• Diane Larusso Sharp

Assessing Non-Profit Event Strategies in "Viral" Times

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Not sure whether to postpone, cancel or completely reinvent your non-profit's events? Conduct a quick assessment this week to set yourself on the most strategic path.

During this unprecedented public health emergency, scrappy and frugal non-profits everywhere are scrambling to adjust operations. Stretched past capacity, they're doing their best to serve the growing number of vulnerable people being displaced, dismissed from employment, or worse, infected.

And while we all know that special events, as a fundraising tactic, are among the least efficient activities in the development toolkit, they do serve important purposes-- and generate crucial annual funding (often coveted unrestricted dollars)-- for many organizations.

As my clients, colleagues and friends responsible for non-profit events face the weeks and months of uncertainty ahead, I offer an assessment structure to help guide our paths forward-- as well as some key questions we can use to help us make the best decisions possible, given the circumstances.

Establish a Clear Process

The best way to get meaningful results!

First, take a deep breath. Spend a few minutes in meditation. Eat a chocolate chip cookie, or warm up your cuppa whatever. Then, let's put some structure in place to help light our way...

This might look like it's going to be a cumbersome and lengthy process, with "collection" and "assessment" and "presentations" and "meetings" but DO NOT FEAR! All of these tasks can be done in shorthand, back-of-a-napkin versions. Most functional development teams can break it down in just a few days, if the right players are available.

Identify key stakeholders: many non-profit staff are very busy on the front lines (always, but even more so now), adjusting the delivery of programs and services to meet the changing public health mandates-- but that doesn't necessarily mean their voices aren't important in this conversation, too.

Depending on the historic level of involvement in events by departments across your organization, some of them might even hold THE key answers on certain topics.

Other key departments are the ones you already know-- someone from the executive team, marketing/communications teammates, anyone able to produce digital media, of course all functions of fundraising. Depending on how large your organization is, this may be a team of three to four people, or it may be two dozen.

If you can't get buy-in directly from the leader of a department or program, hopefully they'll delegate someone to represent. Don't forget to include key volunteer leaders, as well, when appropriate.

Clarify roles: fundraising staff may carry the burden of convening discussions and ushering the process, but it's important to define who'll be making the final decisions, and on which matters. The ultimate decision of whether to postpone, cancel or reinvent an event may lie with the CEO or Executive Director, but decisions about how changes will be communicated across various audiences, what technical support may be needed, and how to best coordinate an event de-construction may all be delegated to other key team members, across different departments.

Document the decision-making tree so that the lines are clear and the hierarchy of those decisions is addressed in order. Make sure everyone involved knows where to find the most up-to-date information throughout the process, including the current status of any items still under consideration.

Gather Quick-and-Dirty Data; Examine Reality

This isn't really a time for shoveling up old event revenue and attendance results from ancient, hand-annotated budgets out of the old paper files.

Hopefully, you have access to some digital documentation of the basics-- it's 2020 people, you should have at least 2-3 years of information saved somewhere. Someone must have remote access, no?

If not, do the best you can, and dump it into a simple spreadsheet so it's easy for team members to skim the data:

  • NET Revenue (Goal & Actual)

  • Attendance (Goal & Actual)

  • Number of FTEs dedicated to making the event happen

  • Number of volunteers required to support the event (fundraisers and "hands-on"/on-site)

  • Considerations re structure of event, or assumptions that make this project "work" for your organization in "normal" years

  • What fund(s) it supports

Then, it's time to answer some important questions, rather honestly. You may have to guide discussions through some uncomfortable territory about the reality of the current situation, the truth about the historic ROI of the event, and sometimes even emotional attachments (often of key volunteers) at a time when the organization may not be in position to give it priority.

Find ways to express unpopular event realities through data to help hold some of the emotion at bay. Keep refocusing on the true core of your work-- something no one can argue is not THE priority-- delivering on your mission.

Consider the original time-frame of the event, and what (little) we know about the long pandemic journey ahead. Trust me, it's better if you accept this now-- you may not get "closure" on whether or not your event will move forward for weeks. Maybe even months.

If the event is scheduled for April or May, you may have no choice but to cancel the gathering. It may depend on your locality, your organization's normal calendar of events, availability of key resources at an alternate time, and sunk costs, when certain deposits aren't refundable.

If your event date is a bit further down the road-- say August, or even October-- you'll probably need to make your plans in phases. It may be prudent to wait a few weeks, and see how this "physical distancing" has served us.

Either way, it's likely you'll need to develop recommendations for certain near-term actions, as well as a game plan that's responsive to the global realities of the weeks or months to come.

Center your most loyal donors as you evaluate your event constituency, and make sure you understand their primary interests in supporting and/or participating in your event under normal circumstances. Categorize them appropriately, and define what the sub-audiences value about their participation. Be careful-- these are not necessarily the same as what your internal team values most.

Ask yourself (and your team) in what ways you can connect with prospective donors or other event guests in the absence of a live group experience. How can you command their attention? What communication and media tools-- and skill sets-- are already available to you? What tech support would be needed to support a transition to more digital, online content? What platforms could be reasonably added?

Examine hypothetical options, based on the current reality. Imagine the possible scenarios that may play out over the next few weeks-- either quarantines will be lifted in late April/early May, or extended into June-- or further. If There is possibility of resurgence along with autumn. We just don't know. Define the critical pivot-point dates, if you're working with event dates that fall later into the year.

Identify the real heart of the event, how it serves your organization, and its value compared to other priorities in this particular moment in history.

Consider the event's typical audience, the outcomes the organization relies upon, what resources might be compromised-- and what resources have been freed. Consider alternatives that might better support your development program in the long run, focusing on engagement, building trust and relevance.

Obviously, there are a lot of high-level directional questions to answer, as well as the details that will fill in the resulting plans of action. For a closer look at an array of strategic questions to help guide the conversations ahead, check out this post.

Bring It All Together

You've spent a day or two gathering all the important data and ruminating on the factors that play roles in your unique situation. You've had conversations with key stakeholders for advice, perspective and perhaps even some buy-in. It's time to organize and share your findings, then engage the team in brainstorming.

This is the best part-- because it feels like the most productive.

Organize the document(s) you've used to collect information throughout your assessment and refine the package (at least a little bit of effort here) for your team's consumption. Lay out the facts you've gathered, sharing what's most relevant in the simplest ways possible. In doing so, also share a list of the key questions or matters for discussion, and relevant deadlines. Then, set up a team meeting.


No, not in person. Duh. A video meeting.

Use Zoom or GoToMeeting or Microsoft Teams or Google Video Hangouts if necessary.

I stress the importance of conducting a video meeting here, one way or another, because I firmly believe leaders considering complex problems like "what to do in emergencies" are best informed by the organization's collective intelligence and collaborative efforts. You'll need creativity, open discussion, and opportunities to volley the possibilities back and forth while examining them through different lenses.

Discuss various paths and combinations of paths. Talk about impact on communications, technology, financial resources, and humans. Talk team capacity, dynamics and workflow in your world of remote-access. Talk organizational priorities. Look ahead. Look further ahead.

Make your best educated guesses. Accept that you don't have control of the future.

At the end of brainstorming, write up the best few recommendations for paths forward, their unique considerations, and how they'll support your long-term development goals.

Remember that development events are supposed to be about building deeper relationships. If your organization is known among its supporters for providing relevant, compelling programs/services that are in demand in your community, then your recommendations should include ways to communicate your organization's most urgent needs, aside from the messages your audience associates with experiences like golf outings and galas.

For many organizations, this won't be the time to make a direct request for donations-- but it very well may be a time ripe for offering information on how you're hard at work to address the need, and gently make apparent the funds that accept investment, if the prospect is so inclined, to support said work.

Finally, having (hopefully) built some consensus about the best possible options, present recommendations to the decision-makers and request their response.

Be sure to fill them in on key dates and let them know by when you need answers. (Consider: content deadlines, contract termination terms, anything relevant to your ability to act in your organization's best interest.)

Depending on how involved the top decision-makers have been throughout the assessment to this point, it may be helpful to briefly review the process used to arrive at the recommendations you're presenting. (Instill confidence in your work!)

Offer your recommendations and back them up with references to your findings to justify the group's thinking. Be open to questions, and have all of your source/research material/data handy to be able to effectively answer on the spot, whenever possible.

Then, the Real Work Can Begin

You'll probably have to work back and forth before a full plan comes into focus. But once you've got marching orders, well-- you know the drill. Apply normal (or "new normal") protocols to directing and delegating the more detailed action-planning, the hierarchy and timing of communications, how to approach next steps (in a constantly-changing environment) and so forth.

There's a long road ahead for all of us, and developing the right strategies will be a moving-target goal here for a while. If you've got ideas and resources to share, please post them in the comments.

We're all in this together. Take care.

Now, go wash your hands.

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