by Brigid O’Leary
It’s time. Time to start planning the next big event for your organization. Are you going somewhere? Bringing people to you? What’s it going to be? A fundraiser? A walk? A concert? A gala? A community event? It will be great. It will be grand! It will be … a lot of work. And when it’s all over, it might be time to start planning the next one.
Save the Date
Of course, how many events an organization plans or participates in depends on factors such as the size of the organization, the needs of the community it serves, the location and the resources available.
She Rock She Rock, in Minneapolis, Minn., puts together 15-20 events in a year, ranging from fundraisers to local open mic and open jam sessions and camp sessions, all designed to empower girls, women and female-identified people through the art of music.
“Being in the state of Minnesota, there’s a lot of money for the arts. We’re able to get a decent amount of grants to pay our artists,” said Sam Stahlmann, program director at She Rock She Rock. “We’re part of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international organization with groups all over the world doing what we do but we’re strictly volunteer. When we started we thought it was very important to pay our music teachers. Our mission is to get more women into music and being a musician … it’s not always lucrative. We’re dedicated to paying our artists. At our jams, the house band plays and anyone who wants to join them can get up there and sing. It’s really important to us to pay our house band.”
Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raises money and awareness of childhood cancer causes, research into new treatments and cures, and to encourage and empower others to get involved and make a difference for children with cancer, has a national reach that provides options for a variety of different events.
“Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation hosts 10-15 special events throughout the year,” explained Annie Korp, communications and public relations specialist for the organization, which is headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. “These events include Alex’s Original Lemonade Stand during Lemonade Days, Alex’s Million Mile, the annual Lemon Ball and many more. In addition, thousands of volunteers across the country hold lemonade stands, as well as other types of fundraising events. We also have similar chefs events in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.”
Another organization with nationwide reach is Pinups For Pitbulls Inc., headquartered in Asheville, NC., and they take their message out on the road, maximize networking opportunities at different kinds of events.
“We have Team Leaders and dedicated volunteers throughout the country and abroad. We have been building our team since 2005 and we were able to average 60-80 events annually for the past few years,” said Jeffrey Loncosky, Pinups for Pitbulls treasurer, who added that the organization already has 30 events on the calendar for 2016 with more in the works.
“We have a strong presence in the tattoo industry, comic convention and pop-art worlds. This is not simply from targeting other industries. We have been integrated in these areas since our teen years and we have garnered respect from those industry leaders and our constituents,” Loncosky continued.
The organization also set it sites beyond traditional pet expos and animal-related events, going for a bigger market and people with whom they might not otherwise cross paths.
“We focus on larger expos and conventions purely for the volume of new people that we can meet who might otherwise have never heard of us nor our cause. Our primary goal is to strike up a conversation, which typically leads to one-on-one educational opportunities.
We are truly a grassroots organization that is on the ground, working hard every day at every event,” Loncosky explained. “We also participate in other organizations’ events where they can benefit from our presence. Having such a large, active, dedicated following allows us to help smaller organizations draw more people to their events. We are often asked to provide an education seminar or keynote speech for the attendees. This provides us with a dedicated venue to talk about the general issues surrounding dogs as well as issues related specifically to their locality. We also participate in smaller local events such as dog walks, street fairs and other fundraising activities.”
Each agency’s mission, of course, determines what kind of events they hold or choose to participate in. Fundraising is often a priority.
The Morris Animal Foundation is in Denver, Colo. It is a nonprofit organization that has been around for more than 65 years, investing in science to advance animal health and veterinary medicine. The work it supports helps improve the health and quality of life for dogs, cats, horses and wildlife around the world.
“Right now we have eight events in our canine cancer walk series. Our canine cancer walks are our signature events as well as our fundraisers and they bring in the most [money] for our event fundraising department,” said Kate O’Brien, director of events for the Morris Animal Foundation.
Event planning isn’t the domain of long-established nonprofit agencies, either. Some hit the ground running, so to speak. The Victoria (Texas) Bad News Chairs is a sports-minded group that connects individuals in wheelchairs with one another and gets them playing in adaptive athletic competitions. Having organized in April 2015, the group, led by vice president Danny Camacho, held its first adaptive softball game that July. The game served more as a community-outreach event than as a fundraiser.
“We didn’t charge a fee to enter the tournament; it was an adaptive tournament. We didn’t even have enough players to field the team consistently, so we had some extra wheelchairs [available] so that able-bodied people could use them and we could field a full team,” said Tammy Ortiz, president of the Bad News Chairs. “Since then we’ve increased our size to I’d say close to 20, and we have enough to field three teams. At that event, we only earned what we made from concessions. We wanted other adaptive leagues to participate and we’ve got a really nice challenged-athlete field. We wanted to give them an opportunity to play on that field. We weren’t looking at it as a money maker but as an event for our guys to participate in that other people take for granted. Some people can have a pick-up game on the weekend without a second thought.”
The Bad News Chairs also held an adaptive sports clinic in November, and now that the organizations’ 501 status has been approved, the folks in charge have their sights on more events, both in community out-reach and fundraising.
“We’re hoping for three big fundraisers a year, about three months in between. One each in Spring, Summer and Fall,” said Ortiz. “We have a poker run [scheduled] for April 23. One of the guys at the Harley shop here in town is willing to help us out and encourage involvement in that. And that’s all donations. We’re going to sell barbecue plates and hope to get donations to fund all the meat and fixings. One of our players, who is a C5 or C6 quadriplegic and uses a power chair, owns a catering business and he’ll donate [the use of the pit] and the work. We hope to have someone donate the meat and fixings. We’ll do the softball tournament again; it will be our second annual.”
Make the Commitment
Whether its a community-outreach event or a fundraiser, anyone involved in event planning faces their own set of challenges in making it work. Keeping within budget is one of those challenges and one for which the Morris Animal Foundation has a steady plan.
“The canine cancer walks are fundraising events, so we’re trying to raise as much money as possible and putting as much raised towards the mission as possible,” said O’Brien.
To ensure that a fundraising event does what it’s intended to do (raise fund), the Morris Animal Foundation looks to previous events of like kind, the cost to plan and execute the event and then does some math.
“We look back at previous events, at what we’ve raised and what we spent, and try to keep the ratio of cost spent to 15% of the funds raised for the event,” O’Brien explained.
“Then we’ll budget out things that are nonnegotiable – sight fee, for example, or things we can’t get donated and then what can we get donated, what can we get underwritten or sponsored to keep the expense budget as close to 15% as possible.”
Pinups for Pitbulls also draws on previous experience.
“Our travel budgeting is a little different than most other organizations. The [event] organizers typically realize that our presence will help them draw more attendees. Since we are a nonprofit 501c3, we negotiate terms with each event holder in a manner that benefits us both. Most organizers will donate our booth space in return for a tax benefit.”
At times, our travel and accommodations are also covered by the organizer,” Loncosky explained. “Since we travel often, we utilize our memberships with airlines, car rental companies and hotels so we can take advantage of awards. Lastly, we always calculate the cost benefit of driving versus flying as well as other costs relative to our potential revenue at each event. Since we have been operating since 2005, we track all event revenues and expenses so we can look back at prior years to determine our level of interest or budgeting.”
It also helps that Loncosky has more than 21 years in the banking industry in addition to a BBA in Finance and HRA and has a consulting company. He also helps other organizations, small businesses and larger companies with their cash flow and other financial planning.
With a different event or a different end goal in mind, another organization is going to face its own set of challenges.
“I guess our number one thing is not necessarily to make money but to increase community awareness for disabled athletes or individuals who are wheelchair users and that the only limitations are what we, as able-bodied individuals, put on them, not what they put on themselves,” explained Ortiz, who does not use a wheelchair but who is married to a man who does. “There are very few things they can’t do. The biggest thing we do is community awareness. If we can get the community to open up and offer more opportunities, that’s what we want to see. [It seems as though] people are hesitant to offer jobs to people with disabilities. We hope that if they see that if someone can go out and play in a softball tournament all weekend, they can sit behind a desk or do other jobs, as well.”
Which is not to say that the Bad News Chairs don’t need to raise money. Having now received their nonprofit status, though, the Bad News Chairs can now start planning for fundraising events, which would provide its team members more opportunities than they currently have.
“We go to different basketball and softball tournaments that are wheelchair related,” said Ortiz, who’s husband is a member of the team. She went on to say, the team is “looking at playing in some football tournaments and may do soccer but its not on schedule just yet.”
The need for fundraising, though, is increasing because, “We’re still struggling with things such as finding hotels with enough wheel chair-accessible rooms. Most groups, when they travel, can sleep four people to a room but we can’t. When you start factoring in the wheelchairs and other equipment, we can really only put two people in a room. Plus, the guys need adaptive bathrooms … it’s more of a challenge than most folks run into.”
Because Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has both a different goal and a variety of events the organization approaches event planning from a different angle.
“The way we prioritize the budget depends on the objective of the event and the needs of our guests. We always want to ‘wow’ our guests so we carefully look at each event and customize the approach as needed,” explained Korp.
It’s a sentiment similar to what the staff at She Rock She Rock faces with their event planning as well.
“When we go out in the community and jam or fundraise, an important thing is venue and swag. Because we’re rock focused, we have a cool edge to our organization and it can be hard to capture that vibe. We end our camps with a big gig at a large venue. We could do it in the gym of a local school but it wouldn’t have the same vibe and that’s really important to us, too,” said Stahlmann.
The After Party
Once the dust settles after an event, one thing to consider is always whether or not that event was successful and if it is worth doing again.
Pinups for Pitbulls’ yardstick for success is trifold, and it involves both the fiscal return and the personal connection.
“We are looking for three primary things when considering an event’s success. First, did we make an impact on people and help them understand the issues surrounding dogs any better? We know we cannot change everyone’s mind. Some people do not want to change their views. But, did we help them understand our point of view and that we base our philosophies on scientific, fact-based information? We all have opinions. But we only want to spread factual information,” said Loncosky.
“Secondly, of course, did we have a positive, financial event? From time to time, it is okay to attend an event that is not profitable of you made a positive impact for the future. However, if you are not budgeting correctly, you cannot sustain growth by losing money at multiple events. It not only bleeds out the organization; but it causes fatigue and stress for the people involved.”
“Education and advocacy cannot be effective if you and your personnel are a poor representation of your culture. We strive to keep everyone positively motivated and we always have fun! People are more apt to spend time with us since we are always smiling, engaging and positive. Without that draw, we could never have achieved what we have over the past eleven years.”
“Lastly, what did the event organizers think of us? We go out of our way to make sure the organizers and onsite personnel know who we are, who is leading our team, and that we are available to help them if necessary. We do not show up acting like ‘stars’ and make obnoxious demands or expectations. If we have to wait in line, or wait for our booth to be set up, we make active use of our time to introduce ourselves, meet new people, or just make ourselves useful. We show up, and set up, on time and we stay until the end of the event without breaking down early. By showing respect to the organizers and attendees, we are building our relationship for future events and usually ensuring ourselves an invitation to return. Knowing we are wanted if a primary reward for us!”
For the Bad News Chairs, both the adaptive softball game in July and the November adaptive sports clinic met their goals of community awareness and involvement.
“I thought [the softball game] would be a great learning experience for the students to understand people using the chair as ‘real people’ and not a diagnosis and to see more of their abilities and not their disabilities,” said Ortiz, who is a physical therapist and works at Victoria College in the Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program. “The PTA students at that time were involved in running the concession stand and some played on the teams as well. One particularly athletic student thought ‘I’m a good softball player, so this is going to be a piece of cake.’ He found out that playing from a wheelchair level is a completely different dynamic. The adaptive sports clinic was a free, community awareness event. We had some people from [other organizations] come down and donate their time and equipment to try to train our athletes – and coaches as well – so we could learn more variety of adaptive sports than we were involved in at that time and it exposed a lot of the Victoria Independent School District kids to more than we would have [been able to].”
Bringing more to the community than might otherwise be expected can be helpful. For Morris Animal Foundation, including man’s best friend has paid off.
“Our events are volunteer driven, so we look to the volunteers to see what goes over well in their community and participation is an important factor. Our events are focused on dogs and participants can bring them to the event and I think that’s one thing that people enjoy doing and brings them back year after year,” said O’Brien.
And while fundraising events are designed to bring in money, that is only one measure of success – human feedback can be the best indicator of an event’s success.
“Obviously, the first thing is if we have a profit of money. It’s helpful and that’s a factor. But the other biggest thing is when we get new people involved with the program. All of our camps and things end in a concert and we get campers the next year who come because they’ve seen a friend in a performance and think it was cool, or teacher friends who see it and want to teach,” said She Rock She Rock’s Stahlmann. “Getting more people involved is always a plus. Then, we’re built to empower women through music and we know it’s working when we see participants push themselves to try something new, something they wouldn’t have tried before. When we can go home at night and think, ‘I just worked 70 hours this week but it ended with standing in an audience and crying out of pure joy and pride after watching program participants come out of their shell, rock out and try something new.’ That’s when we know an event was worth it.”
Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation sees success much the same way.
“Like our mission, an event is successful if it raises money and awareness but also encourages our supporters to become more involved,” said Korp. “The money raised is important because it funds childhood cancer research, which is consistently and vastly underfunded. But we also believe that anyone of any age can contribute to raising money and awareness for the fight against childhood cancer.”
That’s a Wrap
There are many different ways to address event planning and the consensus seems to be that each organization needs to find what works for them.
Stahlmann, with She Rock She Rock, summed it up by saying, “When you’re making a fundraising event, it is a lot of work. You put a lot of effort into it and you want to raise your goal. One thing we learned … is that it’s really important that it make sense to us.”
It’s a philosophy, she says, that applies to all nonprofit organizations.
“We’ve talked about a gala with a $100 food plate and whatnot but when we talk about it more, it doesn’t make sense to us. We’re a rock and roll program. Having a big fancy event doesn’t make sense, she explained. “We do things that make sense to us – we’ve got a Rock and Bowl event coming up where teachers and students bowl for our cause and there will be music playing. [We have to] look at who we are and ask what makes sense for our constituents to participate in?”