The more people who attend a nonprofit’s annual meeting, the more benefits the organization receives, beyond attendance fees. More people mean more awareness, volunteerism, sponsor participation and new ideas. Creating a theme tied to an annual meeting’s curriculum, initiative the organization is undertaking or benefits members are seeking gives more people a reason to attend. Develop a theme based on more than a slogan to maximize attendance.

Annual Meeting Purpose

Nonprofits often hold annual meetings to bring together business professionals who are members of 501(c)(6) trade associations. Some 501(c)(3) charities also hold annual gatherings to reward and inform donors and supporters. In both cases, the majority of the attendees usually pay their way to the meeting and want a specific benefit. Nonprofit organizations that hold annual meetings also have a specific benefit they want. Understanding the purpose of an annual meeting is the first step to creating a theme for it.

Theme or Content: Which Comes First?

Some meeting committees develop their curriculum or activities first, then use that information to create a theme. Other organizations create a theme first, developing seminars, inviting speakers and creating events to support the theme. Consider the purpose of your meeting to guide you as to which tack to take. If you don’t have a slightly different agenda for your meeting each year, consider creating something unique about each year’s meeting and developing your theme from that. For example, a professional association might focus on recent technology developments that are changing the profession one year, then emphasize business marketing strategies and techniques the next. You might create a family vacation one year, then a romantic couple’s getaway the next. Not all of your topics or activities should relate to your theme, especially since not everyone will be attracted by your hook. However, enough of your event should focus on your theme to give attendees interested in it what they came for.

Selecting Themes

If your nonprofit conducts a member survey each year, ask members why they join, why they renew and what they consider the five most important member benefits. Use this information to develop your meeting around a recurring theme in their responses. In each year’s post-meeting survey, add questions about what attendees want at next year’s event. If you have a membership recruitment and retention committee, it should have a lead voice in choosing your theme, since an annual meeting is a member benefit that helps attract and retain members. Avoid soliciting theme ideas from an outside meetings planning or marketing company that doesn’t know or understand your members.

Modular Programs

If you don’t want to limit your educational focus to one theme, pick an umbrella theme, then divide your curriculum into several modules. You might have seminar tracks on marketing, customer service, legal compliance, technology, social media or other areas of importance to your attendees, offering three or more seminars in each track.

Promoting Themes

Depending on why your attendees come to your meeting, your theme should either be serious and professional or light and fun. For example, if you run a meeting for attorneys with a high registration fee held at an expensive hotel, your theme should emphasize the professional benefits they will get by attending. If you are holding an annual meeting for people who aren’t seeking a business benefit, you might need to choose a light theme to attract people looking to write off a vacation while getting some professional benefit from networking with peers.