Lissa Zanville Shares her Advice on Planning Exceptional Events

Lissa Zanville Fundraising Superheroes

Now is the time to get creative with your events! More organizations are moving away from the sit-down gala and finding exciting ways to engage donors at events. There are so many clever ways to show your attendees the impact you make and leave them feeling even closer to your organization. 

Lissa Zanville has more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, including government affairs, media relations, crisis management, spokesperson training, and so much more. She is the executive director for the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Charities and is here today to give her advice on how to plan really meaningful events.

Top 3 Takeaways 

  1. Always show, not tell. Think of ways you can build empathy with your guests through activities. Show them what a day in the life of someone who uses your service is like and how it connects to your organization's mission.
  2. Move away from the sit-down dinner. Often times at Galas centred around a big meal and presentation, people become disengaged. Consider trying different flows to your event, like a by-the-bite dinner or creating a flow from trying different activities. 
  3. Think globally, act locally. Take a look at what's going on around in the world and how you can relate it back to your organization. Once you decide what that is make sure you have visuals for PR, whether it’s creating a photo opportunity during the event or having volunteers take b-roll to use in the press. 

Our Favourite Quotes 

(04:53) So everything was connected in some form or another. So people didn't learn about what LATLC does. They lived what LATLC does. They could really feel the connection to the nonprofit and what we do. When it came to fundraisers, that was very successful

(12:48) The truth of the matter is, people come to these events, they pay for the event because they support your issue, but they come to the event to have a good time, and they want to interact with their coworkers, their friends, other lawyers, vendors that work with them. It's a social situation, so you want to make sure you're treating them with respect as well as demonstrating what your organization does. 


Today we talk events with Lissa Zanville. Hello and welcome to Driven fundraising superheroes podcast.

I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you get the most out of your data. We specialize in fundraising, member and volunteer management, so if you're interested in learning more, you can give us a visit at

Planning and gauging event takes a lot of work. There's a lot to consider, like location, food, what's on the schedule, and, of course, thinking about how to promote your mission to all of your guests. But what matters most is actually how you engage that guest list in a way that is meaningful to your cause. And that's what Lisa is here to discuss today. Lissa Zanville has more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, including government affairs, media relations, crisis management, spokesperson training, and so much more. She is the executive director for the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Charities and is here today to give her advice on how to plan really meaningful events. Thank you so much, Lisa, for joining me on the show today.

Thank you very much. Sabrina. I really appreciate it.

So can you start off by sharing some of the most memorable events that you've helped plan or attended and the thought process behind them?

Well, first I'm with Los Angeles trial lawyers. Charities. We're a pass through nonprofit, so what we raise is what we give away. So we do it either through monetary donations or through volunteer service. Our fundraisers are extremely important, not just to us, but to the partners that we work with. We work with about 121 nonprofit, we want to make sure that they're as effective as we possibly can make them. And to get volunteers to our events is really important. So if we don't make those interesting, it's going to be a problem also.

I'll start with the fundraisers that we do. Traditionally, these are all lawyers, and we've done a really fun event over the years called the casino and poker tournament event, but it really didn't speak to what Latlc. Does. About two or three years ago, even before the pandemic hit, we decided to make it more of a summer soiree party with a purpose. And I'm not for sit down dinners. I've had horrible failures. I'm not even called successes, both as an attendee and as one who's put them on that people just don't want to sit down to another chicken dinner event.

So our event becomes immersive. That every item that we traditionally would have at a fundraiser a dance floor of live bands, the food, the bars, everything. We're known as like, the NASCAR of fundraisers because we put a sponsor's name on everything. But when we started the summer soiree, we decided to not just put a sponsor's name on it, but connect everything to one of our partner charities. And we have 121 of them. So it was easy to do. For example, the dance floor is connected to a group called Ability First, which helps special needs teenagers through the arts and has a dance program. The live band is connected to a group called Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which provides low income schools with musical instruments. And then we decided we need more. So we had activities that were connected with our partner charities. The most popular one was we work with Guide Dogs of America and so they actually brought in guide dogs. We blindfolded guests who wanted to participate. And of course, the sponsor's logo was on the mask, the face mask, and they could walk blindfolded with a trained guide dog and a trainer.

So everything was connected in some form or another. So people didn't learn about what LATLC does. They lived what LATLC does. They could really feel the connection to the nonprofit and what we do. When it came to fundraisers, that was very successful. And we're doing it again in August. So we're expanding, taking the items that worked and repeating them, but also adding new items to the event so that it becomes fresh for everybody. It also, during the pandemic, is all outside, so it becomes more safe. And also, people who would have been a little hesitant to come to an indoor event feel very comfortable coming to an outdoor event. Then we have our activities that are volunteer activities. LATLC traditionally will do all kinds of activities connected with our nonprofit. Painting buildings with Venice community housing, doing things like feeding the unhoused through a group called Food on Foot, things that are driven by the nonprofit that we become the participant. A few years ago, we started our own, what we call signature events. It started with the turkey and toy giveaway at the holidays. Then we did A Day of Dignity for the Unhoused Again but things like manicures and pedicures and clothes.

Not service driven, but more dignified elements to it. But my absolute favorite, and one of our group's favorite, is called the Great Trike Giveaway. We had paid for in a grant, enough for three adaptive tricycles for kids with disabilities. And they invited us. So Caltrikers invited us to the presentation of these bikes to the kids, and we only paid for three. One of our board members was there and said afterwards, three is not enough, that these are so helpful to these kids. We have to do more. And the great Tri Giveaway was born. So a few weeks ago we held ours that we provided 33 tricycles to kids with all kinds of disabilities, whether it's autism, physical disabilities, and these bikes actually work and have been provided by the physical therapists. So they know what adaptive services these kids need with these bikes. My sister in law is an occupational therapist. The first time she saw these, she said, you have no idea what these mean. For the families and for the kids. It's unbelievable. So that became my favorite of our service projects. We have a huge arch balloon. We have music. We have a special needs cheer squad cheering the kids on.

They're called the Long Beach Beauties. And our volunteers all have pompoms as the kids get their bikes. And we do a parade for the kids. And we encourage our volunteers to bring their kids and the kids bikes to participate with the kids. So that, I think, is my favorite of all of our service projects and of course, the favorite of our fundraiser.

Oh, totally. It sounds like you put a lot of thought into every aspect of the event to make sure that the whole community is being showcased.

When you have so many elements to your organization, it's hard to connect with people and also to demonstrate what we do to tell them the story, say, well, we're a pass through charity. We give to all kinds of groups. We specialize in children education, survivors of abuse, persons with disability and homelessness, which are major issues in Los Angeles. But to have them yeah, I know. That's what we give our money for. Yeah, we have a great party and we attend the event, but they don't feel it until they actually see the faces of the kids. The activities that we do, even the gift bag items, we started last year to connect to our partner charities. For example, one of our partners is called Teen Cancer America. They provide, really, for teenagers going through cancer and are in the hospital, these rooms that they can invite their friends to. So it's not a hospital room, it's more of a fun place to go. And it was started actually by Roger Daltry of the Hoop. So there's a lot of musical instruments. But one girl, one young girl had a friend who had cancer, and her friend said, the worst part about chemo is that your lips get very chapped and you can't use commercial chapstick.

You need very natural items. So she actually started to create these chapsticks. And so this is basically what our gift I don't know if you can see it. Our gift bag items look like it would have an item, which was the chapstick, a card explaining what the item is and the connection to the nonprofit and the sponsor's name. So the bag was filled with all these colorful gift bag items, and sponsors literally eat them up. It depends on what their interest is, where we match up a nonprofit with the sponsor. Yesterday, a sponsor came in and said and I was telling them, what would you like to be connected to? And they said, they're very involved against human trafficking and what could you do and that would connect with that. It turns out that we have a nonprofit that we work with called Caste, which is, again, slavery and human trafficking. And so we're working with them. What can we put in the gift bag that demonstrates what you do? And also we can connect it with this nonprofit. So it's very interactive to try to meet the needs of our nonprofit and meet the needs of our donors.

When you're going into an event and then afterwards wrapping up, what things are you looking for that indicate that it was successful?

I'm looking for smiles on people's faces. First and foremost as I'm walking around, I want people to be having a good time, but also to be learning about LATLC. We used to do a video, and we used to do even at a non sit down dinner, we tried to showcase the winners of our scholarship program. We tried to show a video. And the truth of the matter is, people come to these events, they pay for the event because they support your issue, but they come to the event to have a good time, and they want to interact with their coworkers, their friends, other lawyers, vendors that work with them. It's a social situation, so you want to make sure you're treating them with respect as well as demonstrating what your organization does. And it's a very fine line. As somebody who has attended a lot of events, it breaks my heart. During a sit down dinner that people are walking around, they're going into the bar area, they're talking, they're not even respecting the entertainment. This is going on for years. So you want to try to break their habit of you want to engage them and also make them feel what you're feeling about your organization.

So is that the main reason why you decided to stray a little bit from the sit down? Is it more like attention? Or do you find that people just take more out of being able to get up and actually choose what they can engage with?

It's a combination of both. I worked with an organization prior to coming to Latlc. That really made that transition. Literally, people walked out of the speakers and they said, oh, we're not going to do a sit down dinner anymore. And they considered doing a dinner by the bite. And they were very smart in how they did it. They did half of the event, the first half hour in a theater type situation where they were captive, the audience was captive. They would show a video and a call to action, and then boom, you're dismissed. And it became a full party. And nothing was said about the nonprofit after that. It was all party, party, party, which I totally respected. And what we're doing is a combination of both. We are showcasing the work that we do through the games that people do. This year we've added things like Giant Jenga, the sponsor's name is on the Jenga boxes. Then they get to keep the game afterwards. So they're really thrilled to do that. And we connected it to a housing group that we help so that there is some sort of a connection there. We will again have the guide dogs.

We're hoping. We have an art gallery. We have an art gallery, yes. We have a traditional silent auction. People can buy trips and things like that. And it's very popular. And the money, 100%, will go to LATLC. Then we have what's called an art gallery. We have two organizations that have art programs for special needs adults. One called Tierra del Sol and the other called Exceptional Children's Foundation. The art that has been created by these artists are displayed and sold, but the money that is raised by those sales will go directly to the artist and the organization. And so there's a difference in what they do, and people know that when they're going to the event. Me personally, I have bought so much of that art and it's throughout my whole house. It is so phenomenal. We're even a little digression this year. We participate every year in a convention of lawyers. And for the past four or five years, we have created a service project in our booth so that they don't come by just to get information. And we hit them up for money. That's what we used to do, hit them up for money and learn about LATLC.

We want to, again, show, not tell people. So we, for many years would do toiletry kits, assembling toiletry kits in the booth itself. We've now moved that to the great Tribe Giveaway because of covet that we don't want people to really be touching everything. Or at least in the last year, we wanted to be sensitive to that. This year, our theme is Making a Difference. That LATLC. And our counterpart in Orange County. Octlc. We make a difference in the community, but we want you to make a difference to other people. So we're creating cards with the art from these special needs artists, like their note cards. And you will write a note that will go to either first responders, police and fire teachers. My God, what they've gone through in the last two years. Medical profession and also the military. And you can choose where those notes will go. And each one of the boxes in which the notes will go represents one of our nonprofit that we work with. For example, our turkey and toy giveaway, which is now comfort and joy. We work with the Newton Police Department. So the cards will go to the Newton Police Department.

We work with a group called Volunteer Center of the South Bay, where they have a program in the schools. They will distribute them to the teachers in the schools that they work with, that type of thing. So everything we do, we want to show people. We want to immerse people. We don't want to tell people.

Show not tell. That's a big thing in media, too. You never want to directly tell people what to do because I feel like it takes away that agency and it makes them feel like, oh, I have to make this decision. It allows them to feel like they're doing it out of their own volition, it's like oh, I have the opportunity to make this decision. I have the opportunity to get back and connect and learn more about these organizations.

It's so true on two levels. First of all, I've been involved in PR for a long time before I became involved in nonprofits. And I tell people that verbal what you tell people is not as important as visual what you show people. So even as a PR person, what's the visual? What can I show them that will showcase what I'm trying to tell them? LA is a huge county, huge. And so what we try to do is not have our volunteer projects in one area. We try to make them go all the way around the county. We also try to make them during the week and on the weekend. We try to make them family friendly so that they can bring their kids and create a new generation of philanthropy and giving back, which is so appreciated by families. And also we don't want to take people away from their families to volunteer for an activity.

Yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit more about why you've decided when you are pulling away from the sit down model to focus on the experience and not directly kind of explain. And also, did you ever have an anxiety when you were kind of moving away from it that if you were kind of giving all the information at once that they would miss something?

It has been very difficult transition and there are people who would love to go back to a casino night during COVID. I think the magic word was pivot, that we all had to pivot during COVID. So we actually did poker tournaments. Virtually illegal, but we did poker tournaments. So we did meet the need of people who loved that aspect of lately. But at the same time, each of our poker tournaments was targeted to a need. For example, the first one we did, we did because we give out scholarships every year and as a pass through, we don't have money in the bank. Well, we do, but we don't really have money in the bank to give away the scholarships and the grants that we didn't think we had the money to do that. So we were scrambling to find an activity that would raise $25,000. So the poker tournament was born and we told people it is going to our college scholarship so they knew where their money was going, even subconsciously, even though they really were there to play poker or online to play poker. And we didn't raise $25,000, we raised over $30,000 and we were able to give out even more scholarships.

So when you target the ask, I find that to be very effective. So at the summer, soiree people know it's going to the grants that we're going to be giving at the end of the year, because what we raise is what we give away. And so we are showcasing all the organizations where we do give grants. And so this was and is an effective way. People love it and they love the activities. We created a three on three basketball tournament because the lawyers are so competitive. It is competitive. And so we thought, well, what can we do the basketball tournament for? So we decided the money that we raised would go toward adaptive tricycles and the great tri giveaway. And we had the people there, we had a bike there so that we took pictures with the bikes. People knew where the money was going. And we raised the first year that we did it. Last year we raised $50,000, which paid for the tricycles that we gave away this year because it takes so long to get them and to make them adaptive to the kids. The money we raised for the tournament this year was $80,000.

And that will go toward the tricycles in 2023. And people get it that it's targeted. They know where their money is going. It's not just a fun event. It's not just a basketball tournament. Everything is very conscious of what we do. It's not by accident that we try to connect everything.

You have to have like a purpose behind. Yes, for sure.

And the event this year is called Party with a Purpose.

There we go!

And it isn't right into it. It is a party with a purpose. We want people to have fun. That's first and foremost. We want people socialize. So a sit down dinner, you only socialize either you socialize with the people at your table who you probably bought the table and they're your friends and you want to see other people, or you're rude to the MC and the people altogether and walk out. It's going to happen. It's going to. So you have to say, how can I prevent that from happening at our event?

Oh, totally. I love to pivot, keyword there, pivot our conversation a little bit about the event, but I love to hear, because you have so much experience in PR, what an organization can do to help build traction around that event with local media. In your experience, do you find that it really helps to project the message to have maybe a reporter come in and do an interview during the event? Or should organizations focus on like the pre or post?

Traditionally, when we did a poker tournament and a casino night, we didn't encourage media during the event. There's a lot of drinking, there's a lot of partying. I don't find that to be the story that we want to project about LA trial lawyers, charities at all. So we'll do pre information and post information. We are inviting more press this year and last year because it is more of a party with a purpose. And so that for an event itself we do encourage media and local media. I more encourage the press at a great trip giveaway and the comfort and joy we were very fortunate comfort and joy became with the Newton Police Department because of covet. It became almost a walk through where families would get bags of goods, food and the kids would get toys. They would be preselected by the police department and the ages and gender of the kids. We would fill bags in advance for each of the families so they would walk through. We'd have Mr and Mrs Santa Claus and they could have pictures taken safely distance from Mr and Mrs claus. But we really encouraged press for that event and we were very fortunate to have two live feeds, three live feeds.

I think there were and a lot of press before, during and after the event itself going to I'd like to be a little philosophical about how to get press with our events and any activity because my background is PR. I worked in the corporate world, in the political world for more years than most of your guests have been around right here. So what theme The line I've always used is think globally, act locally. And that's a very popular phrase, whether it's for the environment or for whatever social issue you have. The line is think globally, act locally. And I think of that in PR terms. What's going on in the world and where do I fit into it, whether it's in Los Angeles homelessness is a huge issue. So I will really push our day of dignity, our issues where Latlc will fit into a very global issue. But here's a solution or an assistance that our group is doing. The other area from a PR perspective is to have those visuals. Whether the event has a visual and you want to invite press to it, that's great for your event. An event having press at your event is almost tricky and can be something to be very conscious of, not concerned about, but be conscious of people walking around and talking and not seeing the program itself.

You have to be very aware of the downside as well as the upside of your issue or your event. And I used to work with somebody who always thought of the negatives that could happen and I hated him for it. But I learned a lot. Think about what's the worst that can happen and plan for it. Always have a plan B. We have a plan B for an outdoor event because if it's going to rain, we do have a ballroom that will be using for eating. We can move everything into a ballroom. We had to do a plan B for our event last year because we had it indoors and outdoors and COVID really hit hard here in California. So we had to put everything we could outdoors. We were moving everything around, which was a major problem up to the end of the event. We were moving things outdoors and found that the indoor activities were not as popular. So we learned a lesson there. The other thing I would always recommend is don't think of mistakes as failures. Think of them as learning experiences. Because you don't learn from your successes. You learn from your failures or mistakes and build upon those and do a different next year, make a different activity.

We're moving things around all the time, what's not selling. So that gives us more space in this area to move another activity in or to do something else. But from a PR perspective, you always want to have visuals, whatever the visual is, whether it's clients who benefit from your nonprofit, whether it's something that showcases what you do without hitting people over the head about it. There's always a long line at check in. We try to help that, but there's always a long line when people are checking in. So we're taking the Disneyland model. We're making sure that there are pictures or activities for them to do while they're waiting in line. So there's not a minute where they're not learning about your organization. And from a PR perspective, that also gives them visuals for that also, so they think globally. Act locally is the first thing that I want to say. And then visual is the next thing that you have to do from any nonprofit. I would recommend getting to know the reporters who cover your feet. There are special reporters who work on homelessness. There are special reporters who work on a geography, a small geography within Los Angeles.

So when we're doing an activity in that area, we will really hit the local media there. We'll make calls, we'll send them pictures. One thing I've learned from PR is that you can add pictures to your press release and when you're sending it out so that they know what to expect and to get those visuals ready for them. Spokespersons english, Spanish here in Los Angeles is very important in other areas, maybe different languages that you want to make sure you have a spokesperson for. You want to make sure that everything is turnkey for a reporter, everything is turnkey for your volunteers, everything's turnkey for the donors who attend. That's so important to anticipate those things.

Yeah. You have to be head of the game, for sure.

Yeah. Have a press release. I always send an advisory first and then a press release out. And even if you don't get reporters, you call them afterwards. I'll tell you something that we have somebody who helps us with PR now. So it's one thing less on my plate that I have to deal with. And during the pandemic, one thing we learned is that TV crews are very limited and very reluctant to send crews out to the outside world when they don't have to because of covet. So she would take iPhone video of what's going on, including interviews with the people that are the spokespersons for the event. Broll, background film for nonpr people. Broll is so important that you would have and then she would have a dropbox where she would put all these videos that the media could pick up on. And I thought as a PR person, that would never work. Never. And yet we're getting coverage left and right because of it having that kind of broll again, it's turnkey, it's handing them material that even you can make exclusive to the major media, to a major outlet, saying, I'm only giving this to you ABC or CNN or something like that, which makes them feel more special.

Well, thank you so much, Lisa, for joining me today. Before we head off, can you let our viewers know where they can get in touch with you and how they can support your work?

The easiest way to get through to Latlc. We're going to make it real easy. The phone number is eight four four LATLC. So you can call us 844- LATLC. The best email is That's And of course, our website is

Well, big thank you again to Lissa for joining us on the show. As she mentioned, I will have our website and email links in the description box for you to access. And if you'd like to learn more about us at Driven, access past podcast episodes or join our mailing list, you can go to We also have a blog full of resources for you to enjoy. As always, thank you so much listening to the podcast, and we'll see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes.

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Podcast Sep 14, 2022, 12:00 AM

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