• Diane Larusso Sharp

Events, In the Murky Light of Now

Just a few short months ago, organizations across our nation were forced to re-assess live event plans for 2020 in light of a looming public health crisis. Now, the safety, peace, security and effectiveness of gatherings is being further threatened by social and political upheaval, leaving many civic groups wondering what to do in place of popular annual festivals, holiday celebrations and other usually-in-person promotions of place.

Despite the liabilities—and admittedly, the significant effort and resources required to make quality events happen—events CAN be incredibly effective tools for promoting broader community engagement and deepening relationships between your organization and its constituents, as well as among residents, business owners and workers.

Broad community engagement and deeper relationships help you get more done, be more effective, and amplify your advocacy. Strong human connections help you get more honest feedback faster, and they might even keep you from making big mistakes. They give you a platform on which you can reinforce your best intentions, your authenticity, your commitment to the place—and build trust, face to face.

Engagement, in general, supports the work you’re trying to do OUTSIDE of your events… and, isn’t THAT what’s important?

But now—what can be done when our usual gallery hops, breakfasts with bunnies, and even basic, essential community feedback meetings can’t be orchestrated in person, like usual?

Virtual events have been gaining attention, but what does that really mean for community-focused events? If we can’t host a festival, doesn’t that mean there’s nothing to livestream as a “virtual festival?”

It’s actually not as hard or hazy as it seems. Getting good results starts by acknowledging that there’s more to events than a flyer, a date, a place and some food. Events are the tool, not the outcome.

Creating more value in the relationship game takes a lot more than just one event in any given year. Tending to the details for each event, one at a time, can lead you to the long-term results you want. A single event is only one moment in a long game. Let’s figure out how we don’t lose a step in the face of our challenges now.

Identify what’s most important

Before we launch into frantic re-planning, let’s first identify what your event’s main goal really is—or maybe what it really should be. The goals you set should be measurable and specific, and you must know how you’ll collect the measurements and what resources you need to do the job. Define one, specific, primary reason for having the event, and what measurement(s) indicate its success. For some examples*:

Financial

  • Break-even on providing light food and beverages and other minor event costs at community meetings

  • Meet or come in under event budget of $2,000 for a cultivation event

  • Raise $10,000 NET to support the a specific program

Engagement

  • Collect 200 responses during a volunteer feedback campaign or donor survey

  • Achieve 10% growth in attendance to donor stewardship events

  • Gain 100 new Facebook followers on your organization’s page by June 30

Communication

  • Attract at least 2,000 viewers during your Facebook Live event on September 14

  • Produce two :30 videos to thank local businesses and communicate impact of SID investments, and promote them on organization website and two social media platforms by December 15; attract at least 2,000 views

  • Attract at least 150 interactions to posts calling upon residents to respond to [some call to action]

While it’s likely that you have some goals in all three of these categories in mind when planning your event, it’s really important to determine which goal is the single highest priority. Choose one goal upon which to focus, and be sure to center it before every major decision you make about the project.

*These metrics are all made up for the sake of providing you with some possibly-relevant examples. Your own organizational event history/goals will provide the context you need to set metrics appropriate for your event. New events, however, do require a lot of educated guesswork based on the size of your database/following, strength of communication plan, involvement of key community stakeholders and many other factors. Let’s save that for another post…

Assess what you’ve already been doing

It may be that you are 100% confident that your existing events are already accomplishing everything you expect from them, and there’s absolutely no room for improvement. Congratulations! That’s great! You’re done. Stop reading this section. This isn’t for you, just move on to the next step.

For the rest of us, who aren’t really sure if we’ve got the “big picture” here, however, there’s some important work to do—especially if you’ve “inherited” events that have been your organization’s mainstays for years or even decades.

To be clear, the kinds of projects that get renewed in planning year after year because of dogmatic beliefs or vocal founders aren’t automatically bad, but events do have life cycles. It’s important to re-assess from time to time to make sure you’re still getting what you want from them, and for the right price.

There are a lot of factors to assess, depending on the goals you’ve identified and the type and scope of event you’re planning. Be sure to look at both quantifiable AND abstract factors. Here are some that may or may not be in play in your case:

  • Levels of community and/or volunteer engagement, retention and succession of board/leaders

  • Allocation/availability of staff resources, event budget

  • Participant experience (of both stakeholders and the general public)

  • Strength/efficacy and continuity of communications/calls to action

  • Public visibility

However, if your main goal is truly focused primarily on raising funds for 501(c)(3) use, these data should be given more weight:

  • Direct NET financial benefit

  • Trajectory of NET financial results over time

  • Amount of proceeds directed to core programs/services

  • Event opportunities for relationship-building specific to attracting/cultivating greater sponsorship or investment in the future

  • Value from post-event outreach in deepening your prospective pool of supporters

There’s no magic formula for determining what thresholds you deem acceptable in meeting your event goals, but give the data you’ve collected some serious thought, and share all the findings with your team for their thoughts on the following questions. (Collective intelligence is helpful here.)

Do your measured results balance the necessary time and investment it takes to produce your event in the first place? How have you been measuring those results, specifically? Do you feel that these measurements accurately reflect something valuable? (How is it applied to guide or affirm your organization’s work?) What hard and soft costs are considered, and which audience’s voices—staff, board members, vocal volunteers, business owners, residents, or public figures—should be represented, dampened or amplified?

The answers here won’t prescribe a plan for you, but they will be incredibly valuable in setting your starting point and direction.

Accept that 2020 events just can’t be “the same”

Whatever your defined goals might have been in years past, it’s likely that this year, the event you’re accustomed to producing simply won’t be possible. Regardless of the typical attendance at your event in years past—this year, it’s best to assume it won’t be safe to gather in large numbers and close quarters for a while. Unless, of course, you’re prepared for the possibility of cancellations and lost deposits—and probably lost traction toward your goals.

“But wait!” you say. “If we can’t gather people, what’s the point of all this assessment?”

Well… the point is: if your event served a valuable purpose before, you can still achieve those goals—you’ll just have to apply some creativity, and focus on new ways to achieve those outcomes. Yeah, that’s not nearly as fun as the party-planning, but it might just help keep your organization visible and relevant, even when you can’t actually be right up in your place’s faces!

Get creative, incorporate something virtual!

Let’s face it, there simply isn’t a better, faster, cheaper way for us to get complex messages out than via the internet these days, and if we can’t get people together in person, it’s a cost-effective, accessible tool. There’s probably no way around incorporating it if you want to connect people to one another when they’re not in a physical space together.

Even if we don’t need to go fully-digital again for years and years—even if we’re technically allowed to host large gatherings—offering live-virtual hybrid events will be a great way to ensure broad community accessibility, most especially for at-risk populations.

The smart play-it-safe planner always has contingency plans, and virtual participation options are a great way to back things up in uncertain (and potentially unsafe) times.

So, instead of recruiting food and beverage partners to do your catering, you may need to recruit some great graphic designers, animators and videographers this year. Instead of writing your Executive Director’s talking points for a program, you may need to develop creative messaging and effective storytelling through digital assets. Instead of inviting people to attend your event at a physical place and time, convince them to engage with you online for some activities—and then extend the experience with tactile touches (stuff that can be mailed, delivered or picked up), real-time interaction (social media managers rule here!), and post-event outreach (reinforce your message), to strengthen your results.

There are lots of ways to design a virtual experience, and ultimately, there’s no prescription that works for everyone. If you’ve done the work to set appropriate and meaningful goals, and taken an objective look at how you’ve met those through events in the past, I’m sure you’ll start seeing ways to create solutions. Remember that the ultimate goal is relationship-building, which (to be of any value) must be founded upon trust, respect, and a shared appreciation for what purpose this activity serves in your community.

Making responsible choices in a crisis—and communicating effectively—should strengthen your relationships with important supporters. This way, hopefully, they’ll come back—in person even—once again, when they can.

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