Event Highs & Lows (Part II)

Last week I had fun sharing fond memories from some of my favorite events! And this week the reflection continues with lessons learned from events that didn’t go so smoothly. Hopefully sharing my lessons will help you in your planning.

The Outsider

I took my first full-time event planning role when I was the ripe age of 21 and clearly knew everything, having successfully planned one event series prior to the job (<- that’s sarcasm, y’all). Shortly after starting work, I walked in to my first committee meeting for a golf tournament that had been successfully raising funds for more than 20 years, with several committee members who had been there since the beginning. I was new to the organization, new to the profession, young, and not a golfer so it’s not surprising that the committee took some time to warm up to me. What is surprising is that I was personally offended by this, and very confused when I introduced new ideas that weren’t received well, or when it felt like there was a power struggle to make decisions and manage the event.

The Lesson: Listen before you talk. If I had spent time before the first meeting calling committee members and listening to what they loved about the event and what challenges they faced, we all would have gotten off to a better start. I also shouldn’t have introduced crazy new ideas for an already successful event the first year, but instead taken time to watch the committee at work, learn from their success, and celebrate their legacy. It takes time to build trust (that goes both ways!)

The Crab is Poisonous

I served as co-chair for a Crab Feed when I first got to California (it’s kind of a fancier Crawfish Boil for my Texas followers). After a year of preparation for our largest fundraising event, we found out two months prior that the crab was poisonous due to climate challenges in the crab habitat nearby. We spent the next few weeks in a constant state of worry about how much money we would end up spending on crab if we had to bring it in from another source, and whether we could still sell tickets when poisonous crab was in the news every day. We did end up spending more on crab that year, causing a shortfall in our budgeted net income.

The Lesson: Plan for challenges. Whether it’s poisonous crab, rain, or an issue with a vendor, something is bound to go wrong when planning your event. It’s the nature of events. But with some flexible planning, you can certainly handle it! I recommend that every organization builds up an event reserves account – like a savings account specifically for fundraising so if you’re major fundraiser gets rained out, your organization’s annual budget isn’t in danger. You should similarly build in some “reserves” to your time for each event. Do not put things off until the last minute, or schedule yourself so thin that you don’t have the capacity to handle surprises. Knowing your budget (see my event budgeting post for tips on that) will allow you to respond quickly and effectively to any surprises there.

Let’s Just Do an Auction

Here’s the thing about silent auctions. They sound really great – ask your volunteers to get things donated, and then sell them to attendees for a 100% profit margin. However, the amount of volunteer time that goes into procuring items, writing descriptions, preparing displays, picking up and delivering items, and thanking donors is huge. Auctions have a high risk of volunteer burnout, and are also a major source of last-minute changes to programs, websites, scripts, etc. Plus nonprofits find it very hard to say no to donors and are inevitably offered donations that simply won’t do well at the auction, which means their staff or volunteers are putting time into displaying and promoting items you know won’t sell well, and the donor can be offended when no one bids (or a board member ends up buying things they don’t want).

The Lesson: Value your volunteers. Whether it’s board members, committee members, or general volunteers, auctions rarely end up feeling like a good use of all of that time. And in many cases, the time would be better spent building relationships, inviting friends to attend the event, or talking to sponsors. Auctions can certainly be done well, but my recommendation is often to pare down the number of items, target what you know will sell well, and value your volunteers along the way.

Check Your Face

I once had a very wise and kind board member pull me aside during an event to let me know that if I, as the event planner, was running around frantically or scowling, that everyone who knew and saw me would assume there’s a problem. As an attendee, if you see the event planner panicking, you begin to look for the source of the problem. And most of the time I found myself rushing around or frowning, I realized it was due to very minor challenges that I wasn’t actually very concerned about.

The Lesson: It is the role of the event planner to absorb minor challenges so that event attendees can maximize their event experience. The last thing I want is for a board member to become distracted by minor event logistics instead of focusing on building relationships with the donors we worked so hard to get in the room. This is not to say that you shouldn’t reach out for help when needed – I very much think that staff, board, and other leaders should be available to help if needed during an event – but remember that there will be minor hiccups, and you can handle them just fine. No need to panic (or complain).

Thanks for joining me on a bit of reminiscing. I hope the lessons I learned the hard way can help you prepare better for your next event! I’ll be back to blogging in 2019 with tips on committee management, wrapping up an event well, corporate sponsorship, and event analysis. Let me know if there’s a specific event or nonprofit topic you’d love to hear about!


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based in Davis, California