How to Plan a Successful Community Event


Different events require different expertise to plan and execute. A wedding planner and a corporate event planner will tell you that while there may be some fundamental truths to event planning that span various industries, these endeavors couldn’t be more unique. Throughout my career in public relations and strategic communications, my event planning expertise most often aligns with corporate functions, business PR, fundraising events, and community events. I can say with certainty that planning a community event, often at low or no cost, run entirely by volunteers, is a whole other animal. And quite frankly it can be a “beast” if there isn’t a point person who can provide leadership, organization, and confident expertise.

This spring marks my third year planning Upper Allen Mechanicsburg Baseball Association’s Opening Day event. It’s the all-American blend of family and neighbors, youth sports, and local businesses coming together for the long-awaited marking that spring is around the corner – it’s the opening of baseball season! This particular event attracts 500+ youth baseball players, their families, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and vendors. And come rain or shine (and we’ve had plenty of both) it’s a party!

I stepped into this role in 2021, the first year the event was held after the pandemic. The organization needed a new Opening Day and Community Events Coordinator. With two sons (and a coaching husband) involved in the league and a background in Public Relations and event planning, I was “nominated” for this role – and happy to accept! I couldn’t have anticipated the level of commitment and coordination this would require. I don’t think you ever can when it comes to community volunteer roles. But I can say that it has become a passion project and labor of pure love that I’m happy to take on to support the local youth baseball community that continues to serve our family well.

Now coming up on my third season of planning an ever-growing and constantly evolving event, I’ve learned where time and effort are best spent and where certain things need to be pruned in order to allow new and better initiatives to bloom. Keep reading for my tried and true advice for planning a large-scale community event, working with other volunteers, and finding opportunities for efficiencies.

Reach out earlier than you think is necessary.

Opening day takes place about mid-April each year. The first year I stepped into this role, I had mere weeks to plan the event so reaching out early wasn’t an option. I was already making up for lost time! The following year, I was grateful to have a date set in January and started reaching out to vendors and sponsors about 8 weeks in advance. In doing so, I learned that many food trucks were already booked for the season! Businesses who often take a booth or contribute door prizes had to check to see if they could “squeeze” it into their schedule. Somehow I was still behind. So this year, I issued a save-the-date communication as soon as we had a date to save. I emailed everyone on my list who was involved with previous events in any capacity as soon as the new year hit. Though this was more than 3 months in advance of Opening Day, I was amazed by the number of responses I received confirming participation. People were appreciative to have the date early. I learned that it’s never an inconvenience to share a save-the-date as soon as you have the information. People do just that! They put the date on their calendar and then you have the benefit of being the first “ask” when inevitably other obligations compete with your own.

Be clear and concise with communications.

If my career has taught me anything, it’s that clear and concise communication can be the difference between whether someone responds favorably to your requests, if at all. Make it easy to say yes to whatever you’re asking of someone! For Opening Day, I keep emails short and to the point. They call out important details in bold or red font and are very clear about the desired action or outcome. Whether I’m asking someone for a donation, to participate as a vendor, or to volunteer, I want to honor their time and resources by being very organized in my communications. As the event approaches, I issue a comprehensive outline of everything these individuals need to know about the event so that they feel prepared to fulfill whatever it is they signed up for. This go-to guide gets refined each year, but the good news is that I have templates I can pull from! I save and organize every previous year’s communication so I can quickly refer to emails that make this year’s communications quick and seamless. You know the phrase…why reinvent the wheel? I worked hard to develop the “wheel” I have, and with each year, I learn how to turn it faster and better.

Develop an organizational system that works for you.

Are you a spreadsheet geek? A Google Doc guru? Or do you prefer something else entirely? If you’re the one leading the charge, you get to choose the organizational system that works best for you. When I first took over the role of Opening Day Coordinator, I inherited some systems that didn’t quite jive with the way my mind organizes things. It felt clunky and messy, so I ditched it. I created new Google spreadsheets with carefully organized and archived tabs that I could “own” and share with others as needed. This allows me to keep everything tracked in real-time. And there is a LOT to track. What food trucks and vendors are participating, are they donating an item, where should they set up their booth space, who has secured door prize donations and were they picked up, who is able to volunteer, for how long, and where do they wish to help? Instead of these questions circling my head for weeks on end, I keep everything tracked in a spreadsheet that can be shared for collaboration as other people get involved. I find great peace of mind in being able to file all of these important details in one place and easily share these details as I get asked in a multitude of ways, “What’s going on!?”

Keep your group of decision-makers small.

If you have ever been involved in a volunteer-run event, you have likely seen how decision-making can be weighted down when too many people are involved in the process. You can still honor everyone’s input while streamlining who gets to make the final decision in certain areas. I’m grateful that the youth baseball organization that hosts this event trusts me with a great deal of responsibility to make decisions as I see fit. I know that this trust first had to be earned, and now I feel like we’re hitting our stride. When I put together an email to go out to vendors or volunteers, I don’t have someone who needs to first approve it. I can create graphics and social media posts using my skills and expertise, without someone micromanaging these efforts. Should a detail need to be changed or corrected, we do so as the need arises rather than allowing this to slow down progress. We’re all volunteers with other obligations on our plate. So the more we can move swiftly within our respective roles, the more we can do overall. For big decisions, such as the budget for the event or something that stands to impact the overall programming, I certainly take these to others in leadership. But for the most part, we implement what worked well in previous years and this has greatly helped to make this massive lift of volunteer coordination (mostly) possible!

Involve investors and donors

When encouraging people to contribute money to your event, give them the chance to get involved in planning and preparation. This could include inviting them to meetings beforehand or letting them come early to see the event getting set up. As this guide from Caitlin Brodie explains, getting investors/donors involved can help you build and nurture relationships with these people.

Not all donors and investors will want to get hands-on. Another way of treating them could be to give them VIP privileges such as discounts on food or drinks or special access. It depends very much on the event as to what privileges you can come up with. Such privileges could encourage investors and donors to contribute money to future events.

Never be afraid to ask…for anything!

If you don’t ask the answer will always be no. I’ve learned to be confident and direct in my soliciting businesses for donations and participation. Most importantly, I make it clear what I think they stand to gain from their generosity. And I always, always use kindness and professionalism when communicating with anyone regarding this event. After all, it reflects upon the organization as a whole. Sometimes a request will be met with a no, but more often than not, people simply want to be asked. The same is true for volunteers. I have learned when and where to loop additional people in to help where I have neither the time nor expertise. This brings me to…

Leverage your strengths and find others to fill the gaps.

When you’re planning a large-scale community event and are donating your time and talents, it’s so important to know yourself. What do you enjoy doing most? What are you best equipped to do? What is your (realistic) bandwidth for getting all these tasks done? I’ve learned that I can do a lot on my own, and I often prefer this method (always have, always will), but there are certainly instances where I need to call upon my village to help out. Mostly, I need extra hands on Opening Day to help with various tasks at the event. I can’t be in two places at once and on the day of the event, I need to be in about 10 places! Volunteers are essential to running the welcome table, getting messages to key people, helping to load and unload a myriad of items, and helping with so many little things that are impossible to anticipate. I can plan for a perfect event, but something like a freak snowstorm in April can turn it all on its head in an instant. I know this is a gap I cannot fill alone, so I line up at least a dozen volunteers to help me during the event.

Challenge status quo.

Just because it’s something the organization has always done, doesn’t mean it still fits the mission or vision of the event today. Over the years, I’ve helped identify quite a few things that need to be pruned from the Opening Day Coordinator’s to-do list. And I’ve found about two times the amount of things that should be added to this list to ensure a smooth event with the best possible outcome for our guests. I’ve streamlined the sponsor signage, found additional ways to provide marketing benefits to our vendors and donors, and enhanced the Opening Day program book to add value in this area too. I’ve focused on fewer, but more substantial door prizes so kids weren’t standing forever on the field. And we secured the talent of a local professional sports announcer to keep the program running efficiently – this was such a smart move! I hope the sum of all of these little tweaks and enhancements over the years will serve whoever takes on this role in the future well, too.

Be positive, grateful, and organized.

Let’s be very clear. A community event of this scale is never the success of one person. It’s hundreds of helping hands behind the scene doing months of planning, errand running, bag stuffing, box hauling, and so much more. And while the Opening Day event is a wonderful kick-off to the season, it’s just the beginning of what makes our youth baseball program great. Field upkeep, uniforms, coach and player development, and so much more are the real “meat” on the bones of the organization. I’m happy to merely add a little “fluff” and fun to what I hope will be a wonderful memory for the players and their families.

Stay focused on your “Why.”

Most importantly, especially when it can feel like these volunteer efforts require more time than your actual day job, remember why you’re doing it. You said yes for a reason! For me, it’s truly the joy of the youth players on Opening Day that makes it all worth it. Rain or shine, they come out to proudly parade around in their uniforms, to feel connected to the community as they take the field with their team for the first time, and to run through the balloon arches with so much enthusiasm as their name is called. For many, this will be as close as they get to feeling like a “major leaguer” and I’m so happy to be a part of an organization that cares deeply about making this moment possible.

Have you helped to plan a community event? What advice resonates with your experience, and what might you add to this list? Let’s hear it!