How To Create a Successful Special Event

The big takeaway: your guests are special. Make sure they feel that way.

The big takeaway: your guests are special. Make sure they feel that way.

One of the best measures of a successful special event is the Monday morning debrief. You sit with your special events person and you find out how many apology notes you have to write or calls you have to make.

The shorter the list, the more successful the evening.

Oh, there are just SO many ways to screw up a special event. Today, I’d like to focus on five things you can do to insure that the odds are always in your favor. 


A special event is mostly science with a dose of art. My lessons are extra work – I won’t deny it. At first read, you may think you simply don’t have time. But trust me. It’s an investment with a payoff. After all, this is a special event and these are your guests.

You just need to remember a few simple things and my lessons will feel right and not overly onerous:

1) They paid good money to participate at your event.

2) They are your guests.

3) The more special they feel the more the relationship becomes solid and institutionalized.

4) They want to feel special.

Split the work between you, your board chair, your development director, and your board members. A special event will of course generate revenue for you, but done well, it is like a big net trailing behind a boat, trawling for new organizational friends, hooked on your organization.

So, without any further ado, here are five extremely practical things you can do at your special events so you don’t have to write too many apology notes.


1) Write greeting notes

Before special event hell arrives, sit down and write some notes of greeting. Here is your opportunity for a nice personal touch even while you are either putting makeup on, having your photo taken with what I hope is an A-list celebrity, or staring at the mirror rehearsing your speech again. Greet your guests when you can’t be there yourself. Focus on 10-20 folks – maybe your biggest donor, your most high maintenance donor, someone who traveled a very long distance. Make sure the note is personal enough that it makes a statement. Otherwise don’t bother.

2) Memorize table numbers and locations

Whether you have twenty tables or two hundred, you can’t be stumbling through the ballroom trying to get to the most important people.

  • Get the seating chart, guest list, and table assignments from the point person at least 24 hours in advance.
  • Draw on the visual chart and put in key names. I mean the people you would shoot yourself if you did not greet. And remember that the table numbers don’t always make sense. Table 18 may be on one side of the room and table 16 on the other. Get the pattern and stick it in your head.
  • Leave sufficient time to get into the ballroom and see the tables and the numbers with no one in there.

3) Create several routes through the room

For most executive directors, working a room is like bumper cars. You hope to bump into all the important folks you must greet. But once you have studied (yes, studied) the seating chart, you know where the key people are. Now it’s time for a map that takes you seamlessly from the celeb at table 2 to the donor at table 7 to the prospect with capacity at table 23. If it’s a big room, you’ll need a few maps — perhaps one for each side or quadrant of the room.

4) Visit the worst tables

This takes guts but suck it up. The folks at the worst tables NEVER expect company. They are either pissed or just feel forlorn (trick or treating and got a rock). And they paid the same price as people without an obstructed view.

Own it. Apologize but don’t belabor. Thank them. Try to go after a really good moment in the show – maybe a performance they didn’t need binoculars to see. Try to get to them when they are upbeat.

Remember — visiting the worst tables definitely decreases apology notes you’ll write the next day.

5) Let your staff / event company do its job

When my son had his bar mitzvah it took everything in my power to stay out of the way. I wanted to yell into the headset (which they should not give you) – “Hurry! We need to start! This part is going on too long!”

But my job was to be mom, not the event planner.

Remember this is your special event. You’re putting on a show. Nobody in the audience gets to see the chaos going on backstage. Nobody should ever see how the sausage is made.

Once you hit the ballroom, not a single person should see anything but joy, pride, and professionalism from the organizational leaders. No eye rolling. No yelling at your staff. No last minute changes unless they are all agreed on.

You’ve been planning this for a long time.

And yes things will go wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. Like the time a mother who lost her son to a violent hate crime was called to the stage at our event – her first public appearance ever. Cue music. I’m figuring something somber – some beautiful soundtrack to a poignant film. Nope.  It was the wrong music.  Very wrong.

It was Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” I am not making this up. It was horrifying. So horrifying that no one could even speak about it after. I thought my special events guy would resign after the event.

But mistakes get made, you apologize and you move on. The woman gave a poignant, moving speech and had the audience in tears. Who cared what background music accompanied her to stage? It happens.


Sometimes it involves a lot of what I call crouch-walking. Now this is an art. You can’t be disruptive, seem rude or block anyone’s view. You may have to sit at an empty spot along the way to your destination (I was not above sitting on someone’s lap so as not to spoil their view).

And what’s the destination? The honoree or winner’s table. You want to be there when they return. It’s really, really cool to surprise them. And they are super impressed. And when it is an event with categories and winners, the E.D. always knows the winners ahead so there’s no guessing about the table.

P.S. All tips also transferrable for weddings and bar / bat mitzvahs.

NEXT: 10 Rules for a Successful Small Fundraiser


Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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