The word "emcee" comes from "master of ceremonies" (or mistress, of course.) That's worth reflecting upon when choosing an emcee to take the stage at your next fundraising event. You want someone who presides gracefully over this festive occasion, with enough mastery to both be a focus of attention and to keep the proceedings running smoothly and pleasantly.
But too often, the person chosen for the important role of emcee is the opposite of masterful. He or she may be dull, long-winded, convinced that he or she missed a calling as a standup comedian, or reticent about reining in other long-winded speakers or would-be comedians.
The results can dampen the success of an otherwise well-planned fundraising event. Unhappy guests may leave early, lose enthusiasm about participating in, say, auction bidding, and perhaps not return the following year.
So don't just say a relieved "yes" to whoever is suggested as a likely emcee, even if the pickings seem slim. Choosing who occupies this make-or-break role should be given high priority. Here are some guidelines to help.
Learn from the common mistakes made by other nonprofits:
1. Don't default to your executive director or board president. It's possible that he or she would be fine for the role. Nevertheless, it’s worth reviewing past performance or talking to others. Perhaps it might be time to let the E.D. or Pres enjoy sitting in the audience this year?
2. Don't assume a celebrity is up to the job. The old "I know someone who knows Mr. Bigwig!" can seem all very exciting, espeically at a small nonprofit that doesn't have many connections. But before you leap, take a closer look at the celebrity's actual speaking experience, if any. Is he or she a famous author who prefers the humble solitude of a garret? An actor or TV personality whose lines are always prescripted and handed to him or her? Such a person may, by chance, still be a good emcee – but ask around before you commit, or look for a YouTube video of the prospect doing something off-the-cuff and unscripted.
3. Don't leave the choice until the last minute. This process of coming up with ideas and vetting your prospects won't happen overnight. Also, famous or important people have busy schedules. Your best bet for finding the best person for the job is to start well in advance.
Here are some ways to raise your chances of finding a good match.
1. Consider what tasks and challenges your emcee will need to handle. The duties of event emcees vary based on the type and scope of the event itself, and partially dictate who you’ll be looking for. For instance, while some emcees may need to do no more than read the introductions for a few speakers, others may be asked to prepare those introductions themselves. The emcee might also be asked to give direct encouragement to the audience to donate, or perhaps bid at an auction. (Note, however, that asking an emcee to also serve as auctioneer is not recommended.)
2. Write up a checklist of qualities you're seeking. That will depend partly on exactly what responsibilities you want your emcee to handle, as discussed above. Typically, however, the ideal emcee is an effective, energetic communicator with a good speaking voice, watchable, able to manage unexpected situations with aplomb, occasionally funny (yet with a countervailing sense of propriety), able to follow instructions well (you're going to need to provide the emcee with a timetable of activities and rules, such as when to cut speakers off), and passionate about the cause your organization serves. Even after all that, you want the emcee's personality to be a good match for the style and tone that your organization is trying to convey. Refer back to your checklist before you reach out to invite someone.
3. Cast a wide net. The ideal is to bring in someone who is closely tied with and passionate about your organization and the cause it serves. At the same time, the best person for the job may have little connection with your organization, or be a past contact who is unknown to current staff and event planners. Explain what you're looking for to your board, staff, professional contacts, and volunteers, and ask for suggestions. If you end up approaching someone with whom your organization has had little prior contact, be ready to give a solid pitch as to what your organization does and why he or she might enjoy serving as its face for a night (and hopefully in maintaining future contact). Also be ready to say what's in it for the emcee – at a minimum, free dinner (or whatever is being served) for him or her and a guest. Some emcees may also expect an honorarium.
For detailed information on special event planning, see The Volunteers' Guide to Fundraising; Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group (Nolo).