by Christian Gaines
“So, what do you do the rest of the year?”
— Innocent-enough follow-up question after explaining that you run a festival
Nonprofits that deliver mission-driven events like film, art, music and sports festivals, cultural celebrations, conferences and the like, face unique challenges. With limited resources, ramping up activity each year after a hibernation period is a real pain-point. That hibernation means mothballing the event for months at a time, which is itself a challenge. It can be difficult to fundraise during the hibernation period because you are raising funds for something that can’t be seen, but fundraising MUST be completed before the actual event unfolds.
Annual events, festivals, and conferences that achieve scale and have a lasting impact have one thing in common: they are managed by a year-round operation that plans the annual event, engages participants and civic leaders, and manages all details of the event and its aftermath. Here are some useful tips for growing a nascent event- and mission-driven nonprofit into a robust year-round advocacy and support organization for its stakeholders:
1. Think, Talk and Act Long Term. Planning takes time, so for startup events, set your dates at least three years into the future – five years, even. It’s ok if you need to change them in the future. Assume the event will repeat – don’t “wait and see how this one turns out” because that precipitates hesitation and uncertainty. Be confident, and convey optimism, about the work you’re doing.
2. Work Towards Multi-Year Sponsorships and Partnerships. With corporate sponsors as well as cultural and media partners, start having the three- or five- year agreement conversation immediately. Multi-year agreements – even ones that may have an easy out for either party after each year – increase the value of your event over an extended period, set a precedent for other potential supporters, free up negotiating bandwidth to focus on new partners (rather than re-negotiating with existing players) and allow you to scale activation costs over several years. Multi-year agreements imbue your nonprofit with value.
3. Identify Your Outcomes, then Reverse Engineer into the Experience. Too many nonprofit events snap immediately into a “gotta make the doughnuts” mentality. They focus on the tactical, the tasks required next. This is important, but too often there is not a clear understanding of what, exactly, you would like to be left with following the event in order to position yourself for the next one. Will you need hard metrics? To capture specific subjects in photo or video? Do you need stakeholder impact anecdotes? Should you conduct visitor intercept surveys? Having a session early in the initial planning stage that identifies the whole team’s hoped-for outcomes and then integrating actions to deliver those outcomes will contribute to the health and vitality of the organization.
4. The Month Before Might be Crucial to the Event, But the Month After is Crucial to the Organization. Following a successful event there is often joy and relief, much like we felt as kids when school was out for summer. While pulling off a successful festival or conference is something to be celebrated, a firm production schedule and plan in the month after the event is a critical part of the overall schedule. A clean up crew should already be scheduled. Plans for the immediate inventory, return or storage of rental or owned items should be in place. Satisfaction surveys for your stakeholders should be teed-up and ready to send out immediately. Exit interviews, final reports and deliverables should be in place for off-boarding seasonal workers. A series of all-team wrap meetings should be pre-scheduled with established expectations to bring one’s “A” game in service to making the event better. What worked? What fell short? And last but not least, try to have your volunteer and/or team appreciation party already planned and on the calendar well before the event begins.
5. Team Leaders Should Each Represent a Stakeholder You Serve. Any festival, conference or exposition is composed of differing stakeholders who all converge together to create an ecosystem – visitors, exhibitors, artists, filmmakers, sponsors, city officials, cultural partners, media, volunteers. It’s a glorious mix but it’s complicated, because what could be an important success metric for one stakeholder isn’t necessarily important to another. When building a team, think about who represents the interests and the outcomes of each stakeholder. Your Volunteer Coordinator will always be representing the interests of volunteers, making sure that they have a great experience and that the program will grow and thrive. Your Development Officer will steward the experience of sponsors, foundations and donors. Who is representing your visitors within your experience? City officials? It’s pretty safe to assume that if a stakeholder isn’t loyally represented by someone on your team, then that stakeholder’s event experience will be left wanting.
6. A positive visitor experience is more important than programmatic vision and content. In any event, audience perception is everything. Visitors are the ones who decide whether your event is vibrant, offers cutting-edge thought leadership, and is relevant. Fantastic presenters, performers, art, ideas… all of that achievement will be squandered if your event is a shambles and it’s a struggle for visitors to engage with that content. Visitors – including the guests who you have invited to deliver that content – notice events that are produced and delivered at a high level. The visitor experience must be carefully and methodically thought through from end to end – from the moment of initial contact to the thank you letter (and beyond).
7. “Red Letter” Dates mean Anticipation, Crowds and Excitement. Connecting with audiences for a burst of sustained attention and excitement is critical for success. The finite, transient nature of your event can build urgency around media coverage. Large crowds attending a unique event that only happens once a year is noteworthy. The ephemeral nature of the event can also be a huge plus when developing clever or whimsical sponsorship activation programs. A program that is well produced, captured, and measured can develop an affinity relationship between a sponsoring brand and your visitors that no year-round nonprofit can come close to replicating. Make the most of being a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
8. Have a Clear Mission, Vision and Guiding Principles. A clear set of guiding principles can be crucial to the overall organization, and really help to inform your decisions when problems or controversy arise. Misunderstandings and disputes are often not an “if” but a “when”, and guiding principles will help you navigate these rocky waters and remind you of what you stand for as an organization. At ArtPrize, where I served as Executive Director, we consulted our Guiding Principles constantly. They were a cornerstone of our onboarding process for new team members.
9. Volunteers are Your Ambassadors. Volunteers are indispensible when it comes to accomplishing tasks and filling shifts behind registration desks or at information booths, and they represent so much more to the organization than free labor. Remember that for your visitors and guests, they are the public face of your organization. What they say and do will have a bigger positive (or negative) impact on them than you will ever have as a leader at a podium. They are a critical component of the overall visitor experience. Take the time to develop a program to imbue your volunteers with inspiration and ownership. Train your volunteers patiently, carefully and thoroughly with the knowledge and information they need into a community who proudly represents the organization. Generous, authentic gratitude and positive feedback should never be in short supply.
10. Equity, Accessibility, Sustainability. Social impact isn’t just a good idea or a “nice thing to have” – it is mission critical to the survival and growth of any nonprofit festival or event. By embracing identity and experience, by creating an organization that truly reflects that communities it serves, by making a demonstrable economic impact and by prioritizing stewardship of the environment, you are modeling an aspirational vision for how your organization sees the world, and your stakeholders will take notice. Social good programs are a critical component of the visitor experience and you should start incorporating them on day one.
Christian Gaines is a film, arts, and technology consultant who specializes in the mission-driven festival, event and conference space. With decades of experience, he has held leadership positions at the Sundance Film Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival and as Director of Festivals at the American Film Institute. Most recently, Christian served as Executive Director of ArtPrize, an open, international art competition that annually awards $500,000 and attracts 500,000 attendees and 1500 artists to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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