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Embracing a New Reality for Events

By Matthew Helmer


This one is for the event professionals among us — whether it’s one part of what we do for our organization, or all of what we do, or even (perhaps especially) if it’s just part of what the team we work with does. I want to talk with event planners and those who lead them and partner with them because right now is a defining moment for our industry. In fact, I think it’s safe to say a RE-defining moment for us—unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes.

There is a fundamental shift afoot in the world of events. It’s a shift so profound that we all should probably rethink what the word “event” means—to us, our organizations and our donors. I am talking about more than the so-called “virtual revolution” that we all are experiencing.

I am talking about the opportunity to break free from the constraints of our past.

For events themselves, this moment presents an opportunity to leave behind the physical limitations of events and embrace a future of engagement that is more inclusive and without boundaries. This jarring pivot in our world is a singular moment to center everything we do in purpose—to reconnect with the mission and goals of our organizations in a way that creates meaningful engagement experiences. Gone are the days of bowing to “have to” and “we’ve always done it this way.” Attempting to fulfill those obsolete expectations right now is out-of-touch at best, if not downright negligent.

For event professionals, this moment presents even more opportunity to demonstrate our strategic value within an organization and to redefine our role in fulfilling its mission. It starts by acknowledging that there will be no “return to normal.” Our traditions of gathering in person in support of our cause have, rightfully, been forever altered. And while I fully anticipate a safe and responsible return to in-person events at some point, the impetus for doing so and the ways in which we do can be different—more thoughtful, rooted in purpose and of greater value to our organization than at any time prior to the onset of the pandemic.

To get there, we have to rely on some of what we do best by rolling up our sleeves and digging into the work at hand.

  • First, initiate those sometimes difficult, always crucial conversations about WHY. What were the initial goals of the event? How can these be reimagined in a different form of meaningful engagement? And how will we measure success?

  • From there, we unleash creative thought and innovation, deploy our unique resourcefulness and deliver an unexpected solution to the problem at hand.

This is how we prove our value as strategic partners and thinkers; how we take our seat at the table where decisions are made about advancement priorities and the ways we achieve them.

In times of great challenge and crisis, it can be easy to freeze, to feel at a loss for what to do next when everything we’ve known is turned upside down. What we must remember is that the most important part hasn’t changed at all: Who We Are.

Nonprofit event professionals are so much more than party planners. We always have been.

We are experience designers. Connectors. Collaborators. Dreamers. Dream makers. Storytellers. Risk takers. Unfettered and unbothered by the unexpected. Up to the challenge.

Most of all, we are resilient. This durability is what will carry us forward as we reshape our industry, and our industry needs us to lead the way. Let’s do that. Let’s lead by reframing the conversation, centering not on what we can’t do, but on the limitless possibility of connection that awaits in what we CAN.

Matthew S. Helmer is a DRG Group member and Assistant Vice President of University Advancement at Colorado State University. In between an endless string of Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, he is soaking up ideas and inspiration on the future of events and nonprofit engagement. Connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or follow on Twitter for more idea-sharing. Let’s define our future together!

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