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The Foundation of a Successful Event

Whether it’s a fundraising gala, corporate retreat, wedding, birthday party, or anything in between, events can be daunting. Often the stakes feel high because you are highly invested in the outcome: funds raised, lessons learned, or relationships built. After more than a decade of managing events, I’ve found my favorite place to start - reliable building blocks to ensure a less stressful, more successful event.

1. Set your goals

Deciding your primary goal from the start will help with decision-making throughout the planning. If you’re planning a wedding, your specific goal could be to invite a lot of family & friends to celebrate with you, or to have a wedding that really reflects your style as a couple. If you later have trouble deciding between floral options at different price points, knowing your primary goal will make a huge difference. The couple wanting to include more family & friends will likely need to save money on décor to increase the number of people they can invite. Whereas the couple focused on celebrating in style may choose higher-end centerpieces, but need to cut their guest list.

In a nonprofit setting, common goals include raising funds at the event, building new relationships, and raising awareness. One client faced a tough decision about whether to cancel an event last minute due to weather. But at the beginning of the planning process we established that our primary goal was funds raised at the event, with secondary goals of attendance and community outreach. I advised the board to continue with the event, seeing that funds raised would be significantly impacted by a cancellation or reschedule. The event was a success, setting the organization up for success to meet their revenue goals.

It’s just as important to know which items are lower priority as it is to know what you do want to focus on. If everything feels critical or high priority, you will struggle to make decisions about where to spend your time, money, and energy.

2. Know the numbers

I love the budgeting process for events. But even if you don’t (and I hear some of you may not), it’s a critical step. Building a line-item budget at the beginning of the planning process sets you up for success by identifying possible challenges and giving a solid framework to the event. This is the time when you set goals and parameters for specific elements of your event (like marketing, photography, and food & beverage). It also gives you time to think through other numbers - what's your target attendance? Net revenue goal? Knowing the numbers before you walk into a meeting with a venue or vendor helps you to ask better questions and make a plan that works. If your venue costs more than budgeted (or doesn't fit the number of guests you expect), you have a decision to make: find another venue that fits your budget, ask for a lower priced package, select another line item where you will decrease costs, or find a new source of income to cover the increase*. Knowing your top priorities will help focus your resources.

*Nonprofits especially are tempted to increase the revenue goal for any increase in expenses, but that is often not the best decision. When building a budget, spend as much time outlining revenue as you do expenses, aiming to be realistic and specific with your goals. How many sponsors do you expect and at which levels? What is an appropriate attendance goal? What in-kind donations are you requesting to offset costs? Remember that often increasing your revenue goal will also increase expense items, as you account for more marketing, attendance, or sponsor recognition.

3. Role clarification

Know your players and what they are assigned to do. For a personal event, this could mean a conversation with family members to determine who is responsible for which pieces of planning, set-up, etc. For corporate and nonprofit events, there are often many more people involved and it’s important to have early discussions about roles. Common players include staff, volunteers, board members, committee members, consultants, and vendors. Planning who has ownership (and the relevant authority) for major tasks will alleviate stress and miscommunication down the road. Who is primarily handling fundraising? Who will be working with vendors? Who is cleaning up?

Most importantly, take time to consider what everyone’s best role is. Often at events, board members or lead staff are taking care of logistics just because they need to be done, instead of focusing on where they will have the biggest impact. One of the best compliments I received after a recent event was hearing board members say how impactful it was to actually talk to donors and build relationships, instead of worrying about registration or silent auction. That is where they should be focusing their time: conversations that build lasting relationships with the organization, and learning about donors. And I was thrilled to be able to manage the event so they could do just that.

There is no magic formula for every event, but taking time at the beginning to set a good foundation is a great step toward low-stress event planning that meets your goals!

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