Event(ful) Expectations

Recently my husband and I saw Diana Krall in concert. She is a jazz songstress and pianist with a rich, soothing voice. The tickets were about what I’d expect to pay to see her — not too expensive but not cheap.

Before the concert we checked to see how long the show would be so our children would know when to expect us home. The website said 75 to 90 minutes with no intermission.

We enjoyed the show very much and the couple next to us seemed to be too, with toes tapping and exuberant applause. And about 75 minutes in, Diana and the musicians took their bows.

I heard the gentleman next to me whisper to his partner, “Is this intermission?” When he learned that no, this was the end of the show, he got almost belligerent. “Are you kidding, that’s it? I expected it to be longer, we paid good money for these tickets.” The musicians performed two encore songs and exited the stage to a standing ovation, while the person next to us grumbled about the show’s length.

As we drove home, I mentioned to my husband the gentleman’s reaction. Two different couples saw the same concert and probably paid similar dollars for our tickets. Yet one couple came away disappointed while we had the perfect evening.

What was the difference? Our expectation of the show.

I see this happen over and over with nonprofit events. Most nonprofits rely on events to support their mission, for fundraising, stewarding major donors or raising awareness. If not careful, events can become an expectation of a nonprofit, something that must be held every year without being tethered to mission or fundraising.

Many times events flounder and are scrutinized by board members, executive directors or others, and the question often comes up, “Was this event successful?”

My response to that question is always, “What is the measure of success?”

Was the goal of the event to attract new people to the mission? If so, was a goal set and do we know how many new people attended? (The answer to the latter question is surprisingly often “no.”)

Was the goal to raise money? If so, was a goal set and met while managing expenses?

NP social media influence cartoon
Credit to RobCottingham.com 

Surprisingly, many events don’t have set goals outside of a revenue goal, or, if they do, those goals were not shared with stakeholders and board members, who later feel the need to question the use of valuable dollars and resources.

Many nonprofits are pushed into doing events that they have neither the staff time nor resources to execute by a well-meaning board member who thinks that the organization “needs” an event. The staff expends hours upon hours doing “other duties as assigned,” since this event was not originally budgeted, while necessary fundraising work is put on hold.

If this sounds familiar, or if you are evaluating the role events play in your organization, here are some tools to help prevent uncomfortable post-event meetings.

  1. Put together a project brief on the event. Some of the things this brief needs to cover include the goal(s) of the event, expected cost, and metrics by which success will be measured. Goals can include attracting new donors, revenue raised, number of attendees, earned media or other values. Make sure you’re prepared to measure these metrics before you get too far into planning.
  2. Share this brief with board members, staff, and other stakeholders. Gather feedback and if necessary, adjust the goals or expectations.
  3. Get buy-in from key stakeholders on the final plan. You may not get 100% of your board behind it, but if you get the key backers who understand the purpose of the event, they can sway others.
  4. As the event is taking shape, you may choose to move away from some of the goals. For example, you may have an opportunity to get a really dynamic speaker but need to push your expenses to make it happen. As the decisions occur, keep the board and stakeholders in the loop. You are not asking their permission; you are managing their expectations so that after the event they aren’t surprised by the end result.
  5. After the event, make sure you do a wrap-up report re-iterating the original goals, revised goals and actual metrics.
  6. As a part of this wrap-up, itemize key learnings from this year’s event. Maybe that expensive speaker didn’t really pan out, or perhaps scrapping the paper invitation was cost-effective and didn’t affect attendance. That list should become the starting point for that event the following year, which brings me to…
  7. Have the discussion post-event whether the event should take place the following year. Did it meet its goals? Do those goals advance the organization’s needs? Just because an event occurs annually doesn’t mean it should.

Make sure you manage expectations while putting events to work for you. We enjoyed our evening of Diana Krall and her band very much and would recommend seeing her to anyone else who enjoys her music. The couple next to us? Probably not so much.

 

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