Community Organizing: How to Run Great Events
Typically the main part of communities is the events put on by the organization. This is the guide to running great events that your attendees, volunteers, and sponsors will love.
May 14, 2019
Starting to run events is hard, you don’t know what to expect or what to plan for. Fortunately after 6+ years of running community events I can help you know what to do and what problems to avoid. I’ll discuss a few different event types:
- Meetups that make feature speakers, panels, or networking
- Weekend coding workshops
- Intro to Coding Lessons
Managing expectations will be a recurring theme in my community organizing series because the more you do this well, the fewer future problems or complaints you’ll have.
Wherever you list information/how to register for your events - keep the listing updated with dates, venue changes, arrival instructions, etc. Call out any requirements for attendees in large bold print - do they need to bring a laptop? Does their lap need wifi/admin download permissions/a usb port(hello new Macbooks)? Do they need to complete prerequisites for a workshop? DO THEY NEED TO BRING A LAPTOP? <- seriously, for our kids coding workshops sometimes parents STILL miss the laptop requirement even when in large bold print.
Managing expectations is ESPECIALLY crucial in hosting events for people new to coding/tech. For kids coding workshops we put everything we can think of in the FAQs page to cut down on email questions we get from parents and update it as new repeat questions come up. For weekend coding workshops, we always start with an “install party” Friday night. Attendees don’t realize dev environment setup is a huge part of coding, so we pay special attention to make that experience a good one so they can start REALLY coding first thing Saturday morning. This also allows extra time to trouble shoot weird issues across environments or occasionally deal with having to get Xcode installed. 😭
Most tech companies are happy to host meetup events in their communal spaces for free, so start your search here. They’re likely to be equipped with wifi and projectors as well, covering you for both speakers with presentations and workshops where internet is required.
Co-working spaces will be your next best bet, though some will charge a fee if you’re not currently renting a office or desk from them.
Schedule your venue a month in advance if possible, and on your event page be sure to list parking instructions, which door to enter through, and any guides for inside the building to get to where your meeting is hosted.
Confirm again with the venue a few days before your event(it may have fallen on their radar), and make sure you have the contact information for the person who will be “hosting”. You’ll look like a jackass if people show up for your event and you’re unable to get into the venue because the host forgot or had a calendar snafu.
People love to linger and network after events - but PLEASE keep in mind that your hosts are expecting to leave at the time your event is scheduled to end. Be a good guest and encourage attendees to continue conversations outside, or at a nearby bar or cafe.
If you are running a longer event like a weekend workshop or hackathon make sure you have the basics covered:
- How to get to the bathrooms
- Bathrooms are fully stocked with toilet-paper(true story - a DjangoGirls event was at a venue that hadn’t restocked the bathroom that week and there was no TP)
- You have a place for attendees that have needs like a nursing room or a prayer room
- You have a way to troubleshoot router/wifi issues or contact info for a person that does
Also as you look at venues, be sure to ask about their food/drink policies. Venues that are more formal event spaces may have their own vendors, and this typically means spending more $$$ on your part as this is a huge revenue-generator for event spaces.
If providing food, it’s considerate to check with attendees(and volunteers) in regards to their dietary options - this information is best to collect during registration so people don’t forget to respond to an email requesting information after the fact.
A safe list to start with is
- allergy(please specify)
- other (please specify)
If you plan on serving alcohol at an event, have options for those who don’t drink alcohol as well. Mocktails are a good option and help non-drinkers avoid “OMG WHY AREN’T YOU DRINKING” questions while we work on being more inclusive and less shaming as an industry in the meantime. ;) We always have a mocktail on the menu for our Coding & Cocktails events, and sometimes they ended up being more popular than the drinks containing alcohol because our bartender is a brilliant mixonista.
If you are dealing with catering companies/food delivery, the same venue-checking rules apply. Make sure to contact them the week of your event to ensure everything is good to go.
If you have volunteers/mentors/speakers working at your event, make sure to include them in the food headcount, and have them sneak away from their duties to get food before the attendees. That way they can eat and get back to their responsibilities quickly without having to wait in line.
Consistency is Key
The most important thing I can stress to new organizers is consistency is key. If you can have a regularly scheduled event and have it on the calendar more than a month in advance, your attendance will go up.
Your events WILL conflict with other events
This is a big stressor for first-time organizers trying to find a time to hold their events. There simply aren’t enough days of the week to avoid conflicting with every possible tech or networking event being held, ESPECIALLY in larger cities. Shoot for days where there’s less likely to be attendance cross over (like a PHP event and a .NET event on the same night will have a different attendee base), but also explore occasionally hosting dual-meetups with other groups. This can keep content fresh and give attendees a chance to explore tech outside their work stack.
Know About the 40% Rule
When hosting a free event it’s safe to assume only 40% of registered attendees will actually show. If you’re limited on venue space, you’re safe to over”sell” tickets by at least 20% due to high no-show rates for free events.
Don’t be discouraged by your registered:actually-attended ratio - it happens to all organizers, I promise!
Arrival + Setup
Always plan on arriving at the venue at least an hour before starting. Your attendees will be early and your speakers/volunteers will be late. Give yourself plenty of time to setup the space and have check-in/registration ready. If you’re rearranging the venue, make sure to take a photo so you can reset it to it’s original state.
Panels are an easy way to get speakers - there’s little work/prep involved and the attendees still get a lot of knowledge from the event. We give a guide to our panel speakers to help the panel go smooth and first-timers know what to expect.
Thanks for agreeing to be on a panel for Kansas City Women in Technology, we’re excited to have your contributions! Panels are a great way to organically provide an audience with a lot of great information without having to put together a strict presentation. Kansas City Women in Technology is a non-profit aimed at growing the number of women in technology careers in Kansas City. Our TechTalk audiences are commonly filled with women looking to enter the technology industry and are seeking learning and networking opportunities, women already in the industry seeking solidarity, and educators looking for ways to bring technology learning to their classrooms. Your Panel Information: Panel Date/time: April 18th from 6-8pm Arrival Time: 5:30pm Panel Location: VML 250 Richards Road | Kansas City, MO 64116 Parking Instructions: Please park in the parking spaces outside of the building. Point of Contact + number: Ventura Rangel xxx-xxx-xxxx Other Panelists: - Heather Physioc - Leah Sand - Swanee Griffin - Kelly Stanze - Flavia Santibanez Schedule: 5:30 pm - 6:00 pm - KCWiT Leadership and Panelists arrive 6:00 pm - 6:20 pm - Guests Arrive 6:20 pm - 6:30 pm - Welcome 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm - Panel 7:30 pm - 8:00 pm - Wrapping up/Networking Panel Topic: What is SEO? Panel Questions (these may not all be asked) 1. Introductions - Name, Where you work, position 2. How did you find your path in SEO? 3. What does your day to day look like; what all goes into this role? 4. What is the most difficult part of SEO for you? 5. What is your favorite part? 6. Words of advice to those interested in learning more about SEO? KCWiT Panelist Tips: - Have your “elevator pitch” ready to go. Most panels start with panelists introducing themselves by sharing their origin story. I.E. why are you here? - Keep your answers brief and on topic. It can be easy to go on tangents, imagine that you’re answering the question in a tweet. - Feel free to interact with other panelists and refer to their comments, it creates a lively and organic discussion. - Explain the acronyms you use. “CMS” may be a common term for experienced technologists, but audience members may not know the lingo. - Think in analogies. Many of our audience members come to learn, but may not understand everything on a higher technical level. Analogies can help the audience mentally connect the pieces better. - Feel free to share personal stories of triumph AND failure, they will help the audience relate to you and feel less intimidated by technology. - When answering audience questions, think about the question and consider what will benefit the asker the most. IE. tangible information vs. a more philosophical answer.
Make things easy and enjoyable for your speakers. Make sure they have clear arrival instructions, travel, hotel and venue information, and expectations around their talk(s) time, Q&A policy, etc.
Be prepared for flake speakers. It’s a shit move you wouldn’t expect from a speaker, but I know plenty of meetup organizers that have had their speaker bail last minute sometimes without even giving notice. Conferences deal with this a bit more, especially due to travel issues - I was at a conference in Austin this spring where a lightning storm shut down the airport and THREE speakers were completely unable to get into Austin.
If you have volunteers helping at your event, please don’t neglect them! Make sure they are included in information emails about parking, venue, schedules, timetables, etc. Be thoughtful in assigning duties and ensure volunteers know what they should be doing instead of standing idly about trying to think of ways to be helpful.
It’s also a good idea for larger events to have “crisis” volunteers - people to help solve problems on the fly that you couldn’t predict or plan for.
Make an effort. Seriously.
For attracting more diverse attendees to your events, the number 1 suggestion I always give is to reach out to groups focused on minority development. For instance when tech conferences reach out to local women in tech groups to offer discount tickets or to be a part of CoC committees, etc, diversity attendance skyrockets. Underrepresented people KNOW they’re a minority and dread “the look” they get when walking into a white-male dominated space, by actively drawing minority attendees from groups they feel comfortable in you’ll help them feel less isolated.
Working with local groups is a great and easy strategy I’m disappointed to see so few conferences trying to reach out because the results really are fantastic. Additionally, having people of diverse, underrepresented backgrounds on your organizing team and speaking at your events can help drive diverse attendance.
For speakers, do some research and outreach - there are plenty of resources for finding diverse speakers.
For localized meetup panels we’ve heavily utilized Linked In to find speakers who may not currently be in our attendee base but have great insights to share.
Understanding Diversity & Inclusion
I feel like a lot of organizers WANT to do better, but don’t know how and are terrified to ask due to the backlash they see on twitter when someone DOES ask. The issue is that URM(under-represented minorities) are so tired of having to validate their existence or defend themselves when speaking about issues they face and being told “they’re being sensitive” or that something isn’t really a problem. It’s an immense amount of emotional labor to explain why diversity and inclusion matters in addition to years of defending your existence in the tech industry, which is why you often see “do the research” in response to even well-intended questions.
Here are a few resources:
- Geek Feminism Wiki
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- An Intro to Diversity and Inclusion in Business: Resources for HR, Hiring, Managers, Founders, and Allies
- 8 Areas to Work on If You Want to Create Inclusive Events
It would also help to get to know URMs personally, and read the situation to see if they’re interested in helping you learn more.
For our women in tech events, we pay attention to the vibe because it matters. I HATE walking into a quiet, sterile room, and I’m the only woman meaning I have 20+ dudes rubbernecking to awkwardly stare at me. It’s unpleasant.
For our coding workshops, we have a bumpin’ themed playlist for when attendees walk in. It’s easier to feel comfortable starting conversations when there’s background noise and it makes for a fun vibe. With our Coding & Cupcakes classes, the playlists are full of Disney hits and teen pop like Carly Rae Jepsen. SO CALL ME MAYBE. ;)
We also put out fun decor that includes wifi sign-in instructions and event hashtags.
Shoutout to SecKC for creating a fabulous “hacker vibe” at their events with lights music which is very apropes.
For longer events like weekend coding workshops we make sure to schedule breaks & activities for attendees. For instance at DjangoGirls and ngGirls events we’ve brought in rescue dogs and yoga instructors to give attendees a chance to step away from their laptops.
Code of Conduct
The days are past for events to run without a code of conduct. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need a policy telling people how to not act like jerks but we don’t live in a perfect world, and people’s creativity in ways to be asshats never ceases to amaze me. We once had a woman go off in our Slack channel posting a 3 page rant because we politely asked her not to use the word “retard” in a derogatory context. 🤷♀
Great CoC resources here:
- CODES OF CONDUCT 101 + FAQ by Ashe Dryden
- The CoC committee is here for you - great video on CoCs by Sasha Romijn
- The missing stair(A MUST READ FOR ANY ORGANIZER)
When putting together your CoC:
- List ways to report issues(email, phone, slack, etc)
- Have an impartial committee(not necessarily the event organizers)
- Make sure attendees feel safe reporting issues, even in situations where they’re reporting issues involving organizers/sponsors/volunteers
Our Kansas City Women in Technology CoC is here. I like to call out a little blurb we have to safeguard our events against problematic people from other communities.
While this code of conduct applies to Kansas City Women in Technology events and spaces, if you are being harassed by a community member outside our community, we still want to know about it. We will take all good-faith reports of harassment by community members seriously. This includes harassment outside our spaces and harassment that took place at any point in time. Kansas City Women in Technology reserves the right to refuse an individual’s attendance to KCWiT events or spaces based on the individuals previous behavior at our events or other non-KCWiT events and spaces and behavior towards people who are not a part of Kansas City Women in Technology.
Because CoC violations sometimes have to look at intent, we send an email information an individual of the violations and ask for their explanation if there was a misunderstanding (Humans aren’t always the best at communicating, misunderstandings happen). This has the benefit of clearly pointing out inappropriate behavior, an opportunity for the individual to reflect on how their words/actions affect others, and to offer them a chance to rejoin the community if they make amends.
A lot of event management platforms also handle the marketing for events - Meetup.com and Eventbrite being prime examples. They send emails recommending events based on users’ flagged interests and can attract the type of audience seeking events like yours.
Twitter, Linked In, Local Conferences & Hackathons, Code/technical schools & bootcamps are all places with attendees that would love to hear about your events.
One of the biggest oversights organizers make is not booking a photographer. Good shots of your event are worth their weight in promo-gold, and you’ll even attract more speakers if they know you have a good photographer there to capture them in action. (Vain but true, I know)
Photo from DjangoGirls 2017 captured by our paid photographer:
It can be an added bonus to have fun photobooth setups(think about the ticket sales for next year!)
When working with sponsors, make sure both parties are clear about the terms of the agreement and understand the value sponsors are getting from you - often exposure to developers who are looking or may be looking in the future for employment.
When possible, ask sponsors for a “blurb” your team can read. One time we had a sponsor ramble on for so long, people thought that was the presentation for the evening and we were mortified and also powerless to stop it because of the room setup.
If you don’t have a legal entity/bank account, it’s usually easiest to get sponsors to write checks direct to vendors, or just have them show up with food/etc in hand.
I would advise avoiding setting up a legal entity and never touching money to save yourself drama, especially if just organizing an evening meetup, but for larger events/organizations this simply isn’t feasible.
One of the best things you can do after your events is hold a retrospective with everyone involved. Make sure to include volunteers and mentors in the retros. Set aside time and do it immediately after the event, or you’ll forget things and conversation will be stifled. Ask what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you can do better next time. Don’t rely on surveys which attendees may or may not fill out, our organization has always gotten the most tangible and most operable feedback from holding these retrospectives.
I love this less obvious checklist by Sasha.
There’s a lot of work that goes into putting on great events, and there’s always room for improvement. I hope this is a good starting guide for you team and gives you an idea of how to model, plan for, and execute events for your community.