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If you think planning a cakewalk is a piece of cake, you’d be wrong.

Putting on a nonprofit event—whether it’s a fundraiser, house party, volunteer appreciation night, or a cakewalk—isn’t rocket science, but it does require advance planning and attention to detail. In event planning, it’s not enough to have a Plan B. You’ll need to think all the way to Plan Z and sometimes beyond.

A cakewalk is a competition where people walk around a numbered circle along to music. When the music stops, the caller announces a random number and whoever is standing nearest that number wins a cake. Sounds simple, right? I’ve planned a few cakewalks in my time and I can assure you, they’re not.

If you can’t wrap your head around cakewalk, you might want to rethink that “Annual Black Tie Five-Course Sushi Dinner & Ballroom Dancing Gala” you want your organization to host.

Fortunately, the lessons I’ve learned planning cakewalks can be applied to almost any event. No matter what you’re planning, you need to start by gathering the fire extinguishers.

  • Step 1: During the months and weeks before the cakewalk, gather as many fire extinguishers as you can and think about where to put them.
  • Step 2: In the days before the cakewalk, strategically position the fire extinguishers.
  • Step 3: During the cakewalk, run around putting out fires.

Step 1: How many fire extinguishers and where to put them?

This is the time to ask yourself and your colleagues, “What do we need for our event to go right and what could possibly go wrong?” Set goals, list possible fires, and take stock of the resources you need:

  1. Cakes
    1. How many cakes do I need? Everyone loves cupcakes, so maybe get those instead.
    2. How much will the cupcakes cost? What’s our budget?
    3. Where will we store them? Is there room in my fridge?
  2. Music
    1. What music will we play? It should be festive, but not too annoying (since I have to listen to it too).
    2. Do we have a sound system? Whose iPod will you use?
    3. Who’s going to make the music start and stop during the cakewalk?
  3. Venue and Logistics
    1. You’ll need a table big enough for all those cupcakes, plus
    2. Ample floor space for people to walk (or dance) around the table,
    3. Space and seats for the audience, and
    4. Someone to keep the audience from eating the cakes.
  4. Numbers
    1. How can we make numbers durable enough for people to walk or dance on?
    2. Indoors, laminated paper and tape. Outdoors, spray paint numbers on astroturf.
    3. Wait, at what age do children grasp the concept of numbers?
    4. I’m not a child psychologist. Would colors or animal shapes work instead?
    5. Could someone bring me a drink?

Step 2: Set out the fire extinguishers

Now that you’ve figured out where the fires are likely to start, it’s time to put the fire extinguishers in place.

  1. Order the cupcakes, rent the tables and chairs, and reserve the venue.
  2. Create a playlist on the iPod.
  3. Buy or make the numbers, animals, or whatever symbols the contestants will walk/dance on.
  4. Pick a way to randomly choose numbers/symbols when the music stops.
    1. Download a random number generator app for your smart phone.
    2. Good luck with that.

Step 3: Run around putting out fires

Despite all your careful planning, once the event starts, something is bound to go wrong, usually in the most unexpected of ways.

What, you didn’t think that you’d need to put out fires at a cakewalk? Your random number generator will crash, a child will steal a cupcake from the table—and lick it, ew—or an escaped sheep from the adjacent petting zoo will run amok through the crowd. (Yes, all these have really happened to me.)

There will always be fires to put out, no matter what kind of nonprofit event you’re planning and no matter how well you planned it. Prepare as best you can and be ready at all times to put out a fire. All that you will have left to do is to stay calm, and wear comfortable shoes and a big smile.

(image courtesy Flickr user PetitPlat Food Art – Stéphanie Kilgast, Creative Commons)

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Renée Davidson is a LightBox collaborator with a knack for helping innovative do-gooder clients in the science, beverage, and snack industries. She’s currently working on PR for Clif Bar & Company.