Beyond the Gala: Amy Milne on how to design fundraising events for lasting impact

With all the time and dollars you invest in fundraising events, you want the effort to have an impact long after the event.   

At our webinar, Beyond the Gala, social profit event extraordinaire, Amy Milne brought her best tips and stories on how to leverage your fundraising event to engage your board, energize your brand, and forge lasting connections with donors and sponsors. (You can find the full webinar recording here.)  

Great events start with a meaningful WHY 

Take a step back and think about the Why of your event:  

What is the purpose, direction and intended impact of your event? How does the event fit into the greater story of your organization? 

You will be able to connect with all your people—your board, your staff, your participants and donors —if you can articulate why your event matters. 

Amy shared her experience of building The Great Camp Adventure for Sickkids Hospital. For years, their events and marketing had centred around pulling at heartstrings.  

As they began to envision a new event, Amy and her team talked to doctors, nurses, board members and donors to hear why they were passionate about the organization. Amy’s team discovered that stakeholders were not expressing despair or sadness—they saw themselves as fighters, strong, ready to take on the world. Their involvement with Sickkids and their hope empowered them to fight. 

The Great Camp Adventure campaign began to use words like fierce. The event became about empowering people to be something more than they were in regular life—about being ready to take on an unfamiliar journey.  

“Get to the heart of your story and build your event from there,” says Amy. 

Create unexpected, unforgettable moments 

When it’s time to plan your event, put on your hospitality hat. What happens when you’re at restaurants, hotels, theme parks, etc. that makes an experience special?  

Think about how you can make every experience seamless—from parking to registration to the meal to the fun. Every touchpoint is an opportunity to amplify the experience people are having and a strategic opportunity to build relationships.   

For example, how are you treating return guests? Do they get a legacy button? A visual nod to returning supporters becomes a conversation starter.  

You can also leverage your Why to create memories. For the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario (POGO), Amy’s team decided on a pajama party, inspired by the fact that most kids are in their PJs during treatment. The dress-up theme both resonated with the cause and brought fun and energy to the event itself.  

“Unexpected moments matter the most,” says Amy. “Those are the experiences that people feel and remember.” 

Engage your board (in the right ways) 

Amy points out that your board is there because they believe in what you’re doing. However, most are not event planners, seasoned fundraisers or marketers. Amy advises that it’s imperative to be super clear with your board about what you need from them and how they can support you. By the same token, be clear about what you don’t need from them.  

You need your board to invite the right people and help raise funds. They don’t need to be knee deep in the details (unless, of course, event planning is their area of expertise). 

“Boards need to be pylon movers, not pylon setters,” says Amy. You build a strong partnership with your board by helping them understand how the event fits into the greater mix, and how the board can truly support the event in impactful ways. 

When it came time to present her concept for The Great Camp Adventure to the Sickkids board, Amy was nervous. The event had a big price tag. It was a very new idea.  

When she was done presenting the concept, she gathered up her courage and sang her favourite camp song: Knife, Spoon, Fork, Spatula. Then, she insisted that the board sing it with her. “If we’re going to do a camp event,” she said, “you have to feel camp.”  

“I took a risk,” she remembers. “I lived the brand and theme. The change of the dynamic in that room was palpable.” The experience sparked new conversations and energy in that board room—and everyone at the table gave the event their full support.  

Energizing events with a strong brand 

Amy believes that events should have their own voice and brand, that fits into but isn’t the same as the master brand.   

A unique event brand has the potential to reach new audiences.   

After she had the board onside for The Great Camp Adventure, Amy started wearing branded t-shirts every day to work. By living and breathing the event brand, she eventually had 80% of the staff registered for or donating to the event.  

It also inspired the organization’s internal culture to become family and peer-to-peer fundraisers.  

The event brand brought everyone into the spirit of the event long before it even happened.

The party might be over, but the dance continues 

Everyone who comes to your event has shown they are interested in and believe in what you are doing—don’t lose them. Keep people engaged.  

Amy pointed out that you can break up your post-event messaging into multiple communications. Your thank-you email, your survey, sharing photos, inviting them to the next event: each of those can be a separate touchpoint.  

Build a post-event communications strategy and execute. Be intentional and send your guests meaningful, valuable content.  

Don’t be shy about sending too many emails. Remember, Amy says, “You are inviting them to change the world.”    

And don’t forget that the time to plan next year’s event and engage your sponsors should begin right after you wrap up your event.  Keep the conversation going while they still remember the great time they had at your event. 

Speaking of surveys 

“Feedback is a gift,” says Amy. Even the critical feedback.  

Put together a survey as short as five questions and send it to your guests. Thank anyone that participates. Consider entering names into a contest. The survey is an opportunity to build on the relationship that starts at the event and gather the feedback you need to do even better next time.  

Amy Milne is the passionate, award-winning and wickedly talented founder of Beyond Fundraising, Inc. and the podcast host of Real Talk for Non-Profit Event Pro (find it here on Apple and Spotify). A former in-house fundraising event planner for some of Canada’s largest charitable organizations, Amy has led teams to create events that raised millions for their cause, including the Weekend to End Breast Cancer and the Great Camp Adventure, benefiting SickKids hospital.