Reaping the long-term benefits of special events -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Reaping the long-term benefits of special events

By Ernesto Castro

Habitat for Humanity is well known for its successful special events that bring together thousands of volunteers worldwide to build houses with those in need. We enjoy participating in these events and are proud of their results. But have our national programs adequately reaped the long-term benefits of these events?

Since special events are merely tools to help us reach our mission, they should set the stage for the local or national organization to reach more people in need.

From the national program perspective, there needs to be a clear distinction between the short- and long-term goals of the event—goals related to the event itself are short-term goals, while long-term goals focus on the event’s impact on the future development and growth of the organization. At Habitat, we tend to be very successful in reaching the short-term objectives. We have to work harder at capitalizing on the long-term objectives—we need to have better follow-up mechanisms in place to cultivate the contacts and relationships created through the event.

If a special event is a “tool” to help achieve higher goals, how can we guarantee long-term benefits to the national program implementing the special event? This is not an easy question and there is no single answer. However, through my involvement with Habitat special events over the past few years, I would like to offer a few suggestions about what NOs can do to leverage the impact of the special event for the organization’s future growth and development.

A special event can be implemented by the National Organization (NO) with or without HFHI support. Depending on the magnitude and type of event, and its expected results, change is required at all levels of the NO.

1. Restructuring the NO: Three critical areas that should be considered are

  • Resource Development and Communication: Special events have the capacity to generate new contacts, and attract new donors and volunteers. If a long-term objective of the special event is to increase the organization’s resource development (RD) capacity, new staff should be hired, for example, for gifts-in-kind, writing and following up on proposals, and generating reports for the donors in coordination with the finance department. Since communications is vital to RD activities, the NO needs to hire a person to focus on messaging.
  • Construction: If the expected result of the event is to increase the organization’s construction capacity, and the NO is actively participating in house construction, the construction management staff should be increased in numbers and technical expertise. It is critical that house plans, budgets, bills of materials, etc., are available in all the regions in which the NO is building. This will make it easier to scale up the construction activities after the event. If the NO is building houses through partnerships, it is important to factor in enough construction staff in the memorandum of understanding with the partner.
  • Finance: The finance team is impacted by any special event in one way or the other. More staff is needed to track down the expenses, generate internal or external reports or inventory control, for instance. The finance team plays a key role in reporting, controlling and managing the funds properly, which is key to keeping our credibility with the donors.

2. Mental preparedness of staff: Every event is unique.
If we want to be successful in the long run, we have to think differently even before we start planning. The NO staff should be open to new ways of doing things, open to receiving new staff with special skills and working with new people from different cultures with different perspectives. Because of that, we should cherish values such as honesty, tolerance, openness, and being willing to communicate to face issues beyond our own expertise. If staff is not adequately prepared, the short-term goals of the event will be more difficult to achieve and, as a result, the long-term goals will be unreachable.

3. Home partner preparedness:

  • Community Development team: It is critical that the NO set up an experienced and flexible team that is able to work with the home partners. During special events, Habitat deals with large groups of families, which could be more difficult than the traditional approach of dealing with individual families. Flexibility is important because staff would have to adapt the training program taking into account the income activities of the partner families, so that most of the families can attend important meetings and training sessions. Past experience has showed that Habitat staff participating in sweat equity activities of the home partners facilitates communication and follow-up on the issues that might arise during the process. At the same time, people working on the project have a first-hand source of information.
  • Training program: Special events require adjustments in the regular training program for the home partners. Besides the traditional training on HFH principles or financial literacy, other topics should be considered. For example, if the expected result of the event is the construction of a new community; special attention should be given to the new relationships and interactions that will be created. Community responsibilities will arise such as, garbage collection, water supply and maintenance of amenity buildings. All these activities have to be coordinated with the home partners who will be the final users and recipients, but HFH has an important role facilitating the process.
  • Sweat equity program: It is important to identify the time frame, activities to be done before, during and after the event and the availability of the families to accomplish the tasks that are part of the program. A simple and efficient tracking system will facilitate follow-up on the families by identifying those who can set the pace and be an example for those who are behind the schedule. If we are working with families from rural areas we have to consider the crop seasons, festivals, holidays that may affect the performance of our home partners.
  • Back-up plans: It is quite normal for some families to drop out at the last minute. The NO should be able to have a ready alternative and to train them on time, adjusting the training program with activities during and after the event.

4. Measuring success: The parameters used to measure success should be adjusted.
In this context, the “cost of the event” is a common issue. The cost of the event should be viewed from the perspective of expected results, not as a simple expenditure—if we want to increase our capacity, we have to invest proportionally. Sometimes, we cannot see the results immediately. National leaders should be trained in advance so that they can transmit this training to key local staff in order to be prepared for the planning, implementation and follow-up phases. Planning should be ambitious and realistic. The local conditions of the NO, as well as its potential has to be taken into account so that we can capitalize on the event.

Any kind of project will have a higher cost if compared to regular programs. A project is something temporary, with specific needs and characteristics, specific deadlines and deliverables that cannot be compared with the “normal way of doing things.” That is why new procedures, staff and documentation is needed. A new Public Relations campaign, for instance, will have impacts that we cannot measure at the moment, but if it is well implemented we will see the result and positive impact on the long term. A special event is challenging from the logistics and communication perspective (both could represent up to 45 percent of the cost) which is not common in most of Habitat’s programs, at the same time, part of the success of the long term goals depend on these two areas.

5. Governance:

A special event requires additional contacts, additional efforts and commitments, and more flexibility for follow up. If we want to reach more people in need, this is an opportunity to advocate for them, communicating the message to different sectors and bringing fresh resources (contacts, funds, companies) to achieve our mission.

The roles and responsibilities of every party involved in a special project should be clearly spelt out, and each party should be accountable for its actions. Always keep focused and consider the event as a tool to achieve Habitat’s mission.

A special event “steals” the comfort zone in which we are used to working. It will come with changes, new opportunities and also responsibilities. But if we prepare adequately, our programs will reap the benefits many times over.

Ernesto Castro is working for the JCWP ’08 and has participated in two previous JCWPs (Mexico and India), the Tsunami Response Project in Thailand and Disaster Response initiatives in the LA/C Area Office.