Events are the double-edged sword of the nonprofit world.
On the one hand, they bring people into the fold of your org’s work. I’ve seen a student move a room of 500 people by sharing his classroom experience. I have BAWLED listening to an ED talk about kids using karate to cope with cancer. There’s no denying that events are a great engagement mechanism.
Still, that doesn’t make them easy.
Unless you’re an event planner, organizing an event is hard. The smallest mistakes can ripple out in very real ways for your guests (which is why I joke that my events are like my babies. They could grow to be great with lots of attention, and they gave me occasional nightmares).
Fortunately, events aren’t so impossible. Here is a basic checklist to help you think through all those major components before the big day.
Before we get started….
If this is your very first event, there’s some pre-work to be done Figure out your goals, outcomes, budget and timeline before anything.
Then, start planning. An event is a massive undertaking with many moving parts. The only way to stay organized is to know 1) what has to get done, 2) by when and 3) by whom. Start with the date of your event, and work backwards to set milestones (i.e., event day, catering order submitted 4 weeks out, invitations sent 6 weeks out, etc…).
Download the Event Planner Template
Once your task management system is in place, here are the 3 buckets you’ll need to consider.
The Nonprofit Event Checklist
1. Your Program
What is the message behind the event, and which elements will best communicate that? This is the bread and butter of your special day, so give it careful thought. Specifically, you should iron out:
▢ The Agenda.
As the skeleton for your event, this should include all program elements in their correct order (with their estimated durations). Plotting this in advance helps you time your event with some accuracy…though be sure to leave some wiggle room. These these things hardly ever go according to plan!
Who are your speakers and what will they discuss? Will they share a testimonial, or speak to issues relating to your mission? Are any speakers on staff? Think about what a speaker can contribute, as well as their draw for your audience.
*Tip: Once you have your lineup, really assess it. Are you getting enough varied perspectives, and do your speakers reflect the diversity of your constituents?
Will there be a slideshow? What about supporting handouts? Start putting those materials together early, to give yourself enough time for all the necessary revisions.
Separate from the agenda, this refers to the program that will be shared out with guests. Printed programs are usually reserved for formal events – like galas and receptions – but you can always feature a program agenda in your slideshow, on a handout, or even your event registration page.
2. Your Attendees
Now, it’s time to think about the people who will actually show up. Who do you need to get in the room, and what’s your strategy for getting them there? A thoughtful attendee strategy will consider the following:
▢ Your invite list.
Who is getting invited to this thing? If it’s a recruitment event, you’ll want to invite prospects. For a fundraiser, you may include potential or lapsed donors. Decide which communities make sense for your goals, and begin to build that invite list.
▢ Your list management.
The list is one of the most important yet overlooked aspects of an event. What system is in place for tracking who you’ve invited and who actually RSVP’s? Can this list double as your email list going forward? Keep in mind that your team is likely to reference this list more than once, for at least the next 2 years.
▢ The invitation.
Will you send print invitations in the mail, or only email? For formal events, you may even decide to send a save-the-date in addition to your standard invite. Plot the number of invitations you’re going to send, the channels, and any design elements that need to be included.
The invitation doesn’t have to be the only touch-point between your org and potential attendees! Keep the lines of communication open by sending reminder emails in the weeks/days leading up to your event, since that can impact your stats on the big day. (If you’re working with a volunteer event committee, have them help with those reminders too. You’d be surprised how many people forget to RSVP to things, and how many people forget when they’ve RSVP’d to something.)
*Tip: Once you have your event, don’t forget the most important communication of all – your heartfelt thank you email, with next steps for your attendees and no-shows!
This goes back to your invite list. What do you need from attendees to successfully register them – email, full name? Will they have name tags printed, and will there be a ticket price? Your event is an experience, but it doesn’t begin at the venue. It begins from the moment someone decides to RSVP.
▢ Social Strategy.
Social media presence leading up to the event brings buzz (and even RSVP’s) your way. Plan tweets, Facebook posts and other social pushes so that you’re reaching the people you want through the necessary channels, both before and on event day.
3. The Logistics
You have the program, and some idea of where you’ll get the people. Now, what are all of the behind-the-scenes details that need to be fleshed out in order for this to be a success?
Logistics are specific to the type of event you’re hosting and the size. Either way, don’t forget to touch base on the following:
You need to have a venue set before you can send invitations. Consider the size of your event, the goal, your program and your budget. You can get pretty creative with this – the office conference room, hotel ballrooms, public parks, co-working spaces, barns and your local city hall are a few ideas!
At what scale are you feeding your guests? I’ve seen your typical cheese and fruit plates, expensive dinners, and even meals donated by food trucks. Whatever you decide, make your vendor requests well in advance so that they have time to get it right. AND, always confirm closer to the date!
Tip*: If you can get a caterer to sponsor, even better.
▢ AV needs.
This tends to easily fall to the wayside, until someone remembers at the last possible moment. If you need microphones, projectors, WiFi access or the like, be sure to get this squared away in advance.
What banners and signs will you place around the room? When getting those designs, make sure your org’s name is nice and big. This is helpful for social media, should your guests decide to take photos of the signs to share!
▢ Look & Feel.
Don’t forget your decor. The look & feel is a chance to showcase your nonprofit’s brand and set the tone for guests. Be thoughtful about the items and colors you choose (i.e., tealight candles, linen covered tables vs picnic benches, etc…).
*Tip: This is a great opportunity to wow guest. If you’re short on ideas, check out these tips for creating a more memorable experience.
These things don’t get done on their own. Who can you employ, from your staff or externally, to make sure everything is in place? Identify your peeps, assign them roles, and walk them through it right before the big day.
Events are a powerful vehicle for advancing a mission, which is part of the reason why executing them is such a challenge. Yet the staff who take this on – and do it well – really open doors for the organization. Own that responsibility, be diligent with your task list and get it done.
Then, once you’ve gotten past those hectic weeks leading up to your event, take a moment to soak it all in. Your child is finally ready to do great things.