Pagan or alternative festivals can be fun. They can also fade away, just like other non-profit, volunteer-run group events. Having been involved in many organizations and festivals, here are suggestions for large pagan events. Included are tips for festival organization, volunteer issues, safety, and non-profit groups.
While not every group or event will want or need to use these tips, they are offered in the hope that they can help those putting on pagan festivals. (And yes- I’ve actually experienced the cautionary examples used!)
My experience: I wrote most of this in August 2009 after working about 8 years in non-Pagan events (Scouting, and Renaissance Faires), and then 4 years at the Celtic Midsummer Faerie Festival Sacramento Grove Of The Oak (OBOD) in Fair Oaks, California. I then gained an additional 7 years experience working as staff and presenting at the OBOD East Coast Gathering in Pennsylvania, and 3 years in event planning, staffing, and presenting with the OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering in Louisiana. (For over 20 years of experience.)
I discovered much of this early article is still relevant, adding the ‘Starting a Festival’ section and a few other items in February 2020.
STARTING A FESTIVAL
- Determine your purpose. When designing a new event be sure you have real knowledge and experience with the premise. If you are new to a tradition, have never worked at other events, or try to include other traditions to boost your numbers – or combinations of inexperience- your event is likely to fail. Starting off small and simple will help.
- Give yourself startup time. Holding a new event with only a few months preparation will not work. You could arrange a planning and staff retreat first as part of startup for the festival.
- Get help. Organizing the event by yourself is possible if you already have the knowledge to do all the programing and logistical details, and copious spare time. But your family and life will be happier if you have others, or a local cohesive group helping. Put out the word – on social media; contact experienced festival organizers, staff, and presenters; and look to your tradition’s central and local offices or resources.
- Choose the right location. If you are aiming beyond your immediate geographical area carefully consider your attendee travel constraints. Many people (especially those flying out of large metropolitan areas) will not even consider attending if your site is more than about 2 hours from the local airport. (This makes sense if they have to spend a significant part of a long weekend just getting to your site.) Some lodging and basic area services -gas, food, alternative lodging, medical care- will make people at ease and make things run more smoothly.
- Keep the event simple. You may have heard about events that start well and last for decades. One way to do this is by making it a camping event where attendees provide their own lodging (tent or nearby hotel) and their own food. Cooking food for a medium to large group will take up all of your staff time, and this situation will be worsened if you are also providing lodging. So that children’s or church camp may look attractive, but you will spend a huge chunk of your time staffing and running a ‘hotel’. Consider catering and lodging options.
- Set clear event rules. Often the hosting group or tradition will have policies that should be reflected in event rules – such as no physical violence, no unwelcome physical contact, no verbal abuse, etc. It’s good to think ahead even if your event starts out small. Many a festival has come to have problems with groups that- for example demand their own area, with their own food, and supposedly prohibited drug use- gets more out of hand with each year. Enforcement is also key- attendees and volunteers will drop away if things get out of control.
- Be clear about the continuing purpose of the festival. Organizers may find that the actual festival purpose changes over time. It’s best to clearly incorporate these changes for a more focused event. (Some groups choose a theme for each year, as a means of keeping a festival fresh and bringing in diverse groups/participants.) If your festival is open to the public or involves multiple groups it might be wise to agree about what will not be part of the event. (Examples include restricting or substituting the use of incense in rituals to protect allergic individuals, requiring family-friendly attire, excluding disruptive individuals, etc.)
- Aggressively solicit and act on suggestions from volunteers and attendees. Solicit opinions at the event, in emails, in mailings, surveys, in meetings, and with phone calls. Don’t just have one meeting to discuss the previous event- not everyone will be able to make it to a meeting. Act on these opinions, suggestions, and constructive criticism. (A non-changing event is a dying event.)
- Rotate event directors and organizers. The idea of rotating positions in organizations is a good one; that way there is always someone with past experience and new people being trained. Some might think having a set rotation in positions is bureaucratic; having a cycling group of people teaching each other skills is good for the organization and event over time. (This is really just an extension of the teaching programs that many Pagan groups have.)
- Don’t assume critical activities such as outreach, publicity, ordering, and the like are being done. Set up a system so that copies of critical emails, letters, orders, etc. gets to other directors or team members so more than one person is in the loop. All of this can be organized on a restricted area on a website, for instance. Come up with an easy system to provide written donation receipts (now required my law if you want to take donations on your taxes).
- Start work on the festival early! It’s hard to wrangle volunteers together for an event. But if your group only has a couple of months to get a festival organized and promoted you are likely to have real problems. Big established events often have the dates and location for their next year’s event up on their websites 10-11 months in advance. Having this sort of basic info out for the public- say 4-6 months in advance- can forestall questions like ‘is there an event this year?’, and help line up your venue, volunteers, and vendors.
- Actively publicize the event. Word of mouth often doesn’t work in small groups, much less for a festival or event. Broadcast emails only do so much. Put out complete, accurate information in as many different methods as possible. Most newspapers will take event print and online ads for free. Likewise radio and TV stations. Use webpages, flyers, TV, radio, newspapers, send a rep to pitch your festival to other groups, letters, email, and whatever else will work in your area.
- Consider charging an attendance fee to at least cover facility rental. Do not let the financial health of the entire festival ride on vendors, who may not even break even if turnout is low. (Then they won’t return in following years.) Likewise, volunteers that pay out of their pocket for the event won’t return for many future events. If someone can’t pay a minimal fee to go to attend an event, they could contribute by volunteering, donating food for a food closet, etc. (People feel more connected with an event if they are asked to contribute in some way to it.) You can admit children free to cut down on cost to families, or cut down on expensive music acts or presenters. If organizers don’t want to charge an attendance fee, other methods of paying for costs- including other fund raising events or donations- can be used. Covering costs out of your own pocket, and not adjusting fees with increasing costs is unwise. Be sure that these issues are directly addressed.
- Keep detailed and neat financial records. This is especially important for events run by non-profit organizations, with multiple groups involved, or using donations as a funding source. Computerized bookkeeping with retained original paper receipts is a good way to go. Also comply with any organizing group non-profit or funding policies or promises.
- Obtain liability insurance coverage. Again, the need for this should be obvious- and is usually required by your venue. (If you are a sole organizer, remember you are the deep pockets and need to be protected.)
VOLUNTEER RELATED ISSUES
- Use dependable, documented, and variable methods to communicate and connect to volunteers, vendors, and the public. This includes email, public and private areas on websites, online calendars, phone trees, and mailings. Make sure you use a variety of methods to communicate so that you don’t leave anyone out of the loop. Make sure you keep and share records of all of your communication efforts.
- Be willing to adjust or pare down the festival if volunteers are not found for certain areas/ functions. Set a time well before the festival, and before major funds are spent or the schedule set, to remove event areas or functions if there are no volunteers to support them.
- Use written waivers and agreements for volunteers & vendors. All volunteers should sign liability, acceptable behavior, and photo use waivers. (If this is a public event, there will be people taking pictures of your volunteers- this should at least be discussed with them.) Have your photographers sign photo non-exclusive use waivers. (There’s noting like losing all of a year’s festival photos when the ‘volunteer’ that took the photos claims they are a ‘professional’ after the event, and want to charge for or not give the photos to the organizers!) On the acceptable behavior waiver I would recommend no drug or alcohol use policies while volunteers are working. This also allows you eject volunteers who want to for example- do their sword demonstration drunk, or light up marijuana in front of the venue representatives. (Just as examples…)
- Require all festival volunteers to have their own medical insurance. If you have to make a claim against your event insurance for a volunteer’s injury it is unlikely you will be able to obtain future insurance. (This was the professional determination of an organizer I know.) Having an unattended dog seriously bite a hand can be fine if the victim has insurance, is a member of your local group, and per the organizer is “unlikely to sue” (I was the victim in this case). If a young man not yet at his new job – so without insurance- puts an axe into his leg while chopping wood and gets rushed to the hospital, the organizer shouldn’t have to pay that bill to keep to keep from filing a claim.
- Get sufficient numbers of volunteers to help with event setup and breakdown. Often it’s just a few people (and can be older or elder volunteers) doing all of the setup- and they become exhausted even before the event begins. Rather than harming or injuring these few workers scale back on setup at the event if a sufficient number of volunteers are not actually available.
- Have more than one person onsite at all times (at setup, during the event, and breakdown) with responsibility for and knowledge of vendor lists, area organization, and related issues. Don’t throw these duties at the untrained volunteer who just happens to be there for setup, while the only knowledgeable person leaves the site on an errand. Also, this responsible person needs to equally assist all vendors and volunteers. (Say not just the people they are sexually attracted to; unfortunately I’ve seen examples of this type of behavior).
- Try to have event setup completed before vendors arrive, and a responsible person designated to check vendors in (and out), direct them, and provide information. Ideally, this should be this person’s only duty. Vendors deserve attention, proper assistance, and the ability to make location changes as needed. You want them to come back for the next festival.
- Put up appropriate signage so the public can find event. Seems kind of basic, huh? Also, send someone to check during the event (ready with extra signs) to make sure the signs are still in place. (If garage sale signs are taken down for no reason, there’s a chance that the signs for that ‘wierd’ festival could disappear too!)
- Acknowledge all donations and publicity in writing. (Use letters, not email.) Also acknowledge these generous folk during every day of the event.
- Have sufficient numbers of staff and provide a rotating schedule for volunteers. Make sure that volunteers can enjoy the event also by providing them with some time off. (Vendors also appreciate having someone there to watch the booth while they go to the bathroom, etc.) If possible, have some people on call for last minute additional help, and have one responsible person available as a go-to who can leave the site for errands.
- A non-public rest area for staff is useful. It’s an area where volunteers can change costume, check in music acts or vendors, find an on-duty responsible event manager, etc. (I can dream…)
- After the event the main organizers should formally thank all volunteers, groups, and vendors for their participation. Every participant should receive some sort of thanks for their efforts. Organizers, team leaders, venue representatives, groups, and major donators all deserve formal, individual written thank you letters. Similar (maybe email) thanks should be given to volunteers, vendors, service companies (say like the portable toilet company that gave you the good rate), advertisers, or anyone else who assisted with the event.
- Have a written safety plan and the staff to implement it. Each event needs to discuss how they will enforce the peace and safety. (Some groups actually train and dress security staff.) Have real, fully stocked first aid kits available at specific and known locations. Trained CPR/first aid staff for larger events is ideal. Advertize and enforce a no pets policy; this protects volunteers, vendors, and the public. (Trained and documented service animals are one thing, having a recently rescued and untrained dog on a rope at an event is another.) Keep an empty dedicated parking space for police/ambulance vehicles (many jurisdictions will require this). The event organizers should all have public safety agency telephone numbers and working cell phones to call them, if necessary. Also ensure that staff and volunteers are safe doing their duties. For instance, if an attendee has been threatening and disruptive, bar them from the event.
- Verify that vendors/booths have fire extinguishers, needed safety barriers, etc. Ask about required fire extinguishers before the fire marshal does. If you have a hazardous exhibit- say caged wolves or fire-breathing dragons- assign extra space and staff to watch out for safety.
- Ensure that there is proper ingress and egress for the event. Set up the event so that stretchers can get in, and people can safely enter and exit the facility. This also applies to parking areas and driveways. (If necessary, provide parking staff to direct the public in and out of the event.)
- Consider and obtain advice on accessibility issues. At a minimum, proper description and disclosure of site accessibility is wise. For larger events follow local and state requirements.
- Set aside a specific number of booth spaces for non-profit organizations. This should include spaces for all event participating groups that want a space. Other non-profits that want a booth really should have a theme somehow related to the event purpose- but that’s up to the organizers. (Realize that the event focus or theme could change somewhat from year to year.