• Diane Larusso Sharp

To Be, or Not To Be... or HOW To Be? (THAT is the Question!)

Deciding whether to postpone, cancel or reinvent your non-profit events? Answer some tough questions honestly to transform event strategies for your organization during the COVID-19 crisis.


The initial rush of organizations postponing live events that had been scheduled for March, April and even May of this year is finally subsiding, but the reality is that many of those postponements may actually end up being outright cancellations, once the dust settles and leaders decide upon their course of action.


But what should we do about events scheduled across the uncertain summer months... and autumn, too?


Experts have pointed out that during the Spanish Flu pandemic last century, the virus re-surged in September, after the heat of summer had passed. What if that happens THIS time, too?


Are ALL live events for 2020 at risk?

You betcha.


So, now what?


To serve our non-profits well, we must step back and assess this new and ever-changing situation-- both internally and externally-- from a position to see the big picture.


(I wrote about how to conduct a basic event assessment here. If you've never conducted one before, you may find it helpful.)


But more important that just conducting the assessment is what questions you're asking, and how honestly you/your team answers them.


Let's get started.

Remind Yourself What's REALLY at the Heart

Or, "What Is Our WHY, and Why Does It Work?"


I know, I know... "find your WHY" is one of those phrases that makes me cringe. It's been everywhere lately, and really needs to stay home and wash its hands, right?!


But when the higher purpose of an event is aimed at resource development-- whether cultivation, stewardship, or outright revenue generation-- its potential cancellation can seem wholly devastating. It might leave a gaping hole in a budget somewhere, or perhaps in a crucial pipeline. For some organizations, the annual event is the most visible public presence they'll get all year.


As professional fundraisers, we know that events require a high level of resource and offer the lowest return on the cost to raise a dollar when they're planned specifically for that purpose. But that doesn't mean that the sudden and unforeseen loss of $10k, $50k or $100k (that somewhat reliably and annually supports the organization's core mission) doesn't hurt like hell.


But this is about more than just the net revenue, now isn't it?

Or at least now, it probably should be.


Aside from net dollars raised, what really makes your event work? Start a list of those things. Of course, we'll identify audience and outcomes in a minute, but this is about the "bones" of the event.


Many non-profits rely on discounted services, donated gifts in-kind, or volunteers (individuals and businesses) to make their event functional (let alone successful). In some cases, the organization might not turn a profit on the event, without certain key factors in place.


Those factors are different for every event and organization, but-- for instance-- do you rely on:


  • food and/or beverage partners to feed your guests at cost or fully in-kind?

  • the ability of thousands of people to gather and walk, run a race, dance, or sing together?

  • a particular unique, exclusive, physical location?


These are just a few examples, but in identifying the differentiator that has driven your event's historic success, you'll expose the real liabilities in our current situation, and that can help frame the rest of your decision-making process.

A Game of Questions

"But what does it all add up to?"


There are a LOT of questions you should ask. I can offer some of them, but depending on the unique combination of factors that apply to YOUR event, there'll be some you'll have to come up with yourself.


Here, I'm aiming to cover broad strokes, and offer a little sense of the cascading, related questions that may also need to follow. Use some of these as as the "serve" and see what your teammates volley back.


  • What is the primary reason for hosting this event in normal cycles?

  • How important is the "primary outcome" within the context of this emergency?

  • What is at risk in the absence of this event, entirely?

  • Which sponsors', celebrities', and/or donors' involvement are make-or-break for a successful outcome? (Make a list. You'll want this later.)

  • What is the quality of the audience with respect to the value it adds to your organization's major gift pipeline?

  • Is your organization actively providing relevant emergency relief or some other response to the current crises? If so, is this (or could it be) the beneficiary of your emergent fundraising activities?


Speaking of Audience(s)

Answer according to the actual audience your event draws, not your "dream" audience!


  • What demographic(s) define your event's primary audience?

  • Is there only one audience, or should you define and tend to other key segments?


Consider each audience, individually:

  • What level of affinity (connection, enthusiasm) does that audience have with your organization?

  • What capacity does it have to substantially increase giving (amounts and/or frequency)? This is where good prospect research comes in!)

  • How connected are they to your mission?

  • Can you generally attract their attention when you communicate?


Resources... Financial, Technical, Human and Otherwise

These questions can be a little tricky, and you'll have to make some educated guesses. The better you know your donors, the easier these will be to answer accurately!


  • Which sponsors/supporters have already committed to support this year's event (some may have already even paid their pledges!)

  • Of those (above), which are likely to consider converting sponsorship into full donations, ultimately supporting the cause regardless of the live event experience?

  • Are there sponsors or other key stakeholders who might be appropriate to engage for feedback as you formulate your plans? How will that outreach be handled, and by whom?

  • What key partners, in-kind donors or "celebrity factors" are still committed to helping your organization meet its goals, in light of current situations? What are their offers?

  • Which partners may be unable to participate, even if live gatherings are reinstated and life returns to normal in the coming weeks and months?

  • In the absence of a live event, which budget lines are no longer needed, and could be reallocated to support other needs?

  • What are the irrecoverable "sunk" costs?

  • What technology platforms and capabilities does your organization already employ?

  • What media production capabilities (internal or external) do you have?

  • Do you have in-house marketing and communications capacity to support new plans, or, will you require freelancers, or other outside help?

  • What part(s) of staffers' jobs are impacted by rescheduling or reinventing your event?

  • If the event is to be postponed to a different date, is there enough capacity across your team to shoulder the burden during the newly-chosen "event season?"

  • What resources might your board members or other "inner circle" supporters be able to leverage?

  • What unique offerings might your organization be able to offer as a substitute for typical event recognition or stewardship?

  • Is there an interesting opportunity for a virtual experience?

  • If there is a way to present a virtual experience, what sponsor/donor recognition outlets would you have at your disposal?

  • What roles for volunteers might be required? How will you engage and activate them differently than you would normally for your live event?

Synthesizing It All

Imagine all the possibilities!


Consider the answers to these questions-- and those you come up with on your own-- as you focus, through your most creative lens, on the problem at hand. Hopefully, the results will help set the stage to easily identify your best viable options, and leave you with a sense that there are some solutions out there.


The truth is, we will all have to make do with a lot less control for the foreseeable future. That's unsettling-- especially for us event-planner types. I get it.


But this is a situation where immediate losses will be felt by many, and our goal here is to take action that will support the long-term sustainability of your organization, so your colleagues can continue providing support to the people who rely on your organization to survive.


Keep the main goal in focus. Making responsible choices in a crisis, and communicating effectively, should strengthen your relationships with important supporters, leading to a more highly-engaged audience when we are finally allowed to host our parties-- with live humans, in person even-- once again.


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