At the recent Chicago Theater (anti-)Conference hosted by Theater Wit, I received a lot of questions about events. I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about them. I’ve planned about a zillion and I gotta say, I rarely love the process. But, I like going to events. I enjoy knocking back my free glasses of wine, apps, and browsing the auction items to see if I can find a great gift for someone else. I have to remember not to drink too much because inevitably I need to speak coherently to some people. Which reminds me of this benefit my theatre company hosted back in my early twenties…yeah. Not my most professional moment. But, damn, I was going to have fun in that swimming pool.

Why do events? Events are good opportunities to get face-time with your supporters, friends, and constituents. Meaning, it’s a good time to thank them, to learn about them, to deepen their desire to support. And benefit events are also about asking these people for money. But, remember, you can ask people for money in a variety of other ways so why do an event? Keep in mind what makes an event different from a letter or phone call or post-show drink.

There are 3 main types of events: Fundraisers, Benefit/Galas, and Cultivation Soirees.

Fundraisers: akin to bar or house parties.
Bar parties often have smaller budgets than benefits and are”easier” to put together. If you do a bar party, make it more profitable with a small silent auction, a 50/50 or other raffle, contests, games, or any other ingenious idea you come up with.
House parties are hosted, targeted gatherings where guests are asked in a very personal manner for their partnership. This is often used for special initiatives or donors who can make a significant contribution. Though, a MAJOR donor should be taken to dinner or something more personal.

Benefits. Galas. Benefit Galas. Whatever you want to call them, these are once per year major events many organizations do. The budgets for these are often bigger. They show off what your company is made of. A good benefit takes 6 months to a year of planning. They are usually organized around a central annual theme or show. There’s often a live and silent auction, raffle, entertainment, music, drinks, food.

Cultivation Soirees: These are thank you events. They are meant to cultivate future support by recognizing and rewarding the present donors for their partnership. Most theaters like to connect these to their art and will use open rehearsals, tech rehearsals, first rehearsals, opening nights, or readings as the anchor.

Here are my insights.

1. Theaters do lots of events and they and their donors can easily burn out. So, be very choosy about what you do. And know, every show is effectively an event so tie your goals into them if you can. That’s why theater is different than other organizations. Maybe you have a benefit show w/ post-show party instead of planning a whole separate event.
2. Do what’s right for your organization. And maximize your resources. If a benefit seems like too much, don’t do it. If you can raise what you need to in something less formal or that only requires some wine and cheese, do it.
3. HAVE FUN! Events should be a good time for everyone involved.
4. Themes that can be repackaged every year tend to make the planning process easier.
5. Awards. Honor someone. Hopefully it’s someone who matters in your community or to the success of your org.
6. It does not matter how awesome your event is. If no one comes, it’s a waste of time and resources and can easily dash your hopes. So, I recommend taking a different approach to the process…


Most people start planning an event by talking about the theme, the food, the venue, the format, the invitations, the auction, etc. All great things. But, I say, talk first about your goal, the date, and who you want to attend.

After picking the date, set your goal for how many people you want there (be reasonable). Then, get half of those people committed to attending up front. Have everyone in your org or involved on the event committee make a list of 10 people they want to invite (this number will change based on your size and goal). Then do the following:

* Call that person. Tell him/her an organization close to your heart is having an event (insert date) and you’d like them to put it on their calendar and attend. Ask them if that seems plausible. They are going to know what it costs. Tell them.
* You want them to purchase their ticket ahead of time and need to reward them for doing so. Here are 2 options: either buy the tickets at full price and get 2 more to give to friends they think would enjoy learning more about the org (this will not cost the company money, but rather include 2 more bodies that can enhance the event) or purchase 2 discounted tickets and call it a day. Recognize that you are asking them to plan WAY ahead, so they will have up until 2 weeks before the event to cancel if they need to. Assure them they will receive reminder emails beforehand.
* Ask them how they would like to pay – send in a check or do it online.
* Send a follow-up email with the link or to whom and where to send the check
* If they haven’t purchased in 7 days online or we haven’t received a check in 10, follow-up with them. Once payment is received, send a confirmation email.
* Add them to a special email list that updates them on the event happenings. In the first, thank them and ask them something about themselves, like what their favorite part of going to an event is or if they’d like to get more involved in planning. You can incorporate some of their ideas into the planning.

You can of course invite more later. But to have direct confirmation of at least half of the desired number of attendees before you even start planning would be a real boon to the event. A few other things would happen:

-Buzz would start building EARLY
-It would inspire the planning committee
-You would be more likely to reach your goal or even surpass it, making all the blood, sweat and tears well worth it.
-The planning committee and Board and other key constituents would not get so caught up in making things happen the last six weeks that getting attendee commitments becomes the last thing on their lists.
-Save money on paper invitations
-If someone is committed well in advance and you get them excited leading up to the event, they are more likely to attend.

That’s what I know. We are going to try this for an event I am helping plan at American Blues Theatre. I’ll let you know how it goes. And if you try it at home, please tell me about your experience.

  • September 2, 2010