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Running an effective event

publication date: Mar 16, 2015
author/source: Jennifer Hilborn and Sarah Varley

Special events can be resource-zapping, work-intensive efforts for which the return on investment for the organization is debatable.   Thinking of the impact of events in your fundraising efforts, do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?

  • You have been running an event for several years and question if it still delivers on your stated objectives.
  • You are part of an organization that does not currently have a signature event but senior management thinks you should have one.
  • Key stakeholders and staff are growing weary of your existing event.
  • The fundraising for, or attendance to, your event has hit a plateau or has even started to decline.
  • Your organization has inherited a third party event that you fear you cannot handle.
  • You have lost a key asset – i.e. a celebrity spokesperson – that used to make your event successful.

If any of these statements ring true for you, then your organization might stand to benefit from some best practices in event management; primarily, an event audit.

Even if an event is currently performing the way it should, event success can be cyclical and audiences are always changing.  The vigilant fundraiser will stay ahead of the curve and anticipate change by regularly conducting an event audit.   While audits and planning lack the glamour and excitement of events themselves, they pave the way for events that meet their stated objectives – pleasing executive directors, board members and donors alike. 

Conducting an event audit

  1. Set realistic, measurable, and prioritized objectives:  Make it achievable. Outrageous objectives lead to failure.  Acknowledge limitations, start small and build; better to under-promise and over-deliver.  Prioritized objectives help in moments of indecision, or when there are differing opinions; by revisiting priorities, one can be more decisive.  By being clear and realistic about the objectives and the time and investment it will require to achieve them, you will minimize the inherent risk that events present.
  2. Organizational control and buy-in:  Owning your event and having buy-in from key stakeholders at your organization is an essential key to success.  Ownership is control.  Furthermore, buy-in from all key stakeholders helps to manage expectations and secure support for decisions along the way.
  3. Manage the time commitment for volunteers and staff:  Events are resource-draining; you don’t want key staff and volunteers spending all their time struggling to make an event a success.  Time is money. Depending on your objectives, the time of these individuals may be better spent doing other things for the organization.
  4. Embrace realistic logistics:   As with objectives, take on an event that is easy for your organization to manage.  Bigger and more complex is not always better.  Understanding your organization’s resource-based limitations can help you to determine the right kind of event to create.    
  5. Set manageable timelines:  Give yourself time to pull off the event.  Depending on the event scope, you will need different amounts of time, but not many significant events can be pulled off with less than three months planning time. If you plan on having sponsors at your event, you will require at least six months lead-time prior to the event to secure them.
  6. Pick the right time for your event:  Don’t pick a time when lots of competing priorities exist within your organization, or when the marketplace is cluttered with other events. 
  7. Anticipate and plan for growth:  Unless this is a one-off event, for the amount of time you spend developing it, you need to create an event that is repeatable and can grow over time.  You can build on it each year, learn from mistakes and attract new attendees and new sponsors.
  8. Customize the event:  Does the event match what your target audience wants?  How is your target audience changing?  Is your event changing with them?   Everything from theme, timing and location, to music, messages, and menu will say that you had them in mind – or didn’t.
  9. Define roles and responsibilities:  An event plan that clearly defines roles and responsibilities protects the individuals and the team from assumptions that, ”you were responsible for that” and the ever-present threat of burn out.
  10. Measure success:  Positive feedback, concrete analysis, and proof of success are all critical to repeating an event. 
Jennifer Hilborn and Sarah Varley met in 1996 as co-workers in the marketing department for the Swedish Telecom giant Ericsson.  When the duo left their global roles at Ericsson in 2001 they formed their own company, Esteemed Events. This article is excerpted from their chapter on "Special Event Best Practices" in The Vigilant Fundraiser, edited by George Stanois.

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