Every year since I’ve lived in Indianapolis, I’ve had the pleasure of dropping in on GenCon, one of the cultural-phenomenon conventions our city hosts. If you’ve never heard of GenCon or have been too afraid of sounding pop-culturally ignorant by asking, allow me to explain. GenCon is a tabletop gaming convention that attracts 50,000 (and growing) participants for four days of gaming, new game demos, cosplay (dressing up as fictional characters and embracing the temporary paparrazi), live action role playing (the same as cosplay, but with an actual mission), and the holy grail of people watching.

My personal interests lie far outside the realm of gaming, but I love attending. For me, GenCon is a fascinating culmination of everything I try to bring to our work. Walking around GenCon, one can immediately feel this sense of community that, if you aren’t a part of, you jealously WANT to be a part of.

Something that struck me this year was the convention’s use of philanthropic opportunities that took the culture of the community and leveraged it to create really exciting experiences that people ACTUALLY enjoyed.

I’m assuming most of those reading our blogs have lots of fundraising experience, or at least an interest in it. I’m also assuming most of you have been asked to give money or time to help a cause, maybe even at a conference, trade show, or convention that you’ve attended. I’d like you to recall how you were asked to give, whether or not you did, and how you felt when you did it. We’ll touch on this later.

But first, I’d like to introduce you to two on-site philanthropic opportunities at GenCon that really stuck with me.

Cardhalla: Build, Donate, Destroy

Photo by @little_fox23

One lovely day at GenCon in 1999, a group of attendees were waiting for some of their friends to finish up some games. While sitting in the convention center, they began going through their convention-common swag bags. Inside, they came across sample packets of playing cards. With little interest in the actual game the cards were for, they began creating towers with their cards to pass the time.

Their friends eventually finished, probably wanted to go grab lunch or wander around, but the amateur card engineers didn’t want to destroy their works of art. Instead, they left behind their card towers with a note: “Add on if you wish, but do not destroy.”

Other attendees followed suit, collectively creating a massive city of card towers in an open space of the convention center. GenCon saw this and cultivated it, encouraging people to add on. In 2000, it had become a scheduled part of GenCon, with the four-day city building leading up to the most exciting part of the event: Destroy!

On the last day of GenCon, participants are encouraged to launch coins at the structure. The onslaught lasts for about an hour and levels the city, leaving an aftermath of cards and coins. Volunteers collect the cards and coins and donate them to local charities, often orphanages or similar local organizations. The event raises upwards of $2,000 every year (and, not to mention, costs GenCon nothing as all the cards are donated as well).

Balloon Sculpture: Slay the Creature!

Photo by @herrgeist

This year, balloon sculptor Tim Thurmond wanted to use GenCon for the opportunity to do two things: Break a world record and help the world out a bit by doing so.

Over the course of the convention, Thurmond assembled over 4,000 balloons, creating “The Kraken,” a 104 foot by 98 foot bright red octopus. Thurmond constructed this in one of the main hallways of the convention center, offering attendees the opportunity to touch the creature and ask the artist questions about it. But most importantly, they also had the opportunity to bid for its ultimate demise.

To the brave soul with the highest bid went the opportunity to slay the creature outside of the convention center. I would equate this to being the only person in a pit of bubble wrap and free reign.

The event raised upwards of $750 and broke a Guinness World Record.

With these two auxiliary events in mind, I want to bring up those questions I asked early. Have you ever been at a conference or event that has asked you to donate money? How did they ask you? Did you donate? And how did you feel when you did it?

As a designer who works with large scale events, we thrive on creating opportunities like these for our attendees and our sponsors. We want to give our sponsors a spotlight event that raises money for their cause, but also leaves a lasting impact on the attendees. After some thought, and using GenCon as a model, I’ve developed my list of tips for doing just that:

Listen to (and Watch) Your Attendees

If you have to organize several meetings to aggressively hammer out what “cool experience” you can provide to attendees and if phrases like “I want this to go viral” start flying around, there’s a good chance you’re trying too hard. Hold your event this time around and just watch your attendees. But ACTUALLY watch them. Are they playing with the swag you gave them? Are they playing with some of the props around the event? Are they doing something really weird that you never expected them to? Good. Stand around with them, talk to them, and get to know them. Look for those moments and find a way to encourage people to do the things they are already doing. Once you allow the culture of your event to develop, you can begin to understand what people will really enjoy doing.

Encourage Attendees to Encourage Attendees

It shouldn’t be solely up to the event organizers to tell people what to do. These kind of conferences can really quickly feel like a cattle round up. “Go here. Do this. Tell us about it.” Instead, design opportunities that encourage attendees to grab other attendees. This concept isn’t new. In fundraising, we continuously refer to it as the “peer-to-peer” model. The problem with the peer-to-peer model is that we too often unapologetically inject ourselves into it.

If someone does something and enjoys doing it, they will tell people. All we can do from a design standpoint is give people the opportunity and platform to reign in their excitement. Here’s where the importance of event branded hashtags and twitter handles become very effective. Let people have their own discussions and watch where they lead each other.

Let Things Go, Let Things Grow

Continuing off the last point, getting out of the way is a big issue for many event organizers, present company included. As an event designer, it’s difficult to not want to curate experiences down to the finest detail. The bigger fact remains though: My event is not an event for me. It is an event to inspire X, Y and Z in the people who attend. So, when it comes to creating experiences that you want people to actively participate in, get out of the way.

Imagine if the first person who dressed up in costume at an event like GenCon or ComiCon had been met with discouragement. The entire experience would be less creative, less fun to watch, and less encouraging to make it one’s own.

Allow your attendees to guide your experiences. You are already the expert when it comes to the big goals and visions. Keep those in line, and if people start having fun with it, let them. It’s only amplifying the message you already intended to send out.

Play to Your Strengths

The reason those GenCon examples work so well and have thrived in their environment is in big part because it plays to the reason people came to the conference in the first place: They love to play. The moment building card towers started it emulated the “build your kingdom” theme of a lot of the board games at the convention. The moment “throw coins to destroy the city” came into play, it emulated the “strategy and combat” themes as well. And slaying a giant octopus with a play sword? That’s just plain fun no matter how you spin it.

Figure out what themes exist in your conference and play to those strengths. Are you a design conference that encourages activist posters? Let people make some and auction them off. Is yours an active-lifestyle event? Give people an obstacle course and a goal and watch them go.

Embrace the Fun!

The thing we hear so often in event research is that people want time to interact with each other. Believe it or not, people really crave the opportunity to discuss and reflect on the content they are absorbing with each other. This leads me to my last point: Embrace the fun. Allow people to have fun with each other in whatever way they deem is fun.

If your attendees enjoy coffee and charging stations, that’s just what they enjoy. So give them a place to do that. If your attendees are drawing in all the little notebooks some sponsor donated to your event, give them more places to doodle, perhaps on huge boards in more public places to give them the opportunity to encourage others to join in on the fun too. If your attendees are selfie-hungry, give them a photo booth and props and watch the good times ensue.

The end goal of all of this is that you design an environment that allows people to have fun. Good feelings and happy people are the best form of marketing, and you have the opportunity to do just that every time you design an experience. Ask for and listen to audience feedback, give your attendees the freedom of creativity and the tools with which to play, encourage your crowd to have fun and I can guarantee you that you will see some amazing things come out of it. Some may be completely different than anything you could have imagined, and when that begins to happen, you’ll know you’re doing it right.

I would love to hear about some of the experiences you’ve had, or that you’ve designed for your own events. Comment below and share your thoughts.