Shut the Front Door Event Planning


Debbie Wheeler, Todd Starnes, Trent Wheeler

It was a cold, wet, just really nasty December morning and 34 people showed up for an event that should have had over 200.  This was the 28th Annual observance of this particular dinner and it should have been packed. Publicity was through the roof, the nonprofit had a rock-solid donor base, and the event was being held in an attractive and comfortable venue – so what went wrong?

  • Wrong Venue – even though the new venue was nicer, donors had become accustomed to the old location (and older donors don’t like change).
  • Bad timing – while the weather was an issue, it was also held on the wrong day of the week. In years past the event always followed a local meeting and that alone drew an additional 50-60 people.
  • Volunteers – Long term volunteers were offended, stayed home and the gossip tree caused others to stay home as well. The people who made this event happened weren’t consulted or included in the new planning.


    Trent Wheeler, Victoria Jackson

These kind of things happen to nonprofits all the time and cost directors their jobs and discourage board members and high end donors from trying new things. So how do you plan a “Shut the Front Door” kind of event? The type of event that people call and ask about year after year.  Here are few tips to make it happen.

  • Know your target audience. If you are trying to reach your tried and true donors, make sure the event focuses on their interest, needs and budget. If it is a trendy young audience you seek, try a trendy coffee shop, old warehouse building, or a venue they already frequent.
  • What’s the draw. Your faithful, tried and true donors will likely come, but how do you build a better event from year to year? Do you bring amazing speakers or talent? Do you put on an impressive dog and pony show for the donors? Ask yourself this simple question, “Would I attend at _______ price, if this weren’t my event?
  • Speaker’s and Talent. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this bury an event. Paying too much for an A-list speaker can undermine your profit. Bringing in the wrong speaker can alienate your donors (I saw a speaker at a Christian conference refuse to check is “vocabulary” at the podium and the results were disastrous).  Most charities need more than a speaker’s bureau, they need a little guidance on the “best” presentation, not just a good one.


    Trent Wheeler, Gloria Marroquin, Vince Gill

  • Choreography. You may laugh at this, but an event must, must, must function like a symphony. Everything that happens from the moment a donor arrives until the checks are collected and people head home, must build to an inspiring crescendo.
  • Hire a professional. The math really isn’t hard to figure out.  Try to run the program in house (and many are equipped to do that), hire an agency (that may break the bank), or hire a consultant/coach who will work with you, teach the how to’s and put you in a position to host successful events for years to come.

Trent Wheeler, Mike Huckabee

There is no reason that every event shouldn’t be a success. It simply takes a little planning on the front end, the use of proper media and public relations and making sure that once you get people to warm the seats, you understand how to choreograph the event.

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