Nonprofit Event Advice from Bryan Rafanelli in the Age of COVID

by Victoria Jones

Posted June 26, 2020

Events have long been core to nonprofit organizations’ community-building and fundraising efforts. And like many things, they have been completely disrupted during the pandemic. Many of our clients have been asking: Should we cancel existing events? How should we think about events in the fall? And if we do go virtual, how do we ensure the event is a success?

Who better to ask for answers than the expert himself? Bryan Rafanelli’s attention to detail, visionary style, and customized approach has made him a go-to planner for many of the nation’s most exclusive and high-profile events. His company, Rafanelli Events, has produced thousands of events worldwide, including President Obama’s White House State Dinners and Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, as well as a number of well-known and beloved nonprofit events, such as the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Storybook Ball and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston House Party. 

If you follow Boston Magazine, then you know Bryan has been hard at work to adapt his spectacular nonprofit events to the world we live in right now. He recently sat down with us to share this advice.

Humans inherently want to gather.

We humans are a gathering group. So, while you may need to adapt, it will always be preferable to gather than to cancel events entirely. When restrictions loosen, there will be a huge number of smart organizations moving forward with events. “I feel it in my bones that this will happen. You have to be ready,” Bryan emphasized. “If you’re not prepared to host an event, in whatever form, you’re going to miss out.”

So… Whatever you do, stay in line.

Whether your event is 3 months, 6 months, or further out, do not pull the plug! We are living in the great unknown, so continue to gather information and monitor the situation while staying on track. “Donors are habitual,” Bryan pointed out. “They’re used to giving a certain way at a certain time, and it just doesn’t make sense from a business point of view to disrupt this. If you have spent significant time in recent months/years cultivating new donors and they look forward to your event, cancelling could have a negative impact on the development of that relationship.”

For future events, plan for 3 different scenarios: fully live, fully virtual, and a hybrid of the two.

So, you have your large annual event in the fall – what should you do? Bryan recommends preparing for all possibilities.

If you make the decision to keep the event live on the scheduled date, communicate this to your constituents with the caveat that government guidelines and recommendations will have the final say. An important tip: when vetting venues, “find someone that will say ‘we’re going to pencil you in [without a cancellation fee]’, or if that’s not possible, agree to let you postpone your event by a year if gathering isn’t safe/possible, without losing your deposit.”

And, you should be planning for a hybrid event at the same time! Bryan shared what the “Rafanelli hybrid” might look like: If the governor says 100 people can gather, and you are anticipating 300 guests, then plan to hold the event in a space where you can have 3 different rooms of 100 guests each. Prepare virtual content that can be broadcasted in each room. Bryan offered this pro tip: “Be very thoughtful about how the event will function and make sure you can actually follow safety protocols…right down to the distribution of bathrooms!” Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, for example, is a great location because there are bathrooms in each wing. You can trust that your guests will appreciate the attention to detail.

Lastly, if you’ve done the work to prepare for a hybrid event, then you’re also essentially prepared to host a fully virtual event! “You already built the intellectual property, so you already have the dynamic and compelling content,” Bryan pointed out. And don’t overlook the bonus to going virtual: sending out Zoom invites is the perfect opportunity to gather the highly sought-after personal emails of your donors!

Take your virtual event from good to great.

Right now, creating spectacular virtual events is hard – we’re still learning! But Bryan has found this to be certain: strong content—and the same element of excitement—is key. Make sure the digital content you prepare (e.g. the videos, designed slides, etc.) are on brand, timely, and imbued with emotion. Try to give the content a ‘soul.’ And be sure to think about what would excite your attendees. Is there an opportunity to layer in a 3D experience (e.g. delivering champagne or dinner in a box ahead of time)? Can there be a surprise appearance from a highly regarded donor or constituent? How can you grant attendees access to and time with a beloved leader that they might not have otherwise? (Moving him/her from “room” to “room” can actually give donors more time than they get in a crowded room!)

Bryan also cautioned around the idea of fun. “Do not expect to fully create the same aura in a virtual event that you could live. Fun is extraordinarily hard when virtual. We cannot totally replicate the experience of an in-person event.” More importantly, Bryan emphasized, “We’re in a pandemic and we can’t be tone deaf.”

And lastly, some non-COVID advice about how to ensure that you have an awesome event.

Last but far from least, Bryan offered some advice that stands – COVID or not. First and foremost, to have a successful event, Bryan encourages nonprofits to ask themselves: “Do you have an authentic and compelling message? Are your executive and volunteer leadership aligned and deep believers in that message?” Only then can the message be turned into a dynamic story and event that will really resonate with people. “If you have to force this, it will all unravel.”

Bryan also encouraged nonprofits to recognize that “the ROI goes far beyond the event.” A Rafanelli-like production is worth the investment because events have legs! It’s not just about the night of, and it’s not just about the dollars and cents. “You might be surprised [by the long-term successes],” Bryan said. “An attendee might be so inspired by the event that they join your board. Or they give a huge, unexpected gift.” The ROI goes far beyond what you see in the room. If your leadership does not believe this, you will struggle to rationalize a high-profile event.

So, with this in mind, make sure you have the staff and infrastructure to capitalize on these opportunities and take the necessary next steps post-event. “If the structure is built correctly, you know exactly who is in the room and why they’re there, and you have a team that can make that grow. Do not do an event if you don’t have the back of house.”

Events always have, and always will be, a big part of our fundraising agenda. They do amazing things for philanthropy. Keep at it!

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.