How to Organize Your Own Palm-Oil Awareness Event

On July 11th, the Boston Palm Oil Action Team hosted the first ever Palm Oil Awareness Day on the Boston Common. It was a gorgeous day, and despite the blazing temperatures, we managed to find a nice cool spot in the shade to set up our table. I had been plotting and planning this event for months. It really became my focus day in and day out. I had this grand vision of bringing in hoards of Bostonians and teaching them about the palm oil problem, inspiring them all to take action. As the event grew nearer, my ideas and plans grew more elaborate – along with my expectations. Now that the event has come and gone, I’ve had time to reflect on the experience and take note of the do’s and don’t’s, and shoulda, coulda, woulda’s. 

Below, I’ve outlined the five most important lessons I learned (in no particular order) and how you can implement them to make your own palm oil awareness event the best one yet!        

Contributor Lindsay doing a photo petition, Source: Boston Palm-Oil Action Team

Contributor Lindsay doing a photo petition, Source: Boston Palm-Oil Action Team

ORGANIZING VOLUNTEERS 

As a control freak, sometimes I have a hard time delegating tasks and handing over responsibilities to other people. However, if you’re organizing a major event, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you have people supporting you throughout the planning process and on the day of the actual event. Moreover, I can’t tell you how vital it is that the people you choose to join you on the day of the event are well prepped on the issue at hand. 

    If I’ve learned anything from my 23 years on this earth, it’s that people love making plans and then backing out of them at the last minute. It’s normal human behavior, but this is something you really have to think about when you ask volunteers to help at an event. My friends at the Rainforest Action Network taught me this special trick – when calculating how many volunteers you need at your event, you must follow the rule of halves. The rule of halves states that for how many people you reach out to about volunteering, only half of them will respond. The rule continues to apply as your volunteer duties get more complex. This piece of wisdom has been passed on from organizer to organizer over the years and is even more relevant today in the digital age. 

For example, if I reach out to 100 people and ask them to volunteer at my next event, 50 will say yes. Out of that 50, only 25 will answer my phone call to chat about volunteer tasks. Out of that 25, only about 12 people will come to my event prep party. And then, to top it off, out of that 12 people who actually attended my prep party, only six people will show up at the day of the event. This is usually how it all works. However, my friends at RAN also taught me that if you keep in close contact with your volunteers, make sure they feel informed, and ensure they have a special job at the event, your volunteers are much more likely to show up and do their jobs well. This rule is especially applicable if you’re recruiting people over the internet or people you’ve never really met before. I was lucky enough to recruit three people I knew already (including my fiancé and best friend) and another person I didn’t know, but someone who was a passionate palm oil activist. If someone really cares about the issue, of course they’re more likely to show up. However, having personal bonds with your volunteers and blackmail material never hurts either  ☻ That is a joke.

Palm-Oil Awareness Day main table, Source: Boston Palm-Oil Awareness Team

Palm-Oil Awareness Day main table, Source: Boston Palm-Oil Awareness Team

CREATING SPACE & FLOW

A large part of organizing a public event is making it visually appealing and friendly. After we set up our table and had all of our colorful signs in place, I noticed that a lot of pedestrians slowed down to check out our event. Most of these people never actually came up to the table to talk to us, but they did slow down to see what we were doing. Clear, legible, inviting signage is so important. Even anti-social people who don’t want to talk to you should be able to walk by and know what you’re event is all about. Also, it’s very important to note that people love free stuff. I found that many people declined to talk to us because they assumed we were trying to sell them something, but once we set up a sign saying “Free!” more people definitely came by to see what we were up to.

Our setup at our Palm Oil Awareness Day was very simple. We had one folding table with our two raffle baskets, handouts, and small signs; a kid’s table covered with crayons, stickers, and free coloring pages; and we had our artwork and goodies spread out across the ground (not our best idea) so people could check it out as they passed by. Our table was set up on a large walkway in the Boston Commons, right up against the side of the walkway. It left space for people to walk by without feeling blocked by our table, but also very visable so people could see us from any direction.

Foot traffic on Palm-Oil Awareness Day, Source: BPOAT

Foot traffic on Palm-Oil Awareness Day, Source: BPOAT

KEEP IT SIMPLE

In terms of the event plan, less is more. It’s very easy to overwhelm people with opportunities, as I learned early on in our event.

The whole premise behind our Palm Oil Awareness Day event was to get people to check out our table, learn about the palm oil problem, and donate to the Boston Palm Oil Action Team. At least, that was the original idea. However, once I came up with the original idea it evolved quite a bit in a very short period of time. On the actual day of the event, the setup went from having one simple table to setting up a kid’s table with free crayons, coloring pages, and face painting. We had a photo petition to support the Jakarta Animal Aid Network’s #SaveDennis campaign and two separate raffle baskets – one for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) and one for HAkA. We also encouraged people to take a few seconds to call the instant noodle company Maruchan to ask for stronger palm oil policies. On top of all of those different actions, we were also pushing people to sign up with us so that we could let them know when we had new events coming up. Needless to say, we had a lot going on. I would suggest only having three “action opportunities” at your event. If I could go back and change the plan for our event, I would only have the kid’s table with kid’s activities, our main table with lots of information, and a bunch of items for people to buy to benefit the Boston Palm Oil Action Team. Since we had so many different things people could do, I think it ultimately pushed some people away instead of encouraging them to come closer.

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

ACTIONS: DOs AND DONTs

Like I said before, we had a lot of different actions going on. I think each of our actions deserve their own event and I look forward to honoring each of them in the future. However, there are many perks to each activity and I’ll break them down here: 

Kid’s Activities | For the palm oil problem, kids are such a great assets to our cause. It’s easy to pitch our issue to them, get them on board, and have them share the issue with their parents. It’s as simple as asking “Do you like animals? Do you want to help animals?” There are endless ways to make a palm oil event fun for kids. For example, have free crayons and coloring pages featuring animals affected by the palm oil problem, animal face painting, free stickers, photo opportunities with mascots and other people in costumes, etc. The opportunities are endless. The main objective is that the kids have fun and walk away with enough information (either physically or in their heads) to inform their parents about the palm oil problem. 

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

Photo Petitions | I personally love photo petitions. They’re quick, easy, fun, free, and effective. I’ve found that people are way more likely to stop and take 5 seconds to get their picture taken than they are to stop and make a phone call or write a letter. If you get someone to stop and take a picture, you can quickly give them information and talk to them about the issue at hand. They are also painless. I’ve held photo petitioning events in the past and I always have a blast and it’s very easy not to get offended if someone rejects your ask. For example, if I’m out petitioning and I ask someone to take a picture and they say no, then I tell them it’s free and they still say no, they’re missing out. They could’ve had their picture taken with a picture of an adorable orphan orangutan but they decided to keep walking. Their loss ;)

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

Raffles | These are all about presentation. You have to make the event attendee feel like they really, really want or need whatever it is that you’re raffling off. Second to presentation, ease of purchase needs to be your second priority. Taking cash is easiest, but if you’re asking people to sign up or pay for something online, that web page needs to be available that very second. Technological glitches are the worst when you’re trying to take a payment. The longer it takes for someone to pay, the less likely it is that they’ll actually make the purchase. It’s also important to note that people don’t have to enter a raffle just with money. You can host an event where people get a raffle ticket if they like your page on Facebook, write a letter to a company or join your email list. Our Palm Oil Awareness Day was the first event I’ve ever organized with a raffle. Our raffle setup was really great and effective, but it was hard to pull people in amongst the other actions and distractions going on at the table. I think if we had just had the two raffle baskets and some informational handouts, the raffles would have been a great success. 

Two awesome donors showing their support for little baby orangutan Dennis + their Tiger print from DougJenThomas Art! Source: BPOAT

Two awesome donors showing their support for little baby orangutan Dennis + their Tiger print from DougJenThomas Art! Source: BPOAT

Fundraising Sales | The Palm Oil Awareness Day idea actually started as a means to raise funds for the Boston Palm Oil Action Team. All of our previous events were funded by the Lindsay Vanderhoogt Fund, also known as my personal checking account. It seems a little counterproductive and counterintuitive, but fundraising is actually very expensive and my cash reserves were getting pretty low. I wanted an event to help spread the word about the palm oil problem, but to also create a base of funding that we could use for all future events. I came up with the idea of a Wheel of Fortune. If someone donated $10, they could spin the Wheel of Fortune to win a prize. The only fault in this logic was that I am not crafty or design-talented in the slightest, so I needed to find people who could provide goodies to be raffled off as a part of the Wheel of Fortune.

Over the course of a few months, I reached out to over 300 Etsy shop owners and asked if they would be willing to donate one of their items to our event. I chose Etsy shops that sold items related to animals impacted by the palm oil industry or other products that were palm oil free. Despite the fact that asking for donations is totally against Etsy regulations, which in my defense I didn’t know about until much later, I received overwhelming support from almost 100 Etsy shops. When I decided to reach out to these businesses, I didn’t know what to expect. I had a grand vision but I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to play out. Much to my surprise, almost every single person who got back to me about donating was not only willing, but excited, to contribute to the event. I was also surprised to find out that many people already knew about palm oil! Without having any idea how it was going to pan out, I ended up with a restored faith in humanity and reinforced enthusiasm for the event.

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

BE PREPARED

There is literally no such thing as too much event preparation. The best thing to do is reconvene with your volunteers a few days before the event to talk about expectations, set up, timeline, etc. The more prepared everyone feels, the more successful the event will be. Also, make sure to do a mock set up of your physical layout before the event. Even if it’s a pain, take up your entire living room and set up everything EXACTLY like you plan on setting it up the day of the event. This will help you more than you know.

Before you actually host an event, you can never say exactly how it’s going to go. You can’t totally predict the weather, the foot traffic, the public’s reception of the cause, or even if your volunteers are going to show up (thankfully, all of ours did). Hosting an event is a great exercise on going with the flow and staying positive. I’m a total Type A personality, so being laid back and going with the flow requires some serious effort. I’m also an introvert so standing up in front of hundreds of total strangers and trying to engage with them is super uncomfortable for me. If you’re like me, I urge you to keep an open mind. Make peace with the fact that no matter how hard you work or how much you prepare, your event will never go exactly as planned – but that’s OK.

Source: BPOAT

Source: BPOAT

Despite the slightly overwhelming amount of activities we had going on at the event, we actually had a great turnout. I was honestly surprised by how receptive the public was to the palm oil issue and how patient they were with all of the different actions we threw at them. If I could turn back time, I would absolutely change some things about our Palm Oil Awareness Day event. I would have a different set up, I would prepare my volunteers more, I would have fewer action opportunities, I would spend less money, etc. Needless to say, a lot of things would change. Unfortunately, like most human beings, I don’t have the ability to turn back time. However, I can take what I learned from past events and apply that knowledge to future ones, and share that knowledge with other dedicated palm oil activists. I wish you all the best of luck ☺

Editor's Note: Living in Boston? Come out to celebrate International Orangutan Day on the Boston Common, this August 23rd, 2015 from 11am to 5pm - hosted by the Boston Palm-Oil Action Team

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