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How to Plan and Host an Effective Nonprofit Event

Event Planning

Events are not just a gathering of people - they are stories you tell to the world.  They are a way to elevate conversations around the topics that you are focused on, engage new people, and encourage active participation. As a result, doors for collaborative opportunities can open and/or the laying down of a framework for meaningful action to take place.

All of these goals can be accomplished but since events are time-consuming, you want to make sure that your event is achieving the purpose your nonprofit have set forth. To help you achieve your goals, we invited Erin Kang, Events Coordinator at the Centre for Social Innovation, to go through event planning using the five elements of storytelling: background, rising action, climax, following action, and denouement/conclusion.


Just like great storytelling, a good event is all about set building and character. To set your event, ask yourself:

  • Why are you holding this event?
  • What is the goal of this event?

You need to make it clear upfront as to why it would be worthwhile for your desired guests to attend. Your vision matters. People want to be drawn into an event and then when they arrive to be taken in by the energy in the room. People are engaged, the air is abuzz with conversation, and your own energy goes up.

You also need to understand your character (ie. your event guests). Who is the person that is attending your event? Think of the ideal person that would be attending the event, focus on them and what they would want, and then build out the setting from there. Put yourself into the shoes of the person coming in as you create a plan with all of your event components. When someone walks into your event, what is it that they are seeing and experiencing? Here are some helpful steps to go through to help you imagine this:

  • Walk through the venue as though you are a guest - what would you want to know about when you hit the venue? Cash bar? Bathrooms? Activities? Are signs visible? 
  • How long is your event? Plan accordingly for food and beverages.
  • Consider the flow - break up your room with chairs and cocktail tables away from the main areas like a bar to avoid crowding in those areas
  • People tend to always sit at the back first before the front, so keep some extra chairs in the back because loading from the back to make more seats is less intrusive
  • Thoughts on food placement. If you have activities that you would like people to participate in, place food near those areas (i.e. cheese platters next to the silent auction or wine next to the info session information)

People congregate towards two things: chairs and cheese.

  • The small details is what creates charm and also where your creativity can shine. Think of things that have taken away your breath at other events and use that as an inspiration for yours. It can even be something as simple as putting a tealight in a small glass and tying some twine around it.

Then there is your team. It’s incredibly important to  know that you have a team for every event. You need to recognize this even if you are the only staff person. If you have volunteers, it’s important to make them feel like they are really a part of the team. For volunteers, Erin recommends addressing them as “part of the team” or “support” instead of “volunteers”, as this will build team spirit. Remember that you are giving them an *experience* in return for their time. A key strategy is to have at least one in-person meeting with the entire events team. It is critical to form relationships and the sense of a common vision/purpose/ownership - this positive collaboration will spill over and add to the experience of event attendees.

[Event tip] Use a critical path to ensure a successful event. Critical paths should include all the necessary components, such as specific deadlines, finances, etc. that make up the nuts and bolts of your event.

For all of your tasks you need to make sure to:

  • Be thorough
  • Be actionable
  • Be empowering - your team must be fully on board

A few resources for planning and task management are:

Rumour also has it that CanadaHelps is launching an event organizing tool for charities this summer.

Rising Action

So the plan is in place and you are now moving through it. It’s extremely important that you are consistently checking in with your team and are stewarding your would-be guests towards the event. Here are some guidelines that will help you build momentum for your event:

Communications: Make sure your event listing doesn’t bore people from the get-go. You need to really capture people’s imagination. For example, for the Turnout Toronto event CSI asked the question, what if we were so engaged, we were a “city of mayors”? What would that look like?

Consistency: Don’t stray from your core messaging and keep it simple. Everything needs intentionality - is the silent auction required for the sober dinner? Is the TED talk really necessary for the birthday celebration?

[Event tip] Write and provide content you want people to share (i.e., provide your team & attendees with some sample Tweets, instead of saying “tweet about it”).

Clarity: Be clear in what your attendees are going to get. Keep your event descriptions short and clearly written - vision at the top, key info bolded, short paragraphs, and no boring blocks of text.

Creativity: Creative = doing something that will make people smile. It doesn’t have to be big. Check out the CSI’s smackdown video promoting the annual holiday party as an example.


The day of the event. An important thing to learn to do is to manage stress during an event so that you can be in the best mindset to deal with unexpected issues.

Tips for being in a positive mindset:

  • Stay on top of your critical path
  • Check things off physically so you can see it’s done
  • Trust that you’ve done everything in your power to make the event good and that you can respond to challenges as they come up. Goes for both you & your team (which is why team building is so critical)

Event planners may stress over attendance. Remember that your attendance rates will differ depending on whether the event is free or has a cost. Here are some general guidelines that will better prepare your expectations:

  • 30-50% attrition rate for free events - If you don’t want to charge for an event, you can get creative with it - charging people to come, but you can give them a free drink (since that’s how much a drink costs) and it makes people feel happy because they are getting a perceived free drink
  • Want people to show up? Put a small cost to it. - Event attendance is higher at paid events, even if the ticket price is $5

When it comes to the nitty gritty of event management, platforms like Eventbrite and Uniiverse can be useful. Most have an option to check people in at the door (including an app) and analytics which can be useful for planning future events. You can get reports around how many people are coming, who actually came, and at times can even customize information when you sign up. if you are working with customized information, make sure that you keep it brief as a longer form will prevent people from filling in their information. Keep it to something like people’s names, emails, and maybe 1 - 2 other things.

[Event tip] Read the room as it is going on and prepare an icebreaker in case the need arises

Following action

After the event is over, think about how you will be managing the followup. Make sure you and your team is facilitating the event aftermath, such as clean up, impromptu networking and attendees lingering around to chat. Another example is If you are going to be check-in with a speaker right after the event, assign other team members to clean up so you and the speaker have time to connect. Make sure these tasks are a part of your critical path so it’s not extra work or under-estimated. For example, cleaning up after an event usually takes a minimum of an hour, if not longer.

Remember to get feedback, either through traditional event evaluations/surveys or something more creative. An example of a creative way to obtain feedback is posing a question on a blackboard for attendees to answer (e.g., at Turnout Toronto, the question was “In Toronto in 2014 I am going to…” ). It’s important to see your event from different perspectives (outside of just you and your team) to ensure your events and future events are fulfilling your purpose. Feedback from attendees and external participants can also provide you with inspiration for the next event.


Post-event. This is a time to reflect and plan for future events.

A tool that you can use is the Exit Report. It’s a great way to share knowledge with future people (you or others) planning the same event. You can use the exit report to note down all the things you’d others to be aware of  - e.g. how many bottles of liquor, where from, who drove you there, etc. - as well as to note down any feedback. Erin recommends creating an Exit Report in a Google Doc so that your team can easily comment on the document, make additions, corrections, and other changes. It’s also a good way to collect testimonials that you can use to promote the next event.

Now there may be times when after the event, you realize you would like to do something, but your nonprofit lacks the capacity. Remember that it may not have to be you that keeps the torch burning, you may be able to pass it on. For example, CSI hosted an incredibly successful event called Turnout Toronto, but unfortunately the staff at CSI had no additional capacity to make Turnout Toronto a recurring event. CSI was able to pass on the torch to the Toronto Public Library, who expressed interest in hosting Turnout Toronto going forward. After equipping the Toronto Public Library with the resources they need, Turnout Toronto was able to continue thanks to the partnership between the two organizations. These points of synchronicity and collaboration can really make your event special even after it leaves your hands.

More resources

Erin’s full Prezi presentation:

Livestream recording:

Erin's resources (Event Design, Critical Paths, and Exit Report)