Special event planning: as fun as 19 consecutive root canals


turtlesRecently, we met with Tim, our Lead Partner with Social Venture Partners, to go over SVP’s Organization Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT). Tim travels a lot and always comes back with inspiring stories. This time, he told us of the giant sea turtle, which digs a hole in the sand, where it lays over 100 eggs. The mother turtle buries her egg and then leaves. A couple of months later, baby turtles hatch and crawl out of the sand.

“They’re really cute,” said Tim, “and this usually happens at night when they hatch. But somehow, they see the ocean—maybe it’s just a little bit lighter in color or something—and they start heading for it.” We started imagining these tiny little turtles, newly hatched and filled with thirst for life, heading toward the horizon to start their journey. “But then,” continued Tim, “all these seagulls and other predators start swarming in on them in a horrible feeding frenzy. A few of them barely make it to the ocean, and those that do usually get eaten by fish and other things in the water.”

This made me think of several things. First, don’t call Tim when you’re having a bad day. Second, baby sea turtles trying to make it to the ocean and being eaten by seagulls is a great metaphor for diversification of funding in the nonprofit world. Grants, individual donors, mailing campaigns, these are all hopeful little baby sea turtles trying to reach the horizon.

For the past eight months or so, VFA has been hatching one of our baby turtles, the annual event. I am not an event planner. In fact, I and other Executive Directors find the process of planning a special event so horribly painful that the Department of Homeland Security should consider using it as an interrogation method: “So, you refuse to talk, huh? Well, let’s see how defiant you are after serving six months on an annual dinner planning committee!”

Special events are challenging because there are a billion pieces to worry about, all of them having to come together at precisely the right time, and each of them requiring at least three arguments and 30 emails to settle. Fortunately, we at VFA have perfected the art of productive debates:

“How about we call the first award we’re giving out the ‘Community Service Award’?”

“That’s so boring and clichéd!”

“Your FACE is boring and clichéd!”

“I suggest The Golden Hedgehog Award for Awesomeness.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Your FACE is stupid!”

Don’t even get me started on the debate over the menu (“Your FACE is too many pork dishes!”).

Even though I am not fond of event planning and would in fact rather undergo nineteen consecutive root canals, I have lots of great ideas about how to make them more successful. For example, “We should have a non-dinner,” I said, “where instead of having a dinner, we don’t have one, and people buy tickets to this non-dinner, and they donate money, but they get to stay home, and all the money goes to VFA programs!”

“That’s a great idea, Vuey,” said Rachel, one of our co-chairs, “we’ll definitely think about it.” I went back to my cubicle, disheartened. This was like my wedding reception all over again, where all my great ideas to make the event better (“We should have a non-reception…”) were also condescendingly ignored.

Luckily, we have a great planning committee. Just because I dislike event planning, doesn’t mean that there are not others who are really great at it and who actually enjoy doing it. I will never understand them; their eyes light up at the thought of things like cakes, a critical element for any benefit dinner. Recently, the team has become more cohesive and has taken control of the entire event, which is great, but I am becoming kind of worried that the committee may be getting too powerful. “We will have ten cakes for the dessert auction,” I was told, “The Committee has decided you are going to bake a vegan cake. The Committee has also decided that your speech will be 3 to 5 minutes long, focused on VFA’s accomplishments this past year. Keep working on your table and potential sponsors; the Committee will contact you with further instructions.”

As we approach D-Day, we get more and more stressed, and when I get stressed, my face breaks out into constellations. With a billion elements in play, there will be some that do not go right, no matter how competent we are in controlling for them. Every other week, the Committee has been meeting, and soon it will meet weekly. I try not to attend, as I will either take over, or else end up in the fetal position under the conference table.

But I have hope. Like the mother turtle, who lays her eggs and then leaves, hoping against the odds that Fate will be kind to her offspring, perhaps slightly in denial, I go off into the distance to Google recipes for vegan cakes and maybe to order Proactiv since there is a special deal for 19.99 with free shipping if I call within the next thirty minutes. In two months, I am sure our baby turtle will make it safely out to sea