Event Ownership

September 21st, 2015
contra, organizing
I've been thinking about how to handle organizing one-off events. There's a trap you can fall into when working in a collaborative way where no one feels confident enough to go ahead and commit to things because they're not sure all the other needed things are ready. I'm going to talk about contra dancing because I've done the most organizing there, but it's all pretty general.

So let's say you have a group of people who've been involved with organizing to varying degrees, and people get excited about something new. Perhaps you want to have a special dance in a different hall with non-traditional music and fancy lights or something. To have this dance you need to pull together many things, including:

  • A hall to dance in.
  • A band to play.
  • A caller to teach the dances.
  • Someone to bring and run sound.
  • Someone to bring and run lights.
  • A hall manager to be in charge day-of.
  • Volunteers to help set up and clean up.
  • Dancers!
If you're missing any of these the event's not going to work out. If you book a band and a caller but don't manage to get a hall, what do you do? Or if you everything together but not until the day before so there's no time to advertise, how does anyone know to come dance?

For many of these, things are somewhat interchangable. There are many callers, and while they all have different styles and you may have preferences, you can go ahead and confirm things even if you don't have a caller lined up yet. Similarly, we don't ask dancers to commit in advance, we just let people know about it and hope they show up.

At the other end, there are things where you can't swap around so much. Like, there aren't very many suitable affordable halls, and so you should get a hall lined up before you confirm the date. If you tell the band yes and advertise the event "Location: TBD" you might be disappointing a lot of people if the hall doesn't come through.

One thing I've seen with decentralized organizing groups is that you can get chains of emails like:

    A: I checked with the hall, they can
       do dates X, Y, or Z.
    B: I checked with the band, they can
       do dates W, X, and Z.
    C: Should I find a caller?  When for?
    D: I can hall manage any of those
       dates, but W and Z aren't ideal.
    B: Who do we want to run sound?
    [a week passes]
Now it can go a few ways:
    A: Should I go ahead and confirm
       the hall?  Is Z good for everyone?
    B: I'm not sure we still have enough
       lead time to put this on.
Or, worse:
    A: I went ahead and booked the hall
       for Z.  Can someone confirm with
       the band? (B?)
    [time passes]
    C: Did anyone confirm with the band?
    A: I think B was talking to the band?
    B: Sorry, missed this.  I'll check.
    B: It turns out they're not free on Z

If it's just a bunch of emails going around no one knows whether it's ok to go ahead and commit. Commit when you shouldn't? Everyone is mad at you. Wait for someone else to confirm that it's ok to commit? Doesn't happen and the event falls through. It sometimes works, but it can easily go wrong and leave people annoyed at each other.

Any event needs to have an "owner". Perhaps they do all the organizing, perhaps they just keep on top of what's happening, but they need to be tracking where things stand. What dates are possible? Are we ready to confirm with the hall and the band? What still needs to happen before we can start advertising? You need a person [1] to be paying attention and take responsibility for keeping things moving along [2] and getting all the pieces together.

So if you're excited about putting on a special event, is it one you can take ownership for? Or is someone else willing to take that on? Otherwise I don't think it makes sense to move forward with it.

[1] Maybe a small committee, just a couple people, but you need to have good communication.

[2] Timing is a big factor here. When someone says they're free on date X they'll probably still have it open tomorrow but maybe not in a week. So you really need to move quickly when you start working with availability requests, or else you end up repeating steps when things change before you get things confirmed, and it's a lot more work.

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