For the last couple of years, nonprofit events have been on a high. Many event producers were fat and happy: lots of clients and growth in event budgets. In many ways, the economy was booming, and events rode the wave. Specifically, I work in nonprofit events, and things were looking good. When the economy is strong, people make more money, have more disposable income, and donate more money to the causes that are important to them. As a nonprofit events producer, my job is to create a landscape for people to give that money. This landscape frequently takes shape as an event. A signature annual event that showcases the organization and aims to be a visual representation of their mission in action. When you bring donors and prospects into your mission, you raise funds.
March 2020 happened. I remember like it was yesterday. I was in San Francisco working with a nonprofit event client on Thursday, March 5th. Coronavirus was a new word in our vocabulary, and it felt distant. Very distant. We had a large nonprofit event coming up in April, and it was that day in March that we received our first call from a donor “is this event still going to happen? Our workplace may be shutting down”. None of us knew what that meant, and we brushed it off, business as usual.
What a difference a week makes. By the following week, Shelter In Place (SIP) orders started popping up throughout the country. We watched…we waited. It didn’t feel real. None of this felt real.
The naiveté that we ALL lived in is now obvious. Hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it? Case in point: we contemplated pushing our event back one month. One month should be enough time for the country (world?) to figure out this Coronavirus “thing”. By mid-March I found myself re-reading every single contract for this event and for all of my clients. What are the cancellation clauses? What exactly is force majeure, and does “this” qualify as force majeure? I can’t tell you how many times I Googled the words “force majeure” or discussed the topic in online event forums with other planners.
As the days progressed, the nonprofit events world turned to each other. Nonprofits reached out to their competitors. Planners reached out to other planners. No one worried about competition or not appearing to know what the hell was going on. We were confused, worried, and not sure how to deal with our own emotions, while simultaneously holding space for our clients who turned to us for answers.
That one-month postponement to May turned into a June postponement. Then in May, we postponed to August. Things would be fine by then, right? Right……? As the first days of May ticked by, we all had this guttural feeling that August wasn’t going to happen. But it was hard to admit, to swallow, and to get 100% behind. Not until we all got on a Zoom call and looked at each other’s faces, did we realize, this is it. This event of 500 people will likely not happen anytime in 2020.
Professionally, the biggest takeaway from this year is that I DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING. And that’s a tough pill to swallow. As an event producer, you are supposed to have all of the answers. But this one threw us all for a loop. This lesson is humility. As long as COVID-19 is a part of our lives, we will need to have flexibility. And at this point in time, long term planning is now 90 days out. This is the new normal.
If you are at the helm of an event (non-profit or not), what can you do now?
1. Listen to city, county, and state officials. Your “local” officials will have the most relevant information to YOUR event.
2. Create a 90-day plan for an event. But be prepared to pivot. And quickly.
3. Gather resources for new vendors: branded face masks, PPE, thermometers, floor decals (to demonstrate social distancing), and a database platform (to contract trace every guest/vendor/staff/volunteer who steps foot in your event).
4. Build flexibility into your event budget. You might need to cut overall expenses because of lower revenue projections, but you simultaneously may need to increase the “COVID-19 Safety” line item to account for things as mentioned in #3 above.
5. For nonprofit events, plan for a silent auction, come hell or high water. Whether your event continues or not, you can still host an auction online and promote it to your audiences through an email campaign and via social media. I use GiveSmart as the preferred mobile bidding platform for my clients. Talk to me if you’d like to learn more about GiveSmart.
6. Watch and wait. No magic or fairy dust here. Patience is key to ensure you can help your clients navigate this COVID era.
From what I can see, most large (500+ person) events for 2020 will not happen. Specifically, in the non-profit world, as you need to factor in a fundraising timeline to justify the event. And if you push the event too late in 2020, you have to be careful that your event does not jeopardize your fundraising timeline/budget for 2021. Perhaps a smaller event makes sense? Or a virtual event?
Stay tuned as next week we delve into the pros and cons of virtual nonprofit events.