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Festivals & Events, Vendors & Entertainers

Organizing a Fair, Festival or Event
A look at boards: William Mulligan Jr.
Committees and Volunteers

There's no such thing as an event that's too organized. Getting the right ingredients together to put on a successful event is no easy task. It takes preparation-months and months of careful planning and organizing.

Whether you call it a steering committee or board of directors, this group's primary function to set ground rules and choose officers and committee chairpersons capable of completing the project. The board is responsible for, among other things, drafting workable by-laws and periodically reviewing and updating them if necessary.

Once you have established your general guidelines and focus, start planning specifics. It may help to draw an organizational chart to show the chain of command and to visualize the various departments making up the festival.

System of Succession

A problem with most events is passing on the lessons and experiences from one year to the next. One solution is having the project vice-chairperson assist the chairperson one year, then move up to chairperson the following year. It's a great method for making each event better than its predecessor. Change is good for everyone and refreshing for the spirit of the event.

A Look at Boards
by William Mulligan, Jr.

"The Practical Historian" Vol. 2, No. 2 & 3

Here are some frequently asked questions about boards.
Who should be on them?
How should they be selected?
How long should individuals serve?
How do you referee disagreements?

Before any questions can be answered, you need to consider the type of organization you have. Boards should operate differently when there is a fulltime professional staff carrying out the work of the organization than they should when all the work is done by volunteers. If your organization falls somewhere in between-a few paid staff, but many or even in between, a few paid staff, but many or even mostly, volunteers-you'll want a board somewhere in between. There is not one type of board that is ideal for all organizations.

Let's start with the most common situation: the volunteer organization. If anyone is paid, it is a token sum and volunteers carry out the work of the organization. In this situation, you want what is best described as a working board. The board should be made up of the more active and involved members-the heads of the committees, for example. Who knows more what needs to be done than the people who face the challenge every day?

Also, having separate groups of bosses who sit on the board make policy and volunteers who do the work nearly always causes trouble and, in fairly short order, a shortage of volunteers. In a volunteer organization, even one board member who doesn't back what he or she says with time put in can cause trouble. If you count on volunteers to do the work, count on volunteers to make the policies and run the organization.

Once you decide that active members should be on the board, many other questions are easily answered. Board members should be elected by the full membership to serve a fi xed term. Terms of the board members should be staggered so that at least some carry over to the new year for continuity. One successful method is to have three-year terms with one-third of the terms ending each year.

How long people should serve is always a tough question. In theory, there should be a limit to the number of consecutive terms anyone should serve. In practice, it can be diffi cult to fi ll seats on the board of a small organization.

What happens is that over time people become "indispensable." Then, when they want to pass on the reins, there is no one willing to try to fi ll such large shoes. Or, worse, they come to see themselves as "indispensable" and the organization declines as they lose energy.

The way out of this is to not let anyone become indispensable, either in the minds of the members or in their own. Limit everyone to two consecutive terms, no exceptions. After a year, people can stand for election for another cycle of two terms, etc. During that year off, new leaders will be able to try their wings.

There are a few exceptions to these general points. If possible, fi nd a lawyer willing to serve on your board. There are many small matters that a lawyer can quickly evaluate during a meeting and save the group endless and needless worry. Try not to take advantage of them if a major problem develops, but this is one situation when you can have someone on the board who may not otherwise be active in the group and gain far more than you will risk. If there are several lawyers in your community, rotate the position informally much as you would other seats.

You might consider other professionals-insurance agents, accountants, etc.-who can bring useful expertise to the board. However, never let these professionals make up a majority of the board or serve as president. Make sure the president is one of the more active volunteers. Remember, the best leaders lead by example.

Conflict on boards can be a real source of trouble. The problem is less with the fact of confl ict than with most people's desire to avoid it. One or two people can often get their way on a board, even quite a large board, just by being diffi cult. No one wants to make trouble or cause a scene, so they get their way, even though they may be a small minority.

This type of person can cause real trouble for an organization. First, if decisions are made to keep the peace rather than for the good of the organization, small problems will accumulate and grow into major problems.

Second, people will stop coming to board meetings because there is no real discussion. Why should they give up an evening at home with their family?

Third, eventually you will begin to lose your volunteers. The less active and involved they are the sooner you will lose them. Though an extreme case, if there's no real discussion people feel no commitment to implement the decisions. They simply fi nd other things to do that give them more of a sense of involvement.

In the end, the organization declines and fi nally becomes either a small clique around one dominant person, or it disappears for lack of interest.

Many people feel that the best way to deal with this problem is to wait for the person's term to expire and then not reelect that person. Or, if he/she is reelected (they almost always do), limit the number of terms a person can serve and then never reelect that person. This sounds good, but it never works for the same reason these people are able to dominate and control a meeting-no one wants to say, "I won't nominate you." No one wants to say anything negative or be accused of playing politics because it will divide the group.

People have to accept the fact that there is nothing wrong with disagreement or with debating options and then deciding among the options available. To disagree is not to misunderstand; it is simply to see another way of doing what needs to be done-or even seeing something entirely different that might be done. The solution is to stand up for alternative views and resist the domination of the bullies, because that's often what they are. If no one stands up, they will slowly, but surely, destroy any organization.

To repeat, a volunteer organization should have a board made up of the most active volunteers, elected by the membership for fi xed terms, serving for a limited number of consecutive terms.

What about an organization with paid staff?

Well, it is a very different situation. There is a separation between the day-to-day work of the organization and the responsibility of the board. This is very important to maintain.

Board interference in day-to-day operations can create an array of problems almost too numerous to catalog here. If there is a paid staff, the board must let them do their jobs. If they aren't doing their job, the board should communicate its concern to the director only and the director should deal with the situation. If he doesn't, it's easy: get a new director. If the board involves itself in the day-to-day operations, no one will be sure who is in charge, morale will decline sharply, and the organization will lack direction (and soon need a new director anyway).

In organizations with a paid staff, the board should limit itself to three things: selecting the director, establishing policies, and providing the resources necessary for the organization to function properly.

But that's not all. Some of the board members (and the more the better) must have strong connections within the community. These are people who can go out and quickly round up all kinds of donations-lumber, sign space, printing, advertising copy, food and drinks for volunteers, staging supplies, sound equipment, and many other necessities for a first-rate event.
To be sure and represent all facets in the community, a reasonable balance can be maintained if the board membership includes the following:
  • large corporations
  • privately owned businesses
  • professional groups
  • ethnic groups
  • service clubs
  • schools
  • churches
  • local government
  • any other group having a separate identity in the community that can provide moral and fi nancial support
This list looks more cumbersome than it is. Remember, a single board member might represent two or more of the categories listed. Also, use this list when selecting committee members so that groups with little or no representation on the board will have the opportunity to participate in festival activities and functions.

Communication is important to the overall success of an event. Keep board members informed about what various committees are doing and make sure they have a voice in overall planning. Likewise, keep committee members and other volunteers informed of board decisions, changes, progress reports, and meeting dates and times.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a good exercise for an event committee or any other group trying to get things done. The word refers to an idea generation technique where any and all possible suggestions are fl ushed out and the wilder the better. Participants meet in a face-to-face setting and offer solutions for an identified need (e.g. getting good publicity for an event).

Everyone is urged to be creative and to expand upon the ideas of others. All of these thoughts are promptly recorded and displayed on fl ip charts during the brainstorming session, thus encouraging even more ideas. Later, each suggestion is evaluated. Some-maybe most-will be discarded, but a surprising number will offer fresh insights for solving problems.

Committees and Volunteers

Just as an event cannot be put together in a few weeks; it cannot be produced by two or three people. Special events must be planned not only for the whole community, but also by the whole community. For this reason, event planners should strive to interest and involve a large number and variety of people to utilize their time and talents.

The one ingredient that experienced organizers fi nd most essential to the success of a festival or special event is community involvement. All other matters discussed in this handbook-planning, objective setting, fund raising, publicity, evaluation-are important, but involving the community is often the secret weapon that spells the difference between success and not quite making it.

Try to get local government (city, township, county) involved as much as possible.

You can recruit workers in many ways-personal phone calls, talks to various local clubs, discussions with elected offi cials, or appeals at public meetings.

A festival or special event becomes a civic celebration when a whole cross-section of the community is deeply and personally involved in its planning and execution. When recruiting volunteers, be sure to address the question, "What's in it for me?"

Provide some kind of job description for committees so they will know what you expect. Recruit volunteers who share the events goals, have a genuine interest in the event, are dedicated and committed to getting things done, have a healthy respect for deadlines, and the time to spend on their assignments.

Also consider recruiting college and university students who are studying for careers in tourism, public relations, art, or journalism and are looking for hands-on experience. They can provide extra help and inspiration.

Don't overlook the importance of involving the youth in your community. As tomorrow's leaders, their interest and commitment may decide the future of the festival. One event schedules various athletic teams-dressed in their uniforms-to work an entire shift. Not only does this get students involved, it shows the public they are willing to contribute to their community's event. The students have fun, too!

Combating Critics

Special events, especially downtown festivals, often draw criticism from local businesses because streets are sometimes blocked and festival-goers seldom buy anything except the arts, crafts, and foods offered at the festival.

A festival can be a promotional tool for future local business. Stores can advertise sales, then hand out festival "rain checks" for the same sale prices good for two weeks following the festival date. This is a good technique for bringing regional residents back into a downtown, which may be suffering from shopping mall competition. The festival brings them in for fun and exposes them to the possibilities of downtown; the sales bring them back as shoppers, thus confi rming those possibilities.

Recreation, Travel & Tourism Institute
Clemson University
(Reprinted with permission.)