Party planning 101 – How to plan the most talked about community engagement event

Today’s the day. You’ve been planning the big event for months, and it’s finally here! No, it’s not your wedding or your birthday bash, but something some may consider equally important. It’s your organization’s or community’s outreach event!! Okay, so maybe not as important as a wedding or your birthday, but an opportunity to get that REALLY, really important feedback that will help guide planning efforts for your community. Whether you’ve set up this event to give residents an opportunity to shape their municipality’s master plan, or to learn about and comment on a planning project in their community, you are providing an important forum for them to voice their opinions on community, regional, or state issues.

While you think you may have planned what will go down as the “best party (ahem–public engagement event) of the year,” we want to make sure you’ve used the best “party supplies.”

Let’s rewind to the beginning of the process and make sure you followed through with our Party Planning 101 guide.

Step 1: Form a party planning committee

You can’t throw an awesome party without having some skilled event planners on board. It is important to decide early in the party planning process who will lead the public engagement effort. This includes the project manager, outreach staff, and other staffers as needed for facilitation. Once you’ve formed your party planning committee, it’s time to move on to the party details.

Step 2: Decide on your objective for the party

There are many reasons to plan a party. Birthdays, holidays, and other milestones—like a friend moving or getting a new job—are good reasons to gather with friends and family. Similarly, you need to decide what your objective is when planning a community engagement event. You may be working on a project that involves more than one community and want to provide a forum for collaboration. Or, you may be looking to inform the public about planning issues the community is facing. Directly involving residents in the planning process is another reason you might want to schedule an engagement event, for example holding a community visioning exercise to shape an update to your community’s local master plan.

Step 3: Choose a theme

Every good party has a theme (think superheroes, Disney princesses, or Dunder Mifflin’s Casino Night, pictured above). The theme should be clearly identified early in the planning process and your guests given notice that their input will be sought. The theme will also help drive the event’s different “party games” or engagement strategies. For example, a vacant lot on Hanson Street in Rochester will be the subject of a workshop to be held in September by the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast. Members of the public will be shown renderings of the types of development that could occur at the site and will have the opportunity to comment and provide input on the use of the space.

Step 4: Make a guest list

(Photo by: Tyler Golden/NBC)

This is one of the most important parts of planning your event. You can’t just throw a party and expect people to show up without inviting your friends, family, and, in this case, community members. Now is the time to decide who your audience is for this event. You may decide to hold multiple events to ensure you reach multiple community groups, or you may choose to focus on one community group for a specific event. In deciding, it’s important to identify the populations that have a stake in your work, and the groups and places that represent these populations. Or, you may choose to advertise the event to the public at large.

 Step 5: Set the party itinerary

You’ll want to make this party one to remember, and having a well-planned party itinerary is one of the most important ways to do this. Ask yourself how you’ll engage your guests, keep them entertained, and make sure they’ll want to come to your next party. When planning the types of party games you’ll have, there are many important factors to consider, including what kind of engagement process is right for these specific guests? Should you use thick or thin engagement strategies?

Thin engagement strategies are useful for quickly grabbing an opinion from your guests or determining their attitudes. This topical approach includes story maps, posters and chalkboards, and children’s artwork. A story map is an online application that lets participants correlate images and comments with a point on a map. It can be used to map a community’s assets or problem areas. Story maps can generate a lot of energy because people love seeing their own pictures as part of an online story!

Sometimes parties are really busy and only a few people get to speak. SRPC uses sticky dots and posters to give a lot of people the chance to give their opinion—and to engage individuals who might be hesitant about speaking up in a large crowd. For example, a poster might ask a question and offer a variety of responses. Participants place a sticky dot next to the response that best matches their opinion. This is a great way to encourage even the shyest party-goer to give their opinion. Similarly, a large poster that asks an open-ended question and provides space where participants can write their answer is a great strategy for getting feedback. These posters can even be moved around a town or region to get input from different community groups.

It’s important to plan activities for all your party guests, young and old. Encouraging children to participate through drawing and other artwork can be a great way to get them engaged. For example,  children could be asked to draw their vision for the perfect park while adults work on updating a community’s green spaces.

Thick engagement strategies include activities like community visioning and forums, which often use the World Café approach. World Café, our version of musical chairs, “is a structured conversational process in which groups of people discuss a topic at several tables, with individuals switching tables periodically and getting introduced to the previous discussion.[i]” Storytelling circles are another approach that can be used on their own or at a forum or community visioning exercise. They encourage participants share opinions or insights by telling a story that relates to a specific question or prompt. Other thick engagement strategies are community surveys, focus groups, and interviews with residents who have extensive community knowledge (so-called key informant interviews).

Step 6: Choose a date, time, and location 

Choosing a date, time, and location for your party can influence who will want to attend. You wouldn’t plan a pool party in December, would you?! There are many factors to consider when deciding on date, time, and location. If you are trying to ensure that a broad range of individuals can attend, you’d probably be better off holding more than one party! You may want to consider holding one session on a weekend and one during the week. The time you select can also determine who can come. If you hold your event at noon, many individuals might not be able to attend because they are working. Scheduling more than one session is a good way to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate.

Choosing the location is also important. Some individuals might not have their own transportation, so it is important to consider locations accessible by public transportation.

Changing up locations and ensuring you don’t always hold parties at the same venue may encourage new friends to attend one of your shindigs. Alternate locations to the normal venue (i.e., town hall) could include community centers, senior centers, and grange or VFW halls. You could even hold a traveling party at a community event like a farmers market or a fair.

Step 7: Send the invitations 

Time to spread the word about your awesome party! This could include mailing out invites, placing an advertisement in the local paper (think Block Party!), or spreading the word via your local community magazines, on your municipality’s or organization’s website, on social media, through your newsletter, on electronic signage, on cork boards at local coffee shops, and through many other channels. Make sure to start spreading the word early so everyone who wants to attend can make the appropriate arrangements.

Step 8: Food and party favors

Many people go to a party just for the good food and party favors. But while they may not be feasible for every event, offering even a light snack and coffee or water can be a helpful way to encourage attendance. Party favors such as stickers or small trinkets that remind participants of the event and the great time they had can also be a good incentive to encourage their future attendance.

Step 9: Keep the party guests entertained

Once the big day arrives, it’s time to put your plans into action. You’ll want to make sure guests not only feel welcome and comfortable but also enjoy themselves. Be sure to use some of those interactive activities discussed in Step 5! Using a mix of party games (thick and thin engagement techniques) can help keep participants engaged. Having party facilitators guide and stimulate conversations is another great technique. Inviting speakers to present relevant case studies can help participants see practical examples of an issue they are asked to work on, and can help them come up with similar strategies for their community.

No matter the format you’ve selected for your party, lining the tables with large sheets of paper can be a good way to collect qualitative data by encouraging participants to jot down ideas they come up with during different phases of the party.

At the beginning of the party be sure to thank everyone for coming and make sure they get the best out of their time at the event. A good way to do the latter is by leading the group in creating a working agreement that basically lays out the ground rules for the exercises to be done. It also makes sure everybody is on the same page.  Although coming up with this agreement takes time, the benefits are great.  An agreement can include provisions such as start and end on time, allow everyone the opportunity to speak, and select a “key word” to be used when it is time to move from a lengthy discussion onto another topic, and so forth.

Make sure all attendees sign in. (How else are you supposed to send thank-you notes?) Keeping track of who attended and suggesting they share their contact information (email at a minimum) can help you reach out after the event, thank them for their participation, and keep them updated on any party follow-up, such as a survey or a request for clarification of comments made during the event.

Step 10: Send thank-you notes

Thank-you notes are a nice way to let your guests know that they’ve been heard—and that something is going to happen with their feedback and input since, after all, they volunteered time out of their busy schedule to attend your party. Use the information you collected from the sign-in to follow up.

Planning your next party  

Congratulations! If you followed all these steps we are pretty confident you held an awesome party! You will have hopefully created some great connections, and your guests will feel that your event was a productive use of their time. This will be helpful when you plan your next party!

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Most of the information in this blog post has been documented by UNH Cooperative Extension as part of its Community Engagement Academy. UNH-CE holds this training yearly. If you found this blog post useful, we encourage you to consider attending the next Academy, which goes into greater depth on these different strategies and how to execute them for your engagement events.

[i] UNH Cooperative Extension Handout

All photos from NBC’s The Office.