Great events grow over time

For most nonprofits, and especially small ones, a successful event grows over several years as the organizers learn from experience and build a core audience in stages.

Our friends at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council here in Providence are carefully nurturing a small, but happily growing annual event, the Woony River Ride. This benefit bike ride took place on September 24, showcasing the environmental organization’s two proudest achievements, the 5.4 mile Woonasquatucket Greenway and Bike Path and, of course, the much-restored Woonasquatucket River itself. (The lower river is the setting for Providence’s famous WaterFire performance).

Soon after my muscles recovered from the 50 mile loop, I sat down with Executive Director Alicia Lehrer to find out how the team at WRWC measured success after completing their second annual Woony River Ride.

This was the Woony Ride’s second year and the 2011 results put this event in the “small but growing” category. The Woony Ride attracted 90 riders this year, up from just 37 in 2010. They ride brought in $18,000, half from corporate sponsorships, the rest from registrations and fundraising by riders. That’s a giant jump from the $5,000 they grossed in 2010. The team is happy with the results. (But not satisfied!)

On the other side of the ledger, the Council kept cash costs to a minimum (just $2,000) thanks to generous support from business friends who provided just about everything needed– from advertising and graphics to snacks, lunch, water and prizes. All that in-kind support means that WRWC can keep most of their future growth in gross event revenues.

What else did WRWC get right?

They relied on volunteers. WRWC’s three-person staff put in lots of time on the Ride, but without the sustained work of 10 core volunteers, including one who took on the task of mapping and marking the three ride routes (50, 23 and 10 miles), they would have done little else.

They kept it simple. While WRWC aspires to a triathalon event like one that takes place along the nearby Blackstone River, they realized that three sports would be much more than three times as difficult to organize and monitor.

They showed courage. In the face of torrential rains the day before and discouraging predictions for the event day, the Woony Ride began on schedule while other events planned that day were cancelled. Lucky or smart, the gamble paid off. It never rained.

They planned to do better. In addition to a debriefing among staff and volunteers, organizers also invited participant feedback. It’s tempting to just toss your banners in a box and move on after a big event, but WRWC’s post-ride reflection will pay off at next year’s ride.

Here are some of the lessons learned to make next year’s ride even better:

  • Riders will hear more about the major landmarks and water bodies along the route, helping to educate them about how the hills riders climb and streams they cross connect to the river they are raising money to save.
  • Organizers will corral returning riders long enough for them to hear a quick pitch for the work of the Watershed Council before they leave.
  • Sponsorship efforts will start much earlier (January instead of late spring) so that materials can be printed with every sponsor listed in plenty of time for the ride.
  • WRWC will recruit interns specifically to handle major ride assignments like sponsor recruitment, freeing up more staff time.

The intellectual and social capital that WRWC staff and volunteers accumulate from year to year makes every ride-related job easier and the rewards larger the next time around. That’s the slow but steady way to grow a reliably fruitful annual event.

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