How to create a winning theme for your next event

Jerry Lewis Theme

From start to finish, a successful event theme will help build excitement, include guests in the fun, and can even help raise more funds says Liliana Sanelli

The theme of an event can become the reason for an event’s success – or even its failure. There are many factors to consider when deciding on the best theme for your event.

Relevant themes engage guests

Keep in mind what kind of theme is going to be relevant to your organisation and the occasion.  For example, if a nonprofit is celebrating its 25th anniversary, it could look back 25 years and celebrate the decade the organisation commenced. This gives the theme some weight and relevance. Often a theme that truly matches the occasion will result in better buy-in from guests and a better outcome for your nonprofit.

Make a good first impression

It’s important to thread the theme of the event right through from first to last impressions. The invitation is usually the first chance you have to introduce a theme, so it needs to clearly set the scene and start to build anticipation for the event. There are plenty of opportunities to extend the theme of your event, including room dressing, entertainment, menu, music, and guest gifts.

Theme your guests’ tastebuds

Make sure you discuss your theme with your chosen venue, as they may have creative ways to tie the theme in with the catering. For example, as guests arrive at a Hawaiian themed dinner, they may receive a lei and a pina colada. Simple things like that add to the evening.

A great example of a theme which has worked well was a black tie event that supported a breast cancer charity. As they entered the venue, every man was given a pink bow tie to wear, which many did. It was simple, but it made people feel included and it looked fabulous.

Great themes are inclusive

A theme should be easy for guests to be a part of. There is always a better result if guests feel a sense of belonging to an event or organisation.

Fundraising events will benefit from creative ideas that fit the theme and raise additional money. A perfect example is a Bond 007 or Las Vegas theme with matching casino games; guests need to ‘buy’ money to play in the casino, which is a fun way of making a donation.

Remember that the event is for the guests and organisation – not for the organisers.  Even though you may have seen or done an event theme many times before, it can still be fresh and fun for the guests attending.

80's theme image

70’s and 80’s themed events making a comeback

There’s been a resurgence in 70’s and 80’s themes, which are always fun nights! For some people it may be a nostalgic look back on their youth; for the younger Gen Y crowd it might be their first taste of the retro years.

Bond 007 and Las Vegas nights bring a touch of glamour (and a chance to get dressed up!) while some nonprofits are dabbling in newer themes, such as burlesque, Hollywood and Bollywood nights. They are all inclusive, and encourage guests to dress the part.

Match guests to themes carefully

Setting a theme that doesn’t match the guests or the organisation is a mistake that can be avoided by simply thinking it through. Guests need to feel comfortable if they are going to have a good time. A burlesque theme, for example, is probably not the right match for a religious nonprofit. Masquerade events are another example – at first glance it may appear fun, but who will want to wear a mask all night?

Get creative!

Working with a budget can be restrictive, but this is where creativity comes in. A fantastic and very cost-effective decoration idea that has worked well for an 80’s themed event involved using vinyl records as placemats. Great ideas don’t always involve a great big price tag!

As guests often only recall two or three things from an event, you want them to be positive. So ask yourself – what will guests remember from your next event?

5 top tips to make your event work for you

  • You can stick to a budget without choosing a theme that looks tacky. It’s better not to have a theme at all than to look cheap!
  • Sometimes you need to go out on a limb and be creative, especially if your event is annual. Create a refreshing theme that will help raise dollars and have people enjoying every minute.
  • One bad theme can ruin the life span of an event … so exercise caution!
  • Take pride in your event, and think of little touches that will make your event feel extra special.
  • Don’t be scared to get things made to help the room fit in with your theme. Getting local fine arts students to produce theme-based murals as stage backdrops could be a cost-effective and smart way of dressing the room.

Liliana Sanelli has been an event organiser for 14 years and is the Managing Director of Perfect Events, a company that specialises in nonprofit events. In 2010 Perfect Events helped raise over $2,000,000 for various nonprofit organisations.

This article was originally published in the February/March 2011 edition of Fundraising & Philanthropy Australasia –