancies, and there simply aren’t enough to go around. This can negatively impact your event as it may end up being severely understaffed, and the workers who do show up are just learning the ropes.

Solution: Being forewarned about this possibility helps you prepare. Take time during the planning phase of your event to meet with the banquet team and review your staffing needs. Be clear that you want their “A team.” I always schedule two extra servers for my events to ensure I have adequate staff, even if a couple of servers call in sick or just don’t show up. It is worth the extra cost to ensure a smooth guest experience.

Problem: Venue and Vendor Contract Clauses

When we faced the initial shutdowns and restrictions from COVID-19 in 2020, we were all caught flat-footed when it came to our rights and liabilities in contracts.

Most of us had paid little heed to cancellation clauses and deposit reimbursements in the past. This all changed when we suddenly were forced to cancel events and yet had no legal recourse to get security deposits returned.

It wasn’t that venues and vendors were hard-hearted. They were in just as tight a spot as we were. They were frantically trying to find ways to save their staffs’ jobs and stay afloat until in-person events returned. On top of that, most of their contracts had cancellation clauses that heavily favored their interests.

Solution: As we face this period of uncertainty, it is important to carefully read your contracts and pay close attention to rescheduling and cancellation clauses. Know what your rights will be if we are all forced to go back into restriction mode. Don’t be afraid to discuss them with the venue or vendor and see if you can come to an acceptable agreement as to reimbursements for deposits.

Problem: Communication Clarity

Now, more than ever, we need to be superstar communicators with our guests. Of course, we should continue to be upbeat and enthused about our events in email blasts and social media posts, but we also need to be realistic and specific about COVID-related caveats and protocols.

Your pre-event communications now need to include clear verbiage about potential rescheduling or cancellation of an event in case gatherings are again restricted. This text will be included in all your pre-event communications, including email blasts, social media posts, and marketing materials. You must also include the same information on your website, landing pages, and ticketing portal.

You also need to include precise information on your COVID-19 protocols as well. Your guests not only need to be informed of your policy, but they will need to be continually reminded of their responsibilities with regards to providing either proof of vaccines or a negative test result. Don’t assume people will remember these things, it is up to you to remind them.

Solution: Create a written policy at the start of your event planning for both your rescheduling/cancellation policy and your COVID-19 safety protocols. This allows communications across the board to be aligned and in sync. Include verbiage on your ticketing site that notes, “In case of the event’s cancellation, your ticket cost will be considered a generous donation.” It was found that guests were almost unanimously happy to donate the money rather than request a refund when an event was forced to be canceled.

Problem: Plan B Considerations

In my 20 years of event planning experience, I have had venues close due to bankruptcy, get shut down by the health department, catch on fire, and become inaccessible due to mudslides. As you can see, event planning is not a career for the faint of heart!

But in all those cases, the events were able to go on as planned thanks to some intense scrambling and a pre-arranged Plan B. Your Plan B is a backup plan that you have already scoped out well in advance of any disaster or COVID shift happening.

We already know there are three levels of COVID-related hazards we could potentially face. Having alternate scenarios prepared in advance is key to gracefully pivoting your event to adapt to whatever is thrown at you.

Level 1: Indoor Masking

While masking during your regular day-to-day routine is annoying, it can be endured. A masking mandate for indoor gatherings such as galas is a whole different thing!

two hands fist bumpMasking is a visual reminder of the stress of the pandemic. Masks also divide your guests into factions based on their beliefs about COVID-19 and politics. Guests who disregard a mask mandate ignite indignation in those who follow the rules. It is a no-win situation.

Solution: Let guests know you care about their health and safety and offer to place more cautious guests in a separate area of the room away from those known to scoff at masking requirements. You can also offer to seat them at a smaller table to accommodate just them and their guests. Be aware, however, that once drinks have been served, all the masks usually come off for the duration of the event. It is a weird phenomenon—no matter how COVID-fearful some people are!

Level 2: Gathering Restriction

When you have sold 350 tickets for a gala and you suddenly find out that only 100 are now allowed in the ballroom, it is tough. Changes in the event’s structure will have to be made, and it is best to include staff and board in this decision. It is also wise to contact your top donors to get their opinions on what their feelings are about change options. This engages the donors, and they will be less likely to be disgruntled about what the final event configuration will be.

Solution: If the option to move the event outside is available, that is your best bet. If temperatures are chilly at that time of year, procure a sponsor to underwrite a tent and heater to defray the extra costs.

Level 3: In-Person Gathering Ban

This is something none of us want to contemplate, but it is something that needs to be addressed. If we face another gathering ban, you will need to either cancel or reschedule your event. This is where the cancellation/rescheduling verbiage you used on your pre-event communications comes in handy as you have already addressed the protocols prior to guests having purchased tickets.

Solution: Whether you cancel, reschedule, or take it virtual, the change in your event is an opportunity for your organization to reach out to your supporters and guests and show you care about them. Send emails and make phone calls to your larger donors. Ask how they are doing and let them know how much you look forward to seeing them when gathering resumes. Don’t overlook this important opportunity for donor stewardship!

A.J. Steinberg, CFREIn the past 20 years A.J. Steinberg, CFRE, has produced over 100 events and raised millions of dollars for her nonprofit clients with her Los Angeles based event company. In 2018 she founded Queen Bee Fundraising to bring the art and science of fundraising events to nonprofits everywhere. She is a consultant, keynote speaker, and presents workshops on nonprofit event planning, sponsorships, volunteer and committee management, and guest engagement. You can find out more at or give her a buzz at


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