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Beware of the Engagement Trap

Updated: Apr 22

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Spring event season is almost upon us! As we emerge from year-end fundraising, nonprofits nationwide are coming out of hibernation and planning events to connect with donors and community members.

As someone who is the first to describe himself as the world’s worst event planner, I never had a knack for putting these events together - but I absolutely love seeing my friends and clients put together great events that advance their missions and help better serve their communities.

In talking about events the other day, though, I remembered a pitfall I encountered in my career. A good event always has a clear “why” - is it to raise money? Raise awareness? Connect with new volunteers, community leaders, and potential advocates.

If an event doesn’t have a good “why,” it can become a drain of resources. Having events just to have events can put a major strain on already over-extended fundraising and marketing teams.

That’s where the engagement trap comes in. Engagement with our donors is essential - but sometimes, a broad focus on engagement is used to justify events that shouldn’t happen.

I saw the engagement trap come to life early in my fundraising career. I worked for an organization that put on a major annual event that was justified by engagement. However, the event:

  • Did not relate to our mission

  • Did not raise any money (in fact, it was a net loss)

  • Required a tremendous amount of staff time to plan and execute

  • Provided little opportunity to collect names and contact information for attendees

To complicate matters, a beloved board member and longtime donor was the biggest champion for the event. In the long, challenging discussions about the event (and whether it should continue to happen), engagement emerged as the justification to keep it going.

I still hear that word come up from time to time as organizations struggle to justify outward-facing activities. When all else fails, we talk about the opportunity to engage our community.

This positive impulse toward engagement needs to be balanced against an understanding of what effective engagement looks like. Just like we shouldn’t have events just to have events, we shouldn’t conduct engagement activities without really thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish.

When thinking about donor engagement, consider some of the following factors:

  • Is it relevant to the mission? Just like I encountered early in my career, it’s easy to let event creep cloud your focus on where something aligns with your mission. As you build partnerships and launch community activities, constantly remind yourself (and your team) to keep the mission at the core of everything.

  • Is it helping you work toward a larger goal? Remember, your event needs to have a “why.” Engaging your donor base is important as you work toward that larger goal. This should be the first thing you establish in the planning phase, and all engagement activities should feed into that overall goal.

  • Is it an efficient use of resources? Think about the financial and time investment that goes into an event. If a fundraising event requires 100 hours of staff time and nets $5,000, something needs to change. Engagement should never be used to justify something that fails to maximize limited organizational resources. 

  • Is this part of a larger strategy? One-off engagement activities often fail to resonate with donors and community partners who are inundated with other demands on their time. Every engagement activity should fit into a larger plan, including follow-up messaging, direct outreach, and ongoing conversation.

The next time engagement comes up as a consideration to justify an activity, step back and examine these questions. Engagement is crucial - but it has to be done right. That means understanding goals, managing resources effectively, and thinking strategically about your larger plans.

Need help figuring out your engagement strategy? Team Kat & Mouse is here to help! Drop us a line for a free consultation to discuss engagement - and more.

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