Events are the double-edged sword of the nonprofit world.
For attendees, they can certainly offer an informative & engaging experience. I’ve seen people get inspired by watching a student speak about being in the classroom. I myself have even bawled my eyes out listening to a keynote talk about kids doing karate to cope with cancer. When it comes to conveying mission and getting others on-board, there’s no doubt that events are the way to go.
But for the staff responsible, organizing an event is hard work. It’s one of those projects where any mistake can ripple out in very real ways for your guests. I used to joke that my events were my children; they could grow to be something great with lots of attention, and they gave me occasional nightmares. (If you’re planning your very first event, welcome to the parenthood.)
Fortunately, events don’t have to feel impossible. We can ease our stress – and the tendency for slip-ups – if we only start smart. Regardless of the type of event you’re hosting, here is a checklist to help you think through all of those major components.
The first thing you’ll want to do is get your goals squared away, because an event is just like any other high stakes work project. Determine what the purpose is, the desired outcomes, your role in the process, budget, and of course the timeline. When is this thing happening?
Then, get to work on your plan. An event is a massive undertaking with many moving parts. The only way to stay ahead and stay organized is to know what has to get done, by when, and by whom. Start with the date of your event, and then work backwards to set milestones (i.e., event day, food order submitted 4 weeks out, invitations sent 6 weeks out, etc…). There are more than enough online tools, but here’s an Excel template to help you start sorting this out.
Once your task management system is in place, there will be 3 major buckets you’ll want to consider when building out your plan.
1. Your Program
What is the message behind the event? What elements will best communicate that message? This is the bread and butter of your special day, so give it real thought.
When working on your program, try to figure out:
▢ The Agenda. This is the skeleton of your event and will include all program elements, in their correct order, along with their estimated duration. Whether you share this out with guests or not, planning this in advance will help you to time your event with some accuracy. Just be sure to leave some wiggle room in-between, because these things hardly ever go according to plan!
▢ Speakers. Who are your speakers and what should they discuss? Will they share a testimonial of your program, or speak to social issues relating to the mission? Will any of your staff speak? Consider what a speaker might contribute to your event as well as their draw for your audience.
*Tip:* Once you have your lineup, really assess it. Are you getting enough varied perspectives and do your speakers reflect the diversity of your constituents?
▢ Presentation. Will there be a slideshow? What about supporting handouts? Once you’ve ironed this out, start putting those materials together. (For slideshows, less is more! A great presentation will be on-brand, easy to read and have minimal text.)
▢ Program. Unlike the agenda, this refers to the program that will be made available to your attendees. Printed programs are usually reserved for more formal events (like galas and awards ceremonies), but you can also feature your program agenda in your slideshow, on a handout or even your event registration page.
2. Your Attendees
Another critical piece of your event is the people who you plan to invite! Who do you need to get in the room, and what’s your strategy for getting them there?
A thoughtful attendee strategy will consider the following:
▢ Your invite list. Who is getting invited to this thing? If it’s a recruitment event, you’ll want to invite your prospects. For a fundraiser, you’ll likely include current or potential donors. Decide which communities make sense for your event and begin to build an invite list.
▢ The invitation. Will you send print invitations in the mail, or only via email? For formal events, you may even decide to send a save-the-date in addition to your standard invitation. Plot out the number of invitations you’re going to send, the channels, and any design elements that need to be included.
▢ Communication. The invitation doesn’t have to be the only touch-point between your organization and potential attendees. Reminder emails in the weeks (or days) leading up to your event help keep the lines of communication open and can impact your attendee stats on the big day. If you’re working with a volunteer event committee, have them help with the reminders too. You’d be surprised how many people forget to RSVP to things, and how many people forget when they’ve RSVP’d to something.
*Tip:* Once you have your event, don’t forget the most important communication of all – your heartfelt thank you email, with next steps for your attendees and no-shows.
▢ Registration. What do you need from attendees to successfully register them – email, phone number, full name? Will they have name tags printed at the event, and will there be a ticket price? Your event is an experience, but it doesn’t begin at your venue on event day. It begins from the moment someone decides to RSVP. Keep this in mind and don’t glaze over the registration details.
▢ Social Strategy. Your social media presence leading up to the event can bring buzz and RSVP’s your way. Plan out your tweets, Facebook posts and any other social media pushes so that you’re reaching the people you want through the necessary channels. (You may even want to plot out your event-day posts and create a hashtag, so that attendees can share the love on their platforms too!)
3. The Logistics
You have the program and some idea of where you’ll get the people. Now, what are all of the behind-the-scenes details that need to be ironed out in order for this to be a success?
Logistics will be specific to the type of event you’re hosting and the size. Either way, don’t forget to touch base on the following:
▢ Venue. You need to have a venue set before you can send invitations. Consider the size of your event, the goal, your program and your budget. You can get pretty creative with this – the office conference room, hotel ballrooms, public parks, co-working spaces, barns and your local city hall are just some ideas!
▢ Food. Are you feeding your attendees and at what scale? I’ve seen your typical cheese and fruit plates, expensive dinners, and even meals donated by food trucks. There are tons of options, so really think about your program, budget, ticket costs, and time of day when deciding how to sustain your guests. Then make your vendor requests in advance, so that they have time to get it right (and always confirm closer to the date).
▢ AV needs. This can easily fall to the wayside until it gets remembered at the last minute. If you need microphones, projectors, WiFi access or the like, be sure to get this squared away in advance. Otherwise, this could spell disaster.
▢ Signage. What banners and signs will you place around the room? Put some thought into the appearance of those signs, and make sure your name is nice and big. This is particularly helpful for social media, should your guests decide to take photos of the signs to share!
▢ Look & Feel. Don’t forget your decor. The look & feel is a chance to showcase your nonprofit’s brand and set the tone for guests, especially at higher-stakes events. Be thoughtful about the items and colors you choose (i.e., tealight candles vs lanterns, or table cloths vs picnic benches).
▢ Staffing. These things don’t get done on their own. Who can you employ, from your staff or externally, to help make sure everything is in place? Identify your people, assign them roles, and let them know what they’ve got to do.
Events are a powerful vehicle for advancing a mission, which is precisely why planning them presents such a challenge. Yet the staff who take this on – and do it well – really open doors for the organization. Own that responsibility, be diligent with your task list and get it done.
Then, once you’ve gotten past those hectic weeks leading up to your event, take a moment to soak it all in. Your child is finally ready to do great things.