Thinking Outside of the Box: How to Plan a Memorable Event in the Wake of a Pandemic

Jun 29, 2021

We caught up with Sabrina Henriques, Director of Development and Communications for Catholic Charities of Broome County, to learn about how she conceptualized the idea of hosting a polo match for the organization’s big fundraiser this year.

In our interview, she shared planning considerations, hurdles she faced, and her advice to other organizations who are hoping to plan a memorable experience for their donors.

How did you come up with the idea to host a polo event? Did the idea of planning an untraditional event scare you or excite you?

The idea for this event was inspired by our Executive Director, Lori Accardi, who loves horses. When you think of events with horses, the first thing that comes to mind is the Kentucky Derby theme. But I knew I didn't want to do that because it's been done so many times. So that's why I started researching polo. My husband was in the military, and I've personally been to 48 countries. When we lived in Italy, we learned that Italians celebrate Cena in Bianco, an elegant outdoor dinner where all guests wear only white. Since then, I've always wanted to do an all-white event. In planning this year's fundraiser, I thought, why not combine the two events, make it last the whole weekend, and call it, A Weekend of Angels. The name A Weekend of Angels was inspired by our community's response to those in need during COVID. At first, the idea was exciting. Then it was a little terrifying. Now it's back to being both terrifying and exciting because we are only 60 days out!

What planning considerations were you faced with in the wake of COVID?

From the very beginning, we knew that this event was going to have to be outside. The mandates for New York State were constantly changing, but I knew that by holding an event outside we could incorporate whatever social distancing regulations were currently in place. I made a list of scenarios, the worst case being that we couldn’t hold the event. When we started planning, the mandate was that we could only have up to 150 people at an event, so I planned to accommodate social distancing with that number. Just recently, the mandate changed and we can have a maximum of 350.

Since everything has been so uncertain, it was very difficult to start the process of fundraising. Donors want to know if this is going to be a live event or if it's going to be a virtual event. If it’s going to be virtual, what does that look like? So we even grappled with when we should start selling tickets because we wanted everything to be as finalized as possible.

We have kept COVID front and center throughout the entire planning process as we continually re-evaluate the current regulations. We have and will continue to stay fully prepared for any changes that are mandated by the New York State and CDC regulations.

What is the biggest hurdle you had to overcome when planning this event?

Believe it or not, COVID was not the biggest hurdle for us. We are planning a “destination fundraiser,” which feels like planning a destination wedding. The event will be held over an hour away, so we need to use vendors from that area that we aren’t as familiar with and need to drive to that area to see the venue physically.

This past year, COVID limited organizations from hosting in person events. What strategies did you use to stay in front of your donors? Have you increased your digital/social media presence?

One of the things we did to help stay in front of donors was that we added a “text to donate” option during our Harvest to Hunger telethon. It was a small change, but we saw an immediate response.

For Weekend of Angels, we are still trying to fundraise and solicit sponsorships. One way we are able to stay in front of donors virtually is through our media sponsor. We just finished our TV commercial and it’s broadcasting during the US Golf Open, the Emmys, and the Yankees games. Our media sponsors have dramatically helped us reach donors in this region and hopefully set us up for success.

Many organizations have had to re-think their annual fundraisers during COVID. What advice do you have for other organizations that are ready to “step outside of the box?”

Stepping out of the box means stepping out of your comfort zone. And stepping out of your comfort zone can mean stepping out of your region. My advice is to look at what non-profits in the other areas are doing. If you're based in New York, look at what organizations in Colorado or California are doing and see if it can be done where you are. We are based in Binghamton [New York], and we do not have a polo field, so we adapted and sought a venue outside of our region. When you're planning a unique event, you must choose vendors that can also think outside of the box to make sure your visions are aligned.

My other piece of advice is to focus on the five senses while you plan the event. Anytime I do an event, I think about the senses because that's what will be memorable for your guests. You will be able to create an experience that they've never had or one that will make them want to come back and do it again.

Visit the Catholic Charities of Broome County website to learn more about how they are dedicated to caring for those in need while promoting human development, collaboration, and the elimination of poverty and injustice.

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