Six Tips for Planning a Successful Community Event

This past weekend our church, in one of Milwaukee’s urban neighborhoods, hosted a neighborhood BBQ. We served food to over 550 people, gave away sno cones, set up a “bouncy house” for the kids, played live music, and had dozens of conversations with our neighbors.

Before the event even started, our band was warming up. A woman who lives across the street came over with her face in her hands, near tears, and said to our musicians, “Was that you playing that song?” She proceeded to relate how that was one of her favorite songs; how she hadn’t been to church in a long time; how she wanted to join us for worship and make it a habit again.

The whole event was a rousing success in any number of ways, but it didn’t just happen. Here are some of the things we learned that may help you organize your own successful community event:

  1. Put the Right People in the Right Place. The two men who organized our event were a former food service Human Resources manager and an extremely well-organized graphic artist. The skills that they have used in real life work situations were naturally transferred to our event planning.
  2. Get the Word Out Early and Often. We began spreading the word in our community already a month before the event as we canvassed our neighbors. We want to know what local people feel the community needs most. As we posed the questions, we also invited them to our BBQ. In addition, each of our teachers invited all families during their pre-school meetings. In the week leading up to the event we blanketed our community with flyers at as many homes as possible.
  3. Make it Free (Or as Inexpensive as Possible). Thanks to careful budgeting, special grants we had written and received, and a suburban church that donated the time and meat to produce the BBQ, we were able to create an event that was completely free to our guests. A free event is attractive in most any community, but especially in an urban community at a time of economic distress.
  4. Plan Plenty of Things for Children. Where there are children there will certainly be adults. Kids bring parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors.
  5. Plant Your Own People in the Crowd to Create Conversations. Our congregation had volunteers who helped with food service, event coordination, music, and security. There were others whose “job” it was to show the warmth of our church by conversing, inviting to worship, and simply being friendly.
  6. Learn and Evaluate in Anticipation of Your Next Event. As people were given wrist bands (as a way of counting the number we served) we asked them how they heard about the event. Immediately after the event our two leaders were already discussing ways to improve and things they will do differently next year.

On Sunday morning our church had visitors that came as an immediate result of the event we held the day before. Members and guests alike had a glorious time at our Neighborhood BBQ. We look forward to seeing how the efforts will be blessed.

Have you ever hosted a community event? What did you learn?

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7 thoughts on “Six Tips for Planning a Successful Community Event

  1. great post–and an awesome event, based on the tweets I saw! We've tried to do something like this before with Reliant (years ago) but it wasn't nearly as successful as yours–need to take some of your lessons learned!

  2. Awesome, Tom! All church's have picnics for their own membership … but to have an "inviting" picnic is inspired.

    This past weekend teams from our church hosted water tables at the Sunset Hills Triathlon. You may remember that Sunset Hills, MO, was hit by a devastating tornado last New Year's Eve. The race wound its way right through the wreckage (and, thank God, the beginnings of recovery). This is a hurting community, and we wanted to be there in support.

    The response was phenomenal! Most often water tables are run by family and friends of runners, or by athletes who have competed before but want, this time, to give something back. Few could believe that we, who had nothing to do with the race, would man all three water tables on the route. We were making an obvious statement.

    Thankfully, the folks who who were running the race took a lot of the pre-planning out of our hands, but we still had to train our volunteers and bring snacks for our voracious teen-helpers.

    I love your tips. Here are a few more I picked up:

    a) Don't put folks who've done these events before "in charge." Instead, make them cheerleaders for your team. Often we overtax our experienced volunteers with administrative planning positions. I found them to be more effective "out in the trenches," being energetic examples for the newbies. We had one young woman who'd both run races and hosted water tables in the past. She was cheering the racers, singing songs, holding up our encouraging posters. She was contagious! Soon we were all on fire at our water table, following her infectious example.

    b) Be OBVIOUS, and put your name out there. We all wore our church t-shirts, and we had a banner at each of our water tables. In the future we've decided to make sure we have some sort of take-home gift for each runner (a bike-bottle?) with our name on it. We want to make sure that they identify us and connect our Christianity to our "good works," so that they can truly "give glory to our Father in heaven."

    c) Finally, bring the "good news" of the event back into worship. Oh, pray for it beforehand, of course. But after the event, be sure to celebrate in worship the blessings of the event. Include anecdotal witnessing stories in the sermon, and praise in the prayers. Give the volunteers a shout-out. Start praying for next year … and for new opportunities. Pray that the Spirit, sent out from your event, may dwell richly in the minds of those who attended.

    Thanks, Tom, for the opportunity to review these thoughts so soon after my experience of them!



    • What great thoughts, Pete. We were obvious…but I think we could have been even MORE obvious. We had a few T-shirts to give away; next time I would have tons of them to give away.

      It was fun on Sunday to recap some of the stories that took place on Saturday. People were actually surprised at how well it went.

  3. My question following all of this was how did you how many people to plan for? Did you have RSVPs? Or did you plan for a percentage of the number of people invited?

    • It was an educated guesstimate. We did have RSVP's from our school families, but had to estimate how many to expect from the community. In the end, we were very close, and had enough food for everyone.