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| Posted by: Jo Marsh

A perspective on special events - an Interview with Rebecca Elcome, Head of Events at Ark

Earlier this month we were pleased to be able to spend some time with Rebecca Elcome, Head of Events at Ark. Rebecca has enjoyed a successful career spanning several high-profile charities, is the Co-Founder and Chair of the Special Events Forum, and also delivers freelance projects through her company,  Coveted Events.

Now at Ark, she was brought in to revise their events calendar and lead on a new, innovative approach that moved away from the traditional gala event to create a more immersive experience for attendees.

Jo Marsh of Prospectus sat down to ask Rebecca some questions.

What was it about special events that attracted you over, say, challenge events?

I had a taste of both challenge events and special events but what really interested me about special events was the buzz and excitement of everyone coming together for one night, and the opportunity to secure six- and seven-figure gifts. I recognise the benefits and merits of challenge events but for me I enjoyed being able to build the high level relationships that come with special events.

I loved working at GOSH, and after that Sparks, but felt a move to Ark was a good choice for my career development, and I was excited by the opportunity to work on rethinking what special events meant to Ark.

It seems Ark’s special events were known for the “glitz and glamour” – how did you set about changing that perception?

This is true, and up until 2012 these high profile events were really successful and helped raise up to £20 million per annum which is a significant sum of money. However the Board made a decision to pause these and think about what events meant to Ark, and how we could deliver something more immersive that focused on our work and programmes; this is something that was a risk to us but a really innovative way to relaunch our special events.

How has your audience responded to that?

The response has been hugely positive – one of the big challenges with engaging your audience is “event fatigue” and you need to find a way to get your invitation to the top of the pile. We decided to have an air of mystery and initially we were concerned people would think we were being too worthy by focusing on our work, rather than the food! Our audience are used to royalty or events headlined by Calvin Harris, so we were taking a risk in inviting them to a school in Elephant and Castle for burgers and fries! We reduced the numbers as well so rather than 1,000 people in one night we ran two events of 150-200 people, for a much more targeted approach.

What are your thoughts regarding on-the-night pledges?

It depends on your objective and audience – personally I am an advocate for making a direct ask - what’s the worst that could happen? Whilst a lot of the follow-up work may be left to a major donor or philanthropy team, I have seen a lot of missed opportunities at special events and think that they are a wonderful chance to leverage the excitement created at an event, when people might be feeling more generous.

What has been your biggest challenge in special events?

Learning that less is more; you can add in lots of events to a calendar but with your database of supporters it is so much more effective to create a carefully crafted calendar of events. Also you should be very mindful of how you use your resources and think about how you hit that objective of being special and memorable. You can do that without focusing on food or decorations, which are obviously important, but certainly at Ark, we believe that it should be all about the content.

What trends do you see emerging in the special events sphere? Do you think other charities will follow suit and shift away from glamour and more towards cause-focused events?

It depends on your audience, you do see more doing these forms of immersive events, includingSave the Children or Disaster Emergency Committee. However if a traditional gala works for you, it makes sense to build on that success. I am involved with the Special Events Forum and one of the big things we have noticed is increased competition. Four to five years ago organisations were scaling back their special events in terms of scale and teams, but now there is so much competition from charities and other organisations. Philanthropists and high net worth individuals get so many invitations – what you think is a really special and unique experience might be everyday to them. Charities need to see things through their eyes to remain innovative hence the role of committees and boards is so valuable.  If you only get one opportunity to engage a prospective donor, do you want them to remember your menu or your mission?