The “Anti-Small-Talk Event” Message to Nonprofits: Your Events May Not Be Serving You

Your nonprofit organization can host simpler, more effective “anti-small-talk” convening events in the New Normal

Kevin Mahler, May 6, 2021

05.06.2021

As we in the nonprofit sector ease back into the hosting and attending of events in 2021 and 2022, let’s take a moment to reflect upon what event-hosting practices we want to continue and what we want to retool or discard.

Think about your organization’s last in-person fundraising event. Now, think about your organization’s last virtual fundraising event (if you had one).

Do your organization’s events make you feel slightly… unfulfilled? If the answer is “yes,” perhaps that it is because your organization’s events are not serving as the donor cultivation vehicles they need to be.

Do We Really Need Another Silent Auction, Gala or Golf Outing?

Many organizations have longstanding annual traditions of hosting silent auctions, galas, and golf outings, where the organization provides activities and entertainment (with a few opportunities for impulse-buys that benefit the host organization financially), where attendees are passively entertained and “informed” about the host organization’s recent accomplishments. Attendees make small talk and clink glasses. For the purposes of this article, let’s call these “Traditional Fundraising Events” or TFEs.While not always memorable or inspiring, these events serve a purpose and provide a decent, reliable source of income for the host.

I am writing to you today if you are considering hosting such a Traditional Fundraising Event in a post-pandemic ー or perhaps I should say “slightly safer semi-vaccinated late-stage pandemic era” ー world.

For just a moment, I want to ask you to press pause on the roll out of your next event. Tell your co-chair to chill on the “we need to get the ‘save the date’ to the postoffice like yesterday.”

Rather than the events that leave staff and volunteers exhausted and attendees feeling entertained but not really inspired, I encourage you to consider a much simpler event concept:

A “Convening” event… or as I like to call it, an Anti-Small Talk event.

A convening event is an event that brings people together that are invested in a common issue from different angles. When nonprofit organizations host such events, they have the potential to inspire scintillating conversations, lucrative business partnerships, urgent problem-solving endeavors, and lasting friendships among attendees that result in the creation of donors who are more loyal, invested, engaged, and generous than anyone who attends a TFE!

Nonprofit organizations that host fruitful convening events select a topic that is close to the heart of their mission; reach out to a core of five or six individuals with a strong professional interest in this issue (as well as the capacity to give abundantly or facilitate abundant giving); explain and agree upon the need for an informal unstructured dialogue about the issue across disciplines; industries and sectors; secure a date and time that works for everyone; and invites as many additional people as makes sense to attend the event as well. 

Hosts welcome all attendees and reiterate the need for informal, unstructured dialogue across boundaries to see the issue in a new light. Each person in attendance introduces themselves. Then, they step out of the way and let the attendees talk to one another, perhaps providing some written ice-breaker questions.

In a virtual format such as Zoom, hosts create breakout rooms that allow these dialogues to happen amongst attendees. A few breakout room reconfigurations might be needed two or three times over the course of 30 to 45 minutes.

In an in-person setting, hosts provide an interesting space (such as the patio or terrace of an architecturally distinct restaurant, museum, or gathering place), thoughtfully chosen food and drink, and a room layout that encourages movement, mingling and accommodation for people needing to sit, stand, wear masks, take off masks, move about.

After people have had a chance to talk for about 45 minutes, the host gathers everyone back together and asks everyone, simply, “What was one thing you learned about this issue that has helped you see it in a new light?” The host encourages all attendees to stay until the very end.

The host does NOT attempt to solve every societal or structural problem that arises in the discussion. The host does NOT make it the host organization’s responsibility to address or take action on everything. The focus is on the attendees: what value they derived from each other and what value they offered each other.

The host concludes the event, thanks everyone for their time and for helping build more dialogue and collaboration around this urgent issue, invites follow up and questions through email or phone from each attendee, and concludes the event.

It is rare that after the conclusion of an event such as this that each attendee is not…

  • Inspired and enlivened by the exchange of ideas and perspective
  • Feeling valued for their own contributions of ideas and perspective
  • Experiencing a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be included and for the host organization’s leadership ー and more: the host organization’s mere existence!


Some hosts provide attendee satisfaction surveys, fliers and brochures for in-person events, follow-up emails with attachments for virtual events, and invitations to future public-facing events that they are hosting, but this is all icing on the cake.

You May Be Still Asking “WHY Should I Host Such An Event?”

Congratulations! You just hosted your first convening event (as described above)! How do you feel?

Well, you should be feeling like you just did something incredibly valuable to your organization that will pay dividends for years!

By inviting and valuing people for their ideas and perspectives, you have created a pipeline to funding that is uniquely yours. Think about how willing each participant would be to help your organization now if you were to ask. Think about how willing each participant would be to have a conversation with you about an upcoming or ongoing program that needs funding.

Rather than trying to capture the attention of your local inundated billionaire, stalwart foundation, or Fortune 500 company, you are now cultivating your own community leaders that see your organization’s value because you have shown that you have seen theirs.

As fundraising expert Jim Langley often points out, the future of philanthropy will be characterized by donors who invest in nonprofits to address issues that are close to their hearts. Donor-organization relationships will be collaborative, with the organization showing respect for the donor’s knowledge of the subject matter and interest in using resources to address society’s most pressing concerns, and the donor rewarding organizations that also show keen subject matter expertise and savvy deployment of tactics to address issues directly and in innovative ways.

The way YOU can lean into this growing and accelerating trend TODAY is to start sketching out a convening event today.

The Recipe For A Convening Event

  1. Look inward at your mission and the issues your organization is addressing
  1. You look at the business community, government, academia, public services, and the nonprofit sector and ask yourself: who else is addressing the issues our organization addresses (directly or indirectly) from a different perspective?
  1. Pick the 6 people in all the sectors mentioned above that ABSOLUTELY MUST attend and find a date, time, and place (and food/catering, if applicable)
  1. Invite guests using the following formula: 
    1. Acknowledge you know what they do/what their business does and how it relates to your issue
    2. Explain and agree about how important it is to discuss issues from multiple perspectives and how important it is to stimulate dialogue and break down barriers
    3. Share a tantalizing preview of what the event will be like and how valuable their perspective will be to the discussion
    4. If the event has a ticket price and registration form, share the link and confirm they have received it
  2. Welcome all attendees and reiterate the need for informal, unstructured dialogue across boundaries to see the issue in a new light. 
  1. Each person in attendance introduces themselves. 
  1. Create the environment and cue for the attendees to talk to one another in one-on-one dyads or small groups in an informal unstructured way
  1. After people have had a chance to talk for about 45 minutes, gather everyone back together and ask: “What was one thing you learned about this issue that has helped you see it in a new light?” 
  1. Thank everyone for their time and for helping build more dialogue and collaboration around this urgent issue. Invite follow up and gesture to ways we all can work together in the future.

Let’s make friends. Not just acquaintances.

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