by Susan Oetgen, Interim Program Manager, The Field
Working late at the office is not usually something I look forward to, but three weeks ago, on a balmy May evening, I was pretty psyched to stick around to host The Field's Special Events Career Workshop. As the rest of the Financial District was emptying out and shutting down, I was gearing up to spend a few more hours in The Field's sweet new conference room, taking notes from fundraising and special events consultant Zanetta Addams-Pilgrim, along with a similarly jazzed group of fellow go-getter artists.
As even a quick glance at her bio will attest, Zanetta's track record as a fundraiser and special events planner is impressive, to say the least. Equally important, however, she's an experienced and adept teacher, so those of us in the workshop definitely got our specific special events questions answered. While she dropped plenty of pearls of wisdom here and there, she also had a straightforward, well-conceived methodology, which you can find more of in the Special Events Toolbox she authored with Laura Goldstein, during her tenure as Program Director at Cause Effective, a business development and management consultant firm for non-profits. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to recap some of it here.
After a round of introductions so we could all meet and greet each other as colleagues, the first thing she did was to break down the definition of a special event. Basically, any event outside the purview of your regular programming is a special event, according to Zanetta. Let's say you're a dancer. That means pretty much anything that isn't a dance performance you put on for the public. It could be an open rehearsal that you invite potential donors to. It could be an ice cream social on your best friend's rooftop that you invite all your friends to in order to raise $1,000 for your latest self-produced project at Dixon Place. It could be a dinner party at your new Board Chair's fancy apartment where you and your entire Board of Directors are celebrating and honoring your outgoing Board Chair. In other words, if it's not a straight-up performance, it's a special event.
Next Zanetta introduced three practical tools that are indispensable to producing a successful special event: OBJECTIVES, TIMELINES, and BUDGETS. Since you might have many good reasons to throw a special event, it's important to know what your primary OBJECTIVE is. Maybe you're inviting potential donors and Board members to your ice cream social. Is the event first and foremost a fundraising event, a cultivation event or a recruitment event? Using a worksheet, Zanetta walked us through a process of determining all of our potential objectives, and then we discussed as a group why it is important to have consensus and clarity among the special events team members about the primary objective. By the way, what if you don't have a 'special events team' because your organization has a 'staff' of one, a.k.a yourself? The lesson still applies. Even if it's just you on the 'team', best practice means listing out all the possible objectives for your special event, and choosing the most important one.
With that clarity around objective as your guiding light, you can turn your focus to creating a TIMELINE, the second of the tools Zanetta offered us. This tool is about information-sharing and accountability. Producing a special event is exactly like producing a performance: there are weeks and weeks of advance work that go into it. Zanetta's timeline tool is a spreadsheet that breaks out each step you need to take, when you need to take it, who is accountable for it, and what the status is, so that at any given point in time, you know how the event planning is coming along. Seems like a lot of work to create this timeline, rather than just diving into the steps you need to take, but according to Zanetta, you will be glad you have it when it comes time to evaluate your special event after the fact.
But there's a BUDGET to develop. Most of us typically draft budgets that simply list income and expenses. Zanetta encouraged us to take this third tool further and make low, medium and high projections on both the income and expense side. That way, we cover the bases as far as what we can expect to gain (or lose) financially from our special event and in the process of laying it all out on paper, we can make an informed decision about whether the special event is even worth doing! That's right! Zanetta stressed the importance of deciding against producing a special event if it isn't financially feasible! Or if you can meet your primary objective in a more cost and time-effective manner.
If your budget looks good and you decide to go forth with your special event, Zanetta emphasized the importance of making time shortly afterward to EVALUATE the success of it. Did you meet your objective? Why or why not? Having a detailed reflection session on what you would differently or the same next time is the best way to build your capacity to meet your special events objectives in the future.
It was so worth staying late at the office to benefit from Zanetta Addams-Pilgrim's excellent workshop, and I hope the above is a helpful recap for those of you who missed it! Probably the biggest take-away for me personally was the notion that you can use those three tools (OBJECTIVES, TIMELINES, BUDGETS) to assess the feasibility of the special event you're planning before you even decide to host it. Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments, or post them below! And keep your eye on this space for upcoming posts about the Career Workshops we have planned for the fall…