Ask an expert: How to plan and host successful events

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For many a charity, a successful event can make or break fundraising objectives; and, more importantly, advance the organization’s cause. But for people who work outside the realm of the nonprofit sector – and even for some on the inside, depending on the size of the charity - a mission-driven event just seems to materialize each year like clockwork, or manifests seemingly out of left field to raise money and awareness in either traditional or so-called “disruptive” ways.

Of course, anyone working on an events team knows that planning and creating an event is a time-consuming, intricate, exacting and exhausting process. From conception to execution, every step of the way is fraught with unforeseen hurdles, endless negotiations with vendors, pushback from colleagues in other departments who don’t get what all the fuss is about, and the need to constantly report back to leadership on the status (hopefully positive) of the particular event campaign. And then there’s the ever-looming countdown of the event clock. When it hits zero hour, things better be in a state of perfect readiness. There are people to “wow” and funds to raise.

Often, Events Team members don’t get their due. They work mostly behind the scenes, slogging through email or working the phone to set up media coverage for their organization, or to book just the right venue and/or caterers to make the perfect splash within the (very) limited budgets allotted. So let’s hear it for some of these unsung heroes; and let’s get some good advice for those events folks from a seasoned pro in the field.

Below is a recent Q&A CharityVillage conducted with long-time events and fundraising specialist and current Senior Coordinator for Partnerships & Events at Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC), Rob Weir. Rob has spent nearly 20 years in events and fundraising for various national and local charities.

CV: Hi Rob, can you tell our readers a little about your current role and how long you've been at PCC?

RW: Sure. It will be four years in May. It’s a privilege to work at Prostate Cancer Canada, where our events team punches higher than our weight class, since we are tiny compared to many other national charities.

CV: What led you to become an events professional?

RW: I started out by creating a memorial hockey tournament for my Dad. While growing that annual event was an amazing experience, it was taking up a lot of time. I was fortunate to be able to actually turn it into my full-time job and then expand it across the province. So what was, initially, a small community event that raised $1,000, turned into 18 years across 14 different cities; and went on to raise more than $2 million. Oh yeah, the cause? Funding for installation costs for AEDs (Automatic Electronic Defibrillators), some of which have since saved several lives! I should note that part of those funds raised also went to Heart & Stroke Canada for their most urgent needs across the country.

CV: That’s amazing. Congratulations. In working as an events specialist, what tips can you give people working on other teams in a charitable organization about how they can best support you and their events colleagues?

RW: One of the best tips I can offer would be to cultivate a "strike team" that could be made up of volunteers or colleagues from other teams, who arrive at the end of an event (instead of at 5 a.m.) and at the end of a long day are purely there to help tear down and pack up. The bonus is: they don't have to be there for the inevitable super early setups that we generally organize. Those early mornings are tough!

CV: Related to the previous question - how do you and your events colleagues best support other teams within PCC?

RW: We try to integrate other departments by inviting guest speakers to speak about the research mission that we provide research funding to; or bring in prostate cancer survivors to tell their stories and help raise awareness on early detection. This helps focus my colleagues on the importance of hosting a successful event that achieves both its revenue and awareness targets.

CV: What trends are you seeing in the event space?

RW: I can't think of any specific trends. However, it’s interesting to note that online giving through apps is becoming more of the norm. I’ve noticed much less use of cheques and cash, that’s for sure. Next up, we’ll need to add easier Bitcoin option for payments at the event!

CV: What is one particularly creative thing you’ve seen done (or that you've done) at a recent event?

RW: For a hospital hockey fundraiser, I built a plastic ice rink with boards and netting then had some NHL Alumni throw on the skates for a shinny. It drew out a lot of media.

CV: What are some of the biggest/most important "learnings" you've had along your career path that have helped you become a better events specialist?

RW: I know it sounds trite, but thinking outside the box is essential. Proceeding with a safe-but-crazy events plan can help you gain some great media / social media attention. Don't be afraid to try and do something different! But get sign-off from your leadership first, obviously.

CV: What advice do you have for rookie event managers in the nonprofit sector?

RW: Back up plans are great where possible, but when things go sideways, take a second to breathe and then look at how to solve that random thing that goes wrong. And always be sure to meet with your team shortly after the event for feedback and don’t forget to include key volunteers, as they have a valuable perspective and are also valued team members for the event.

CV: What tips do you have for finding volunteers and then managing them at an event?

RW: The main thing with volunteers is that they have clear instructions on what they are going to be working on. They typically do not like surprises or finding out they are now working on something completely different than what they were trained for. If your volunteer team enjoys the event and you maintain a great database where you communicate regularly, they will stay connected. This is an outcome to strive for, as similar to donors, it is much easier to retain volunteers versus finding new ones.

CV: Can you share your most embarrassing event story and how you worked through it?

RW: At one event, we had a burger vendor show up and for some reason their grill wouldn't start. They had donated all the burgers and we couldn’t cook them. We had 100 stair-climbers coming back to potentially no lunch. All the local pizza shops were closed since it was an early Sunday morning event. Thankfully, our office was nearby and I recalled that we had our own barbecue on the rooftop patio. We quickly formed a BBQ retrieval team to go get it. In the end, it all worked out perfectly and none of the participants ever noticed any issues.

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