By J Wilberg
Events are terrific. If you’ve worked for a nonprofit organization, you have probably been involved in planning, staffing or cleaning up after an event. It could be a neighborhood clean-up or back to school fair. An event can be a promotion for a new program or a way to identify potential clients.
When I managed Community Involvement at the Social Development Commission, we put on a slew of events, gave away thousands of hotdogs and neighborhood swag, like tote bags and refrigerator magnets with community service phone numbers on them. One communitywide planning event had an auditorium full of neighborhood residents doing a conga line through the aisles to the beat of an Indian drum. This made us all feel terrific.
But what did it really mean? Most of the time, event organizers/sponsors use three metrics to decide if an event was worth the investment: 1) number of participants; 2) number of problems with the event; and 3) how happy we feel. An event that fills the room, doesn’t have a catastrophe like running out of food, and leaves us humming while we clean up is an absolute success.
Is it possible to do a better, more substantive evaluation of an event? Absolutely!
Here are some ideas to consider:
1. Survey participants. Yes, I know. No one wants to interrupt the Kumbaya moment with a clipboard and a checklist. A quick, post-card survey with 3 to 5 questions can provide actual data that can be used to determine what participants thought was valuable, what other information or resources they might like, and what potential impact the event will have on their lives. The West Allis Health Department conducts an annual event called Two for the Show which is a developmental screening with various ‘stations’ to assess toddlers’ speech, large and small muscle development, and other developmental milestones. This is one of the Health Department’s primary ways of identifying children in need of Birth to Three services so they are able to track identification of children with developmental challenges as they show up in the Birth to Three program. Over and above that, however, the Health Department conducts a survey of each Two for the Show parent. Very smart strategy – makes funders happy and helps shape the next event.
2. Service utilization. This is a variation of ‘tell them Fred sent you.’ Since many events, like the events we used to hold at SDC, are geared toward encouraging program participation in programs like Head Start or energy assistance, it is very helpful to connect participants’ attendance at the event with the eventual enrollment in a program. This can be as simple as handing someone a card and asking them to mention the event when they call the program and offering some benefit for doing so. This could be expedited enrollment or a small premium like a McDonald’s gift certificate. Anything that helps you as the event organizer connect your event to later program participation is a big plus as you seek support for next year’s effort.
3. Tracking What Happens Next. Events are often the vehicle for addressing a community need or problem. Generally, the event creates several work groups with the hopes that when people leave they are willing to work on specific tasks in order to achieve an agree-upon goal. Very often, big community organizing events are unable to translate to dynamic, robust work groups and so the energy and promise of the event just dissipates. Vision Sherman Park, a tremendously inspirational community planning event that brought together observant Jews, African American, and White residents for a day of planning and dialogue, had a less vibrant transition to work groups. That experience toward me that assessment of the follow-up is critical. What happened afterward? Who stayed involved? Who didn’t? What can be improved next time?
Ultimately, it’s all about a critical eye that looks beyond the momentary happiness of a ‘successful’ event to examine its true value and impact. It’s not difficult, but it takes take planning and commitment. When your next event rolls around, try to take a harder look at the issue of metrics. I think it will pay off for you.