A Nonprofit’s Guide to Planning Your First Post-COVID Outdoor Event

April 26, 2021
10 minutes
A colorful Ferris wheel with the sun glowing behind it.

Calling all nonprofit event planners! Are you considering taking your upcoming events outside to keep your supporters and loved ones safe? If you're thinking of hosting an outdoor event, it may be a breath of fresh air (LOLOL we are funny), but it also may be nerve-wracking for you to plan and for your community to attend.

After a year inside, the idea of open spaces, sunshine, and nature is awesome! But being outdoors can bring with it some unique challenges for nonprofit event planners, especially when you're organizing your first in-person event after COVID.

In the Before Times, unpleasant weather elements, decor challenges, and lack of electricity were the worst-case scenarios. These days, stressors include COVID surges, hospital overflow, and the death of beloved community members. But we've got to get outside at some point, so whether it's the summer of 2021 or sometime in 2071, you can host a successful outdoor event for your nonprofit.

But first... COVID!

Precautions and vaccines and masks and distancing... no matter what we do, it may not be enough. The best way to keep people safe is to keep your distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, get a vaccine, and offer a virtual event option for those who haven't been vaccinated or who can't get vaccinated.

There's nothing embarrassing about deciding not to host an in-person event. Doesn't matter your reason; if you're worried about spreading the virus or park party permits are unavailable, you don't have to plan an outdoor event.

But if you still want to get outside and soak up the sun, here's how to get back on that event-planning horse.

Advantages of Outdoor Events for Nonprofits

We know there can be some pretty big challenges when it comes to planning outdoor events (more on that in a minute!). But before we talk shop about the ins and outs of successful outdoor event planning, let’s talk about some of the advantages of hosting an outdoor event.

Enjoy the weather and the season

Most of us love being outside when the weather is nice, especially if you live somewhere with harsher winter weather. There can be nice weather to enjoy in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Plus, with each of these times of year comes the unique beauty of the season. Fall color, anyone? The combo of the weather and the season’s natural beauty can create a terrific atmosphere and backdrop for your event.

Flexible space

One of the downsides of indoor event venues can be the quirks of the space. Weird wall angles, columns right in the line of sight of the stage, and quirky layouts can make some indoor venues difficult to work with.

Not to mention, you may not be able to enforce masking if you decide to make that a rule, and, due to distancing regulations, you may not be able to host enough people at your indoor venue  to make it worth the cost.

Fortunately, many outdoor venues are much more flexible. The open space may allow you to create a layout that actually works for your event and allows guests to feel less confined to a small space.

The natural elements

If you’ve got the creative bug, one of the most exciting parts of an outdoor event for you may be getting to work with the natural elements at the venue. Trees, colorful plants and flowers, ponds or water features, and sprawling lawns can inspire your creativity as you plan the decor and layout of the event. Plus, being out in these natural elements can add a layer of relaxation for your guests.

All of the above is doubletriplehundredfold for people who weren't able to hang out with Mother Nature for a year. Prepare for guests to be blown away by the awesomeosity of nature.

Saving on venue costs

This isn’t always a given, but it can be a benefit of an outdoor venue. Venue costs are often the biggest line item in an event planning budget for nonprofits. (Which was why virtual events often came out ahead during COVID!) Some outdoor venues—especially those owned by municipalities—can be inexpensive to rent. There may also be venues that are free to use, like local parks, but you’ll need to check to see if you still require an event permit.

And if permits are sold out/locked down/otherwise unavailable, maybe it's a sign. Stick to virtual events this round.

Tips for Planning an Outdoor Event for Your Nonprofit... if you already took all the COVID precautions.

Let’s get planning! Here are our essential tips for planning your nonprofit’s next first outdoors event.

Set your objectives for the event

From the start, knowing the agenda or program of your event can help you make decisions about the location, decor, and amenities needed for your event. For your first post-COVID in-person event, this will be especially important since virtual has become the new normal.

Know your budget

Every event needs a budget! Your budget will help you make smart decisions about many aspects of your event, including your outdoor venue. For instance, your budget may lead you to decide to go with a more all-inclusive venue that will provide things like tents, patio space, or a picnic area, as opposed to having a venue where you’ll need to rent all the gear. Not to mention... you may need more tables, space, and bigger tents to accommodate social distancing.

Think through the amenities

Events are all about the experience you create for guests. Having the right amenities in place will help your guests feel comfortable and create a top-notch experience. Of course, you'll think of the basics like restrooms, parking, and masks. Also think through venue accessibility and if there’s anything you can do to improve the accessibility of the venue for guests. For instance, if the parking lot is a bit of a hike for the venue, could you provide a shuttle for guests?

Make it easy for donors to give!

Oh, heck yes! Funraise has this covered for you: Our Events feature offers tailored ticketing, smooth, efficient check-ins, and custom questions so you can streamline your swag management. At the event, use Funraise's mobile app to collect in-person donations instantly and send donor data directly to your CRM. Your nonprofit's family of supporters stepped up during the pandemic, and they're going to be ecstatic to be able to be there for you in person—make this the easiest, most joyful giving experience of their lives.

Plan a land acknowledgment

The land that we live, work, and celebrate on here in North America was forcibly taken from Indigenous people who had already lived here for generations. Consider including a land acknowledgment in your welcome speech or printed schedule to celebrate and empower Indigenous communities. This map will show you the people to whom local lands belong and this guide to Indigenous land acknowledgment is a great place to begin your research.

Get permits and know the codes/by-laws

In some cities, you may be required to get a permit for your outdoor event. Be sure to build this into your event planning process early on in case it takes the city a while to process event permits. Once you’ve got your permit in hand, it’s your responsibility to be familiar with any codes or by-laws your city may have that impact your outdoor event. Are there environmental or noise ordinances to abide by? Special safety procedures you need to have in place? Do your research ahead of time.

Coordinate with vendors

If you have catering, sound technicians, or other vendors supporting your event, you’ll need to coordinate drop-off/pick-up times, where to park, and their electricity needs. The last thing you’ll want to have happen is being short on electrical plugs! And just as you're taking your guests' safety into consideration, care for your vendors! They've likely been out of the events loop for the duration of the pandemic, so support local vendors, #HireBlack, and don't forget to tip generously!

Comfort needs for guests

Take into account the time of year and the weather when deciding what additional accommodations to have available for guests. This could include heat lamps and blankets for cool nights, or hydration/cooling stations if you’re hosting an event in the heat. And for goodness' sake, provide a dress code! After a year of sweatpants, no one knows what to wear in public anymore—if our clothes still fit!

Bug control

We can’t talk about outdoor events without talking about bugs! The reality is you may have unwanted bugs or pests joining your event. The good news is that you can likely take some steps to control bugs at your venue. This could include something as simple as citronella candles for every table.

COVID contingency plans

With COVID ebbing and gaining ground, you can easily have people who intended to come but got nervous. Or your area may get shut down due to a surge. Have a backup plan so that people outside your local area, people nervous about COVID, or newly-locked-down-again folks can attend your event virtually.

Weather contingency plans

No matter how great the forecast looks for the day of your event, you need to have weather contingency plans. Think through the common types of inclement weather that are typical to your region and write out a backup plan for each inclement condition. This may take extra research and planning, but in the event of rain or high winds, you’ll thank your past self!

Be a good steward of your space

This includes being careful with your decor, parking, trash, food, and crowds in relation to the environment. Yeah, we talk about clean-up below, but there are other environmental concerns to consider, especially when people have been locked inside for ages: don't touch the animals, don't bring in weird moss that doesn't belong, don't stack the rocks, and definitely don't do doughnuts on the lawn.

Clean up plan

Being a good steward of the outdoors includes making every effort to remove trash, decor, and other remnants from your event. You may want to have clearly marked recycling and compost bins for guests to use to aid in this effort. You’ll also want to have a plan for post-event clean-up supported by staff and volunteers.

As with any nonprofit event, you’ll put a lot of time and resources into planning the best event possible. Getting back into the swing of event planning won't be easy, but we're gonna venture a guess that if you keep it safe, this might be one of your most successful events ever! Come rain or shine, with your planning efforts you can ensure that guests have a memorable experience at your nonprofit’s next event.

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