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

Don’t get rid of that 3-legged chair; it’s my baby!

squirrelAs a small nonprofit, we don’t take anything for granted. Funding for supplies and furniture is hard to come by, so when there’s free stuff, we usually take it. We, like other similar agencies, are a nonprofit squirrel, hoarding supplies for the programming winter.

“Hey Vu,” said an ED buddy two years ago, “I have a few pens that we’re getting rid of. Do you want to swing by to see if you want them?” Pens, I thought, I lose one a day, and it’s not like those things expire, so why not? That was how we ended up with three gallon-sized Ziploc bags, each filled with over 200 pens. I was ecstatic. Think of all the events we do, all the signing-in! We would never run out of pens again!

Another nonprofit moved, leaving behind literally over a thousand coloring pencils and markers in two boxes. We could save them for our summer program, said a staff, so we took them and shoved them into the supply cabinet. A bank went out of business. Word spread of filing cabinets, good ones with slight dents and scratches. We borrowed a pickup truck and moved them, slightly bruised afterward but overjoyed at our bounty.

Soon, chairs started appearing, mismatched, multicolored chairs from other agencies or from Craigslist. One was so unstable that only staff were allowed to sit in it, and only after going through a quick orientation on safe sitting.

Before the New Year, the VFA staff decided to do a purge. It had gotten unbearable: the endless dusty binders, the hundreds of books that no one ever read, the random chairs floating ghostlike around the office. The supply cabinet had become a scary vortex from which nothing returned. We left it alone in the corner, afraid its doors would break open and a lethal shower of pens and sharpened pencils would engulf an unfortunate intern.

The staff and I showed up early on a weekend, excited. But the amount of junk we had accumulated was breathtaking. I could not bear to get rid of anything. Overwhelmed, we called in Jennifer, one of the board members. She arrived, was horrified, and after some vague threats about my annual performance review, started sorting. Four hours later, the office looked like a tornado zone. “Why…how…do you have so much stuff?” said Jennifer, pulling out a box full of playing cards and dice, which we thought three years ago would be good manipulatives for teaching math.

The sorting brought back memories, which might be why it’s so hard to toss things. Each of these things harkens back to a time in VFA’s leaner years, when we couldn’t afford books for our after-school program, or markers for our kids. A working stapler or hole puncher was a luxury to be treasured. We looked on this crap fondly. Plus, it’s still the lean years! We must continue to prepare for the winter.

With Jennifer’s help/coercion we started tossing things. It took a three whole days, and there is still stuff to get rid of. We moved some of it outside the office and put up a “Free” sign. We posted on Craigslist. We made runs to Goodwill. Within hours, things started disappearing. It felt good, as if a burden had started lifting. There was still stuff, though, in a big pile. I stared at it for a while, feeling bad that such potentially useful items might go to waste. I called up an ED friend. “Hey,” I said, “we have a thousand coloring pencils we’re tossing. You think you can use them in your after-school program?”