Nonprofits produce a wide range of events that bring with them inherent risk, said marketing and event strategist Gail S. Bower, president of Bower & Co. Consulting LLC. This is a particularly important lesson to remember during the month of December, when nonprofits are striving to meet or exceed their year-end fundraising goals, develop new relationships with potential donors and celebrate the holidays with clients, staff, donors and their communities.

“The key word is strategy. Too often people just launch into ‘Hey, let’s put on a show’ as if that will suddenly solve the organization’s problems,” Bower said. “Event producers must have the foresight to anticipate both the benefits and risks that may come with an event and work to mitigate the risks in advance.”

The number of events nonprofits produce is impressive: one-day programs for constituents, public events that celebrate missions, friend-raisers that introduce people to organizations, major street festivals, conferences, and fundraisers and galas are just a few, Bower said. But each of these mission celebrations carries with it three categories of risk, she said—physical, financial and reputational.

Know the lay of the land

Physical risk has to do with the event space and the things that can happen when you bring a large group of people together, Bower said.

To begin, you must have the right-size venue, to be certain that it’s going to accommodate all of the people attending and that you do not exceed capacity.

“Sometimes organizations are so driven to generate as much revenue as they can that they don’t turn off the faucet, meaning they keep on accepting registrations,” Bower said. “This can be challenging for the event producer because you could have too many people show up. Some attrition can be expected because some people who buy tickets won’t show, but this is usually counterbalanced by walk-ups.”

Planners also need to make sure they provide accommodations for persons with disabilities in compliance with modern-day requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Appropriate entrances, exits and elevators need to be made available for those who need them, she said.

If alcohol will be served at an event, not only do the proper permits need to be secured, but nonprofit staff needs to support their event caterer. Bower said she once witnessed an event where an attendee had too much to drink and created a scene, and the nonprofit had to put him up in a hotel to make sure he was safe for the evening.

Events take place at museums, ballrooms, vineyards, universities, private residences and other locations where there are valuables and/or property may be at risk. Remember to provide sufficient security for celebrities or politicians if needed, and if an event offers VIP access, monitor the entrances so people who have not paid for the privileges aren’t gaining admittance. Also be certain to take responsibility for adequate security and crowd control.

Crunch the numbers

Nonprofits need to look at events as small businesses, Bower said, with their own profit-and-loss statements. Nonprofits—especially those that are new—often decide to host an event without realizing how labor-intensive they are or how much up-front funding is required. “It sounds like a great idea … a way to engage the community, bring a brand to life and connect people to the mission, but leaders need to have a good sense of how much the event is actually going to cost the organization,” she said.

And although nonprofits generally plan and strategize to poise an event for financial success, they often miss an opportunity to think through how an event can be used to fulfill a nonprofit’s hoped-for outcomes, she said.

“Many times the event is all about the event, but if you’re only focusing [on that], you’re not leveraging it as fully as you could,” Bower said. Consider your goals and then focus on the before, during and after. At each of these stages, there’s a real opportunity for engagement, connection and resource development,” she said.

Before jumping in, remember to discuss whether or not the organization has sufficient staff to manage the myriad administrative details, Bower said, such as managing the database, thanking volunteers, tracking ticket sales, providing customer service and getting updated information to registrants as needed.

And if you’re planning an outdoor event, be certain to develop enough sponsorship dollars, especially to offset any losses due to bad weather. Nonprofits don’t always have the expertise to make this happen, she said.

“If your ticket sales bring in a smaller amount than anticipated,” Bower said, “your sponsorship dollars could be the difference between breaking even or the event becoming a drain on the organization.”

Choose your friends wisely

Nonprofits have to be careful about who they align themselves with in terms of sponsors and partners, as well as major donors and chairs of events.

“Make sure you are aligned with businesses and persons of similar integrity,” Bower said. “Also, to protect the organization’s reputation, be sure that there is a crisis plan in place if something does happen at the event.”

Accidents can happen when people don’t drink enough water in extreme heat or have specific health issues, for example, and people can do stupid things or, infrequently, a crime can take place, Bower said. Your event attendees can tweet or post about these sorts of incidents in seconds, and you must be prepared to answer any questions the media and public might have.

Bower said she once attended an event where the hotel had to be evacuated when the fire alarm went off. It disrupted the flow of the event and stopped the mission message to attendees, and it was only through the good humor of the organization's leader that people were brought back together, she said.

Despite being fraught with risk, nonprofit fundraising events are generally an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. To assure that your guests have a safe and pleasant experience, Bower recommends that nonprofits:

  • Anticipate potential areas of concern. Take an imaginary walk around the event, much as a guest might do when he arrives. Think through all of the details, poke holes in them and ask a lot of questions about the entire process from the time a guest drives into the parking lot to when he drives out.
  • Communicate clearly. One small change can affect many others involved in producing the event. Keep everyone informed as changes occur.
  • Act as a team. No one person produces an event. It’s the culmination of effort from a number of people to affect change. Decide whether everyone is on board to invest the time, energy, resources, staff, etc. to make an event successful. There’s nothing wrong with scaling back or waiting for a better time. In fact, it’s better to hold off than to take on something and have it be unsuccessful.

“Nonprofits are still coming out of the weeds of the recession, and some are doing better than others,” Bower said. “There’s too much risk for an organization to head off without any kind of real strategy and not be prepared for all of the things that could go wrong. And more importantly, having a strategy makes an organization’s event a true asset.”

For more information

Gail S. Bower, president of Bower & Co. Consulting LLC, is a consultant, coach, writer, speaker and the author of How to Jump-start Your Sponsorship Strategy in Tough Times with more than 25 years of experience marketing and managing some of the country’s most important events, festivals and sponsorships. To contact her or to learn more about Bower & Co. Consulting LLC, visit www.gailbower.com.