“Hold on, hold on! I have a great idea for our next dinner that will make it a lot easier and a lot cheaper!”
Red flashing warning lights and ear-piercing sirens should go off in your head if your fellow staff member says something along these lines. Those are the warning signs that your creative staff team might be straying from the well-tested methods for Vision Dinners that are outlined here on TeamGold. Creativity isn’t a bad thing - we’ve seen some teams have a lot of success by changing their event to cater to their specific community. That said, we’ve also seen some very well-intentioned ideas lead teams down a path to disappointment. I’ve been coaching Development events in Cru’s Campus Ministry for over 5 years now. I'd like to share 4 creative ideas that proved to work very well and 3 that didn’t turn out so well. Let’s look at the helpful ideas first.
FOUR CREATIVE IDEAS THAT HAVE WORKED
1. PLANNING YOUR DINNER AS A BRUNCH
A particular team in the Midwest had typically held their Vision Dinner on a Saturday evening in late February. Many of their guests came from out of town and traveled several hours to get there and then leave to drive home on roads that are commonly icy at night. This past year, the team decided to plan their ‘dinner’ for 10am to remove the barriers of attendance that an evening event brought to their specific community, and it was a big win for the team.
Like I mentioned, one major benefit was that partners didn’t have to worry about driving home on the dark, icy roads. Additionally, since many ministry partners come from smaller communities they enjoyed the opportunity to spend the rest of the day or weekend in the bigger city that the brunch was hosted in. Next, having the brunch earlier in the day (10 or 11 am) caused it not to compete with other evening events. Guests’ Saturday evenings can be precious and often fill up quickly. Lastly the guests really enjoyed the special menu of brunch items. The last several years the team hadn't changed anything so it was a welcomed change for the ministry partners.
2. ROAMING TESTIMONIES DURING MEAL
I’ve seen teams have success by recruiting people to walk up to tables during the meal to share a short testimony of how the ministry has impacted their lives.
These volunteers need to be engaging, good public speakers and have the confidence to walk up to a table of strangers. At a Cru Campus dinner, student leaders are asked to do this because they are able to communicate the values and vision of Cru the best. The students are paired up, usually a guy and a girl, to share a 30 second story of how their lives have been changed by God through Cru. While the guests were eating they would walk up to tables, politely interrupt the conversations and share their stories. Afterwards they would ask if the table had any questions. This idea allowed the guests to interact with Cru students and hear additional stories of how God has changed their lives. I think the guests really enjoyed hearing from these students because it gave them a chance to hear from real students who have benefited from their generosity.
This allowed the guests to interact with people involved in our ministry and hear additional stories of how God has changed their lives.
3. HIRING A PHOTOGRAPHER FOR THE NIGHT OF THE EVENT
Some teams have hired a photographer whose only job is to focus on taking photos without getting distracted but other parts of the evening. I would encourage you to hire an aspiring student photographer or a hobbyist because they are more affordable than a professional. Of course you need to make sure they have the talent to take excellent photos. During your discussions with the photographer I would emphasize what kinds of shots you want- faces, people on stage, the room, people having fun, etc. Ask the photographer to upload the photos immediately after the event or at least by the end of the next day. You can then direct your guests to look for their photos on whatever social media platform you have used. Your guests will enjoy seeing themselves and their friends all dressed up. Plus the photos can be used by the Cru staff for upcoming prayer letters and archival photos for future dinners.
4. HIRING AN A/V TECH
Between planning what you need and then transporting, setting up, running, and tearing down A/V equipment, your staff might spend a lot of hours taking care of A/V. Hiring an A/V tech doesn’t take away all this work but it drastically reduces it and reduces stress for the staff. Getting help from a local church with professional A/V staff who really know what they’re doing can be a huge help. Ideally I would ask if the A/V tech can bring equipment from the church because he is more familiar with his own equipment. If a problem does arise he will be more able to solve it on his own equipment. Hiring a professional alleviates a lot of work for staff that might not be skilled in A/V plus the tech can create a great evening with confidence and knowledge.
Hiring a technician doesn’t take away all this work but it drastically reduces the responsibility for your team.
THREE CREATIVE IDEAS THAT HAVE FALLEN FLAT
1. OPTING FOR A SMALLER, MORE INTIMATE DINNER AT A PARTNER’S HOUSE
I think the heart behind this is often to reduce overhead costs, provide a more intimate environment, and to focus on the ministry partners that can give larger gifts. These are not bad motivations but in the long term I think your ministry will suffer. First, a smaller gathering lacks the energy that a larger event has. When guests walk into a full venue of 150 or more I think it sub-consciously communicates this is an important ministry and many people value it. They want to partner generously with this ministry because so many others are behind it.
Second, the attrition rate may feel higher. If you are shooting to have 20 couples at the event and only 15 show up the staff and the guest notice it more. There are visible empty seats and it can be discouraging. If one of your high capacity partners needs to cancel at the last minute that can really be discouraging for a team.
Next, it has been proven that guests give more generously when an event is more formal. Most likely a less-formal event in a home usually leads to smaller gifts. The guests may feel more comfortable but they are known to give less.
Fourth, a staff team who is planning the event may tend to do less planning because the mood is more casual. And small events in a home may lead a team to “wing it” and produce a less than excellent program.
2. CHANGING YOUR DINNER INTO A DESSERT-ONLY EVENT
There are several reasons why you shouldn’t switch to a dessert, the first being that your committed guests might feel more free to back out at the last minute. If you know a full dinner is waiting for you rather than a buffet of desserts you feel more obligation to keep your commitment. I think a dessert also creates a less formal environment so guests might not take it as seriously. Somehow dessert translates in the mind of your guests that you are lowering the bar in what you are asking guests to give to.
The second reason is that a dessert often takes just as much work to make happen as reserving a venue and utilizing the catering at the venue. Most likely a dessert is held at a home or a church. You might save on the per person cost but your staff team and volunteers have to take on a lot more work. Depending on your location you may have to rent tables and chairs, buy tablecloths, plates, silverware, napkins, drinks and dessert. Then you have to transport all the equipment there, set it up, tear it down and haul it away. In the long run you may not save much money and you certainly increase your work.
Dessert translates in the mind of your guests that you are lowering the bar in what you are asking guests to give to.
Lastly, your staff team may not take the event as seriously. This casual attitude could translate into lack of effort to invite friends and be diligent to follow up with them. Similar to the smaller venue they may take the program less seriously and not prepare well to communicate with excellence if they are part of the program.
3. HOSTING A FAMILY-FRIENDLY PICNIC EVENT
Some teams have tried to ditch the formal Vision Dinner event in favor of a causal family picnic on a Saturday afternoon. Typically these are buffet style events with kids invited. The team might even design fun entertaining games and activities to keep the kids engaged. These picnics tend to be a really fun environment for the staff and ministry partner families but often not much money is raised at these picnics. Guests tend to be drawn to the fun family atmosphere but not necessarily to give a financial gift. Most teams report that these are a great time of fellowship but they don’t tend to raise very much money.
I think these family picnics should be reserved for what they do best- creating an opportunity for fun and fellowship. Maybe a better plan would be to host a standard Vision Dinner in one semester and in the opposite semester your team hosts a family picnic for staff, alumni and ministry partners. The combo of the two in a year could accelerate connectedness to your vision and the amounts of gifts you receive.
These picnics tend to be a really fun environment for the staff and ministry partner families but often not much money is raised at these picnics.
While many of these ideas are creative they may not all be a benefit to your team. As a Cru team you may be tempted to simplify and try to reduce costs but in the end you might not get the results you had hoped for. The staff behind TeamGold have decades of experience in hosting Vision Dinners and our methods have been tested and tried. Many of our seasoned teams have tried these other ideas only to return to the methods and standards presented here on TeamGold. We highly encourage you to follow the strategies laid out on Team Gold and trust the Lord with the results.