Planning Top-notch Events

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Notes from the Backpack Podcast

Join PTA For Your Child

By Ilona Bray

Ask any professional fundraiser to name his or her best and worst fundraising memory and you’re likely to hear a story about a special event. Special events can be the highlight of your fundraising year—grand occasions that simultaneously mobilize volunteers, bring you into direct contact with your friends and supporters, and create a festive atmosphere for everyone involved. Unfortunately, special events can also set the stage for huge public embarrassments and spectacular losses of money.

The success of your event depends in large part on what goes on behind the scenes in the months or weeks leading up to it. Giving yourself a realistic amount of time to organize the event will not only save your sanity, but also save your organization’s money. For example, the cost of printing will likely go down if you give your printer ample time to work the task into their schedule. It’s also important to get a head start on corporate sponsorships.

Initial planning

1. Create a calendar of activities. The time-tested way to figure out what needs to be done by when is to work backward from the day of the event. What are the final steps—such as picking up rental chairs and flowers? By when do these need to be ordered? Who will be responsible for the decisions? When should this committee meet? Similarly, if you’ll have a featured entertainer, when must you choose this person to make sure that his or her name will be announced in promotional materials?

Once you have worked out what needs to be done and by when, create an actual calendar. Write in the dates on which you or one of your volunteers must start the various activities, not just the dates by which the activities must be completed. “Last day to choose menu” is not a helpful calendar entry unless it was preceded by one advising you to begin the selection process.

Working with the dates you’ve entered on the calendar, create checklists for yourself and your committees, itemizing every task that needs to be done. You or your committee leaders should review these checklists regularly, ticking off items as they are completed, and calling people to confirm that they have completed their assigned tasks by the required dates.

2. Define committees and assign leaders. Every special event needs a point person to coordinate volunteers and keep things moving according to schedule. But one person can’t pull off an event alone. By looking at your budget and other planning materials, you should be able to identify all of the activities that need to be attended to. Then, you’ll want to create committees to match. Depending on the type of event you’re planning, your committees might be formed around tasks such as site planning, meals or refreshments, decorations, awards, gathering auction or raffle donations, obtaining corporate sponsorships, event staffing and registration, promotion and publicity, and cleanup.

The point person should plan to be in regular contact with all committee leaders. Depending on the timeline and the number of people involved, scheduling regular meetings or conference calls, where everyone will report on their progress and any difficulties they’re facing, may be worthwhile. To save on unnecessary meetings, periodic e-mail check-ins can also be useful.

3. Plan promotion and publicity. If you’re hoping to attract members of the public to your event, especially those who are not on your organization’s mailing list, you’ll need to pay particular attention to promotion and publicity. (Loosely speaking, promotion is advertising that you arrange or pay for yourself, such as posters and invitations; publicity is media reporting, usually in response to your press release or other contacts.) In fact, because the success of an event like a garage sale or street fair rides upon people hearing about and attending it, you should plan for promotional and publicity activities to consume the vast majority of your and your volunteers’ prep time. It’s helpful if you can enlist the services (preferably volunteer) of a professional public relations or marketing person.

Of course, step one in promoting your event is to tell your members and supporters about it. Your newsletter and website should start generating excitement about the event months in advance, mentioning the date, location, and contact person for more information or volunteer opportunities. To make sure that people make room on their calendars, it’s traditional to send a “Save the Date” postcard approximately three to five months before the event. Invitations, or opportunities to buy tickets, should be sent or announced six weeks before the event.

Your promotion and publicity committee should also consider which newspapers, magazines, and websites are most likely to be seen by your potential ticket buyers. Instead of straining your budget for advertising, look for media outlets that offer free community calendars.

4. Create corporate sponsorship opportunities. Despite the fact that many events charge admission fees, event profitability often depends on garnering money from outside sources, such as corporate sponsors. Sometimes, getting corporate sponsorship can be as simple as encouraging your board members to ask their employers to buy a table’s worth of tickets for an annual dinner event. Other times, you will want to look for more major sponsorship—for example, by offering to make a company the lead name on your event, with the company’s logo prominently displayed on your banners and publicity materials, in return for the company’s underwriting the event or supplying space, food, or other event necessities.

Either way, the important thing to remember is that businesses don’t ordinarily sponsor an organization unless they feel assured that it will garner good publicity for the business itself. Be prepared to explain to any businesses that you approach:

  • The nature of the event,
  • Why it will suit their interests to be affiliated with it,
  • How many people you expect to attend, and
  • What sort of publicity you’re willing to give their business.

Because the success of an event like a garage sale or street fair rides upon people hearing about and attending it, you should plan for promotional and publicity activities to consume the vast majority of your and your volunteers' prep time."

Risks and liability issues

There are three important steps you can take to forestall mishaps and disasters: First, make sure you’ve complied with all applicable laws and permit requirements; second, put your own sensible safety measures into place; and third, consider buying special insurance for the event. For smaller events, accomplishing steps one and two would probably be enough, but for large-scale events attended by many people you don’t know, buying insurance may also make sense. And some event sites may require you to carry a specified type and amount of coverage as a condition of using their facilities.

1. Comply with laws and permit requirements. Whether your event is on your organization’s own site or elsewhere, unusual attendance or activities may bring up legal issues. Large numbers of people impeding traffic flow or parking in one area may require advance discussions with your local police department. If you’ll be serving liquor, you may be required to obtain a license or permit, usually from your city. Whoever will be serving the alcohol may also be required to go through special training. Auctions and gambling activities may also require licenses or permits. As appropriate, talk to other nonprofits, your police department, or a city official before proceeding. And, if you still have outstanding legal questions, look for a volunteer lawyer to help you find the answers.

2. Implement appropriate safety measures. The best way to minimize damage is to avoid it in the first place, then create backup measures to deal with whatever can’t be predicted or avoided. For starters, make sure that your event is well-staffed, and that every volunteer knows who to go to with a problem. If the person in charge will carry a cell phone, give every volunteer the number. Volunteers should wear something distinctive, so that members of the public know who to alert when a problem arises.

Also consider whether there are any rules you want members of the public to observe. For example, if it wouldn’t be appropriate to allow children below a certain age to participate, make this clear in your publicity materials, and be prepared to enforce it at the door.

Disability access is another important consideration—and one you should consider before contracting to use a particular physical space. Some buildings claim to have wheelchair accessibility, but it turns out to be a makeshift ramp at a precarious angle. Restroom accessibility is also an area where many physical spaces fall short.

"Even if your event was a roaring success, there are no doubt many lessons to be learned from it."

3. Purchase insurance. Contact your insurance broker or company and ask them to go over your policy with you, to explain how many of your activities will be covered. Chances are that there will be a number of gaps in your coverage. Fortunately, event-specific insurance is available at a reasonable cost. Realize, however, that almost no insurance policy is a substitute for detailed planning, and most won’t cover harm caused by reckless or intentional acts.

After the event

A day or two after the event, you’ll probably be dying to return to the tasks you’ve been ignoring—those letters piling up in your in-box, those unreturned e-mails. However, if you don’t tie up loose ends now, you may never get to them. This is the time to send out thank-you letters, assess the event’s overall success (financial and otherwise), and assemble clear records for anyone who might handle the event in the future. If the story of what happened at your event is media worthy, this is also the time to send out a press release. 

Even if your event was a roaring success, there are no doubt many lessons to be learned from it. And, if there is any possibility that you might repeat this or a similar event, you’ll want to collect all relevant information about what worked and what didn’t. Assemble your committee leaders, and potentially the entire committees, to collect impressions of what they felt went well or could have been done better. Alternately, you can simply distribute paper or e-mail surveys.

One of your most important tasks is to draw up a final event budget and compare it to the original budget, to see how well your projections ultimately match up with reality. After you’ve collected all your information, write up all of your narrative and budgetary conclusions, and put it into your event folder for future reference.

Finally, ask yourself whether you’ve provided enough information for someone to recreate your event. Will your notebook and files be enough to tell the whole story of how the event was done, who helped out, who was invited, who did the graphic design and printing, where to advertise, which media outlets were responsive, what other vendors to contract with, and the rest? Go through your notebook and add any documents that are floating around elsewhere, making sure every section is complete, and writing memos to explain important issues that aren’t otherwise covered by the documentation.

Careful planning for a special event will not guarantee that it will come off without a hitch. Planning wisely will, however, increase the chances that the event will raise the desired amount of money, expand your list of potential donors, and bring new visibility to the important work of your organization.

Excerpted from Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work (pp. 8/2, 8/31–8/44), by Ilona Bray, JD, copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Nolo,