August 14, 2013

How to Create a Signature Event

Two woman standing next to painting in a museumOne of my clients asked how to create a signature event; her question inspired this article.

 A Signature Event is Conceived

Erin McLeod, Chief Operating Officer of the Senior Friendship Centers, told me, “Our seniors have the most amazing stories.” We were having coffee and mused about ways to help the Centers. While the Centers are most renowned for assisting people with the challenges of aging, they also help seniors live extraordinary lives.

What would happen, I asked, if the Centers highlighted that aspect of their work, too? That is, instead of talking only about meals, daycare, caregiver services, and other programs, what if the Centers highlighted remarkable seniors and their stories? As we spoke, a new signature event was conceived. Later McLeod wrote, “We look forward to creating an event to recognize, showcase, and honor superlative seniors and businesses serving seniors in our communities.”

Does your nonprofit need a signature event to gather potential supporters, improve your brand, and earn income? This article invites you to engage your board in exploring signature events for your nonprofit.

What is a Signature Event?

A gathering that benefits a nonprofit and, over time, sells out. It becomes a must-do for community leaders, supporters, and donors. For example, the Ringling College of Arts Library Association’s Town Hall Lecture Series features leading speakers of the day. Seats get coveted.

Why Signature Events Help

Well-executed signature events improve brands, earn income, and promote the mission. They help nonprofits meet potential donors and make existing donors feel like insiders. Signature events require energy, time, and money. In return, nonprofits leverage those resources into remarkable, memorable, and meaningful experiences with the potential to catapult missions forward.

How to Identify Your Signature Event

If you lack a signature event, how might your nonprofit develop one? Rather than try something, engage your board in a process to generate and evaluate multiple ideas.

1. Collect

To start, gather a lot of ideas. While you won’t use most of them, the process of looking for ideas stretches the imagination. Generating many ideas helps people avoid settling for mediocrity because they see other possibilities. Developing ideas with your board helps them think creatively and often builds camaraderie. Send your board on an idea hunt. This request is an excellent assignment for summer when people vacation. As board members visit other areas, ask them to collect ideas from festivals, amusements, and attractions. What appealed to them? Collect the thoughts into a master list. Continue to add to it over several months.

2. Categorize

To work with the ideas collected, organize them into roughly half a dozen categories. Select distinct ones depending on your needs, setting, and mission. To identify the types, I find it helpful to place similar ideas next to each other and look for patterns. Useful categories often relate to aspects of your strategy. You might, for instance, organize by venue (indoors or out), or by the time of year or audience reached (children, teenagers, young adults, empty nesters, or seniors). Another option is to organize them on a classic-to-unique continuum. One end includes classic events such as galas, golf tournaments, and speaker series. Fill the other with unique opportunities only possible with your resources. For instance, you may have access to a reclusive celebrity willing to speak to benefit your cause. In between are adaptations of classic events with unique spins, for instance, a themed gala for children that highlights a special exhibit.

3. Evaluate

Your ideas and the categories you organized them into are starting points. As you sort, you probably realized that many ideas overlap. Others don’t fit your mission. Your next step in finding a signature event is to develop evaluation criteria. Again, this is a place for board involvement. Your board, with its outside community perspective, is in an excellent position to help.  Your board’s job is to help you with strategy, and you want your event to have a strategic impact.

Evaluation criteria allow you to compare and contrast different categories or events based on objective standards. Make criteria measurable so you can quickly determine if an event idea or type meets each criterion. For example, one measure might be that your signature event must reach new audiences. If you never included children in your gala, having a gala for children meets this criterion. Other areas you might include are:

  • Builds on strengths. Example: The event will use resources, including people, facilities, and information that we have or can quickly obtain.
  • Mission fit. Example: This event will promote our cause.
  • Low cost to try. Example: We can pilot it for less than $1,000 and twenty staff hours.
  • Scalable. Example: We can hold the event at our facility. Later, as it grows, it can be a move to larger venues, i.e., a hotel.
  • Appealing. Example: If your board members heard about this event, they would want to attend it.
  • Income. Example: Within two years, we expect to earn $10,000 by selling tickets at $50 each.

4. Select and Begin

Once you have your criteria, evaluate each category for fit. If the categories fit, then consider individual ideas within the categories. This process will leave you with a refined list of options for a signature event. Usually, one or two become the obvious place to start because they fit with most or all of your criteria. Now it is time to choose an event to the pilot. Get out your calendar, set a date, and begin planning.

Signature Events for Your Nonprofit

You can’t do your mission alone. A signature event is a way to engage the community solidly behind you, earn income, and support individual donations. You have many options. Start with your strengths. Develop other criteria to fit your nonprofit. Don’t settle for run of the mill; create a signature event.

Other articles about Signature Events 

Zoobiliee: A Special  Event that Attracts New Audiences

Use Your Special Event to Remind People Why They Need Your Nonprofit

How Creating a Ritual Can Grow Your Nonprofit Revenue and Community of Support






Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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