Making memories on campus

Maximizing the relational and marketing benefits of alumni and philanthropic events

Most of us in higher education enjoy planning for and attending special events. From formal occasions to casual functions, colleges and universities have long hosted events as a means of engaging alumni, parents and families, donors, and other valued supporters.

Designated weekends, such as homecoming, parents weekend and alumni weekend, also provide meaningful occasions to invite members of the family “back home.”

For alumni, events can rekindle memories of student days and encourage reconnections with friends, faculty and student organizations.

For parents, events can strengthen their relationship with their child while instilling a sense of pride in their child’s chosen academic home.

And for other supporters such as donors, events can stir passion, belief and confirmation in the worthy cause for which they invest their time, creativity, advocacy and personal resources.

Strategic planning

Events can be one of the most effective public relations, fundraising and marketing efforts an institution can undertake. Too often, however, institutions overlook the strategic opportunities events can present. The following aspects of event planning can catapult your event from tactical to strategic success.

  • Have a clear vision. Make certain there is an overall vision and mission for the event, and stay true to that goal throughout planning. What is the event’s intended outcome? How can this achieve your institution’s overall fundraising and public relations strategies? What will be the follow-up with your guests? How can they relive parts of the event should they wish to share their memories with family, friends and business associates?
  • Be exceptional. See to the smallest details and help your guests make memories. Your guests will remember that extra touch and will continue to support you in the future. Strive to create events that will provide memorable moments that will leave an indelible impression on hearts and minds.
  • Plan with the five basic human senses in mind. With an event, you want to plan around hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. As you explore ideas, consider how one or more of these senses can add to the memorability of your event.
  • Know your guests and motivate them to action. Do a deep dive into understanding who your guests are, including their likes and dislikes, interests in your institution, and possible connections with your college or university. In agricultural terms, you’re planting seeds for further growth. Don’t allow something special to become a “one and done.” Build on what you’ve started.
  • Plan for your audience. Programming, entertainment, food and swag are vital considerations for the audience you wish to attract. Pay attention to the details for each as they are critical components of your event. Provide a setting that is comfortable for your guests, yet sparkles with out-of-the-ordinary treats such as valet parking and students welcoming guests at doorways.
  • Emotionally engage your audience. Find an appropriate way for your audience to become emotionally engaged in your event’s program. Storytelling and personal testimonials resonate with all of us and can effectively advance our worthy cause with an audience eager to learn more.

In their book, The Power of Moments (Simon & Schuster, 2017), authors Chip and Dan Heath write: “Moments matter. And what an opportunity we miss when we leave them to chance! Teachers can inspire, caregivers can comfort, service workers can delight, politicians can unite and managers can motivate. All it takes is a bit of insight and forethought.”

And so it goes for event planning, too. With some insight and forethought, you can create events that produce powerful, engaging moments for your guests.

Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy and teaches event planning in UK’s Department of Integrated Strategic Communication. Follow him on LinkedIn ( or Twitter (@marcwhitt).


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