Local nonprofits provide tips for successful community engagement events

By Alexandria Coleman

Coleman Infographic 2.png

Graphic made by Alexandria Coleman about how to be successful at community events.

Social media and innovative technologies have expanded the possibilities of community engagement. However, in-person events continue to be a pillar of nonprofit engagement strategy.

Events provide a unique opportunity to make a lasting impression, whether it is with someone who has never heard of the organization or a longtime volunteer.

These personal connections with members of the community are what nonprofit organizations have always depended on to grow and thrive.

With many newsrooms starting to invest in community engagement events, it is valuable to consider what is already being done in a field that has always depended on the support of the community.

Prioritize using metrics

As the community outreach and education coordinator for the Arizona Humane Society (AHS), Kayla Fulk attends and organizes several events each week. For Fulk and the other two members of the community engagement team at AHS, the biggest challenge is deciding which events to attend.

“You just want to go to everything,” Fulk said. “We had to come together as a team and really decide what events probably would not have as much return on investment or as many impressions as other events would.”

Fulk said that her team uses impressions, or how many people are expected to attend an event, to decide if an event is worth attending. Fulk explained there are two main ways in which AHS interacts with community members at events: a community booth and the Waggin’ Wheels Mobile Adoption vehicle.

The number of impressions involved in an event determines which tactic the team will use. For example, Fulk and her team typically bring the community booth to events that are expected to have at least 100-200 people. However, the Waggin’ Wheels Mobile Adoption vehicle, which costs around $500 to bring to an event, is reserved for events that have at least 500 expected attendees.

While these metrics are helpful in measuring each event’s return on investment, Fulk made an important distinction between the events her department handles and those that the development team organizes.

These events intend to “engage the community without revenue tied to it,” she said. The intent is to create relationships with people who want to be involved, not necessarily just those who want to donate to the cause.

Relate it to your mission 

Not all newsrooms have clearly defined missions, but perhaps they should. A mission helps community members connect with an organization, which is why it is important that events are closely aligned with the mission.

Anne Byrne, a professional-in-residence at the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, said she focused on creating this connection between the organization Summer Scholars and its events during her time as executive director.

“One growing trend is really wanting to connect the public to the mission-related activities that you are doing,” Byrne said. For Summer Scholars, which offers programs for Denver’s inner-city youth, this meant “showing the kids in action” through activities such as a field day.

Byrne encourages organizations to incorporate their mission into fundraising events as well. At Summer Scholars, for example, the organization’s annual fundraising breakfast was often held in a school cafeteria to connect the fundraiser back to the cause.

Make it mutually beneficial 

Although the ultimate goal of community engagement efforts is to support the organization, it is important to keep in mind that these efforts have to benefit the community as well.

Kendall Crever, community outreach coordinator for Local First Arizona (LFA), knows all about creating events that benefit different subsets of the local community.

LFA works to get everyone involved in the local movement, from city officials, to business owners, to individual consumers. For example, LFA frequently holds “mixers” for local business owners. These events benefit the organization, as they help to strengthen the local movement, but they also help the business owners by allowing them to connect and share ideas.

Local businesses also benefit from LFA’s consumer engagement efforts, such as the “Small Wonders” maps that feature local restaurants and shops.

“We’ve had a lot of businesses let us know that they have benefitted from being a member because we help them get their word out,” Crever said.

Crever described the organization’s community engagement efforts as a cycle. Individuals benefit from learning about great local businesses, the businesses benefit from customers supporting them, and support for LFA through business memberships and donations increases as a result.

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