How to End a Nonprofit Event on Time (Donors Need to Get Home!)

cmsamerica_nightThere’s nothing like the good feeling at a party where no one wants to leave. At an ordinary party, however, the departure time is voluntary.

At a nonprofit annual dinner or similar fundraising event, you hope and assume that everyone who can will stay put right up until the last honoree is honored and the last speaker heard from. (Especially the speaker who’s asking for donations . . . . )

Yet far too many nonprofit events drag on far into the night. This can lead to a flood out the door as attendees realize, “I promised the babysitter I’d be home by now,” or “If I don’t get to sleep soon, tomorrow is going to be Hell.” They run from their chairs feeling half guilty and half resentful. (And guess what they remember next year . . . .)

This time drag is not for lack of good intentions. Recently, I intended an event where the program itself included the exact time at which everything would take place: “7:35, Announcement by E.D.,” “8:00 Choral Presentation,” and so forth. How nice to know exactly what to expect! But keeping to such a schedule is always (and was) a challenge.

So, what can a well-intentioned nonprofit do? Here are some strategies:

  • Don’t try to pack too much into one evening. The more variables you’ve got, with speakers and participants from outside your organization who might revel in their moment in front of the microphone, the higher the possibilities for time to slip away.
  • Set an end time for festivities that’s earlier than when you want everyone to leave. Remember, people will need time for some final chitchat, and your volunteers or event staff will need time to clean up.
  • Give guest speakers strict instructions on how much time they’ll have. A casual, “Oh, we’d love it if you could say a few words” won’t do it. Tell them (graciously, of course) not only what their time limit is, but that you’ll have a timekeeper in the audience holding up signs as the cutoff approaches.
  • Plan for crowd control. There’s nothing that can throw your time calculations off faster than a large group of people who can’t be persuaded to move. How, for instance, will you get people from the silent auction tables to the dinner table? This may take more than just an announcement from the podium. You may need to have volunteers deputized to approach groups of people and invite them to sit down.
  • Enforce the timekeeping rules. It should go without saying, but if you tell speakers they have time limits, you have to make sure they stick to them. Some speakers will ignore the rules, or even ignore the person holding up the sign. Dragging them offstage with a hook is generally considered to be in poor taste, but designating someone to approach the podium clapping can work when all else has failed.

Other strategies tend to depend on the exact nature of the event. At an auction, for instance, you’ll want to focus on developing a seamless procedure for having the winning bidders pick up their items, so that they don’t face a long line before they can get out the door.

Succeeding in having an event end on time isn’t something that will bring in loads of compliments — but you should see the payoff in ticket sales next time around.