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Planning for Communitywide Special Events
Part 1

A North Central Regional Extension Publication

Communitywide special events are those unique, infrequent, short-term activities which depart from everyday life and involve the whole community. They range in size from the small children's art show that draws a local crowd to the major festival that attracts thousands of visitors.

Communitywide special events are staged for a variety of reasons - to celebrate a holiday, season, or an historical event, to raise money, to provide a cultural or educational experience, or to provide fund and entertainment.

Such events involve many people - those who plan, those who prepare, and those who attend, For the people involved in planning and conducting the event, there are opportunities for social interaction, new experiences, recognition, and service.

The events may benefit individuals, groups, or the community as a whole by providing opportunities to:

  1. widely publicize the event and the community;

  2. unite church, social, civic, commercial, and governmental groups working toward a common goal;

  3. share the unique location, history, skills and talents, or facilities of the community with others; and

  4. gain needed income for worthy community projects or organizations.

Communitywide events don't just happen, although the better ones feature an air of spontaneity and a variety of activities. A successful event, particularly if it is to be staged on an annual basis, is likely to be the product of a well-conceived planning process that involves the best efforts of many people from the community.

It is very important to maintain high quality. Do what you can do best the first year without overextending your resources. You can always expand your festival after you have developed a good organization.

The techniques and approaches to event planning described on the following pages are not guaranteed to ensure maximum success for every event. However, experience and research indicate that these guidelines are adaptable to diverse community interests and that detailed planning is likely to produce a true community celebration from which all participants profit.

Choosing and Naming the Event

The following questions should be answered by community groups that have not yet chosen events. Discussion of the questions will also be helpful to groups evaluating existing events.

  1. What is the main purpose for staging the event - to celebrate a holiday season, or an historical event, to raise funds, to provide a cultural or educational experience, to provide fun and entertainment, or other?

  2. What type of event would be most in keeping with the community's unique location, history, customs, facilities, and abilities?

  3. Will the event meet a variety of needs and interests of community residents and perhaps of many visitors as well?

  4. What time of year should the event be held to best meet its objectives? On which dates will the event least conflict with other local programs or those of nearby communities?

  5. How long should the event last - several hours, one day, several days, or longer?

  6. What basic types of facilities, equipment, and supplies are need to conduct the event?

  7. How many people might attend the event?

  8. How many planners and workers are needed?

  9. How much money will be need to get the event under way?

Special Event Ideas

Themes, titles, and activities for communitywide special events are bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the ability of local groups to transform creative ideas into reality. However, events should be chosen with the needs and resources of the community uppermost in the minds of the planners.

The following event ideas may spark the imagination and give specific direction to planning . The events are listed according to the main purposes for which they may be staged.

To celebrate holidays, seasons, and historical events

  • Winter carnival
  • Fourth of July parade
  • Christmas decoration contest
  • May Day festival
  • Musket or cannon shoot
  • Historical pageant
  • Old-timers' reunion
  • Rail-splitting contest
  • Centennial or Founders Day
  • Halloween ghost walk
  • Harvest celebration
  • Veterans Day parade
  • Labor Day picnic
  • Old-fashioned weekend
  • Bell and flag day
  • Historical home tour

To raise funds

  • Flea market
  • Donkey softball game
  • Rodeo
  • Las Vegas night
  • Distance walk
  • Pork day
  • Auto or horse race
  • Pancake breakfast
  • Beer and bratwurst day
  • Antique auction
  • Circus
  • Dance marathon
  • Chicken fry
  • Charity fair

To provide cultural or educational experiences

  • Community art fair
  • Children's theatre production
  • Dance contest or show
  • Talent show
  • Film festival
  • Flower show
  • Ethnic exhibition
  • Country music show
  • Music-under-the-stars series
  • Barbershop quartet show
  • Livestock show
  • Native crafts demonstration
  • Antique auto show
  • Community sing
  • Fashion show
  • Gem and mineral show
  • Madrigal dinner
  • Science fair

To provide fund and entertainment

  • Corn and pig roast
  • Children's fishing event
  • Community pet show
  • Hot-air balloon race
  • Softball tournament
  • Frog-jumping contest
  • Boat race
  • Easter egg hunt
  • Beauty pageant
  • Amateur carnival
  • Car rally
  • Mardi Gras
  • Bicycle race
  • Sky-diving show

Most community groups combine a number of separate activities into one major event. For example, a Christmas decoration contest may be but one activity in a total celebration which includes lighting of the community tree. a candlelight songfest for all ages. a Santa Claus parade, and a "Calls from Santa" program in which the town's older citizens telephone young children to ask them what they want for Christmas.

Special Event Names

Naming the event can be an important factor in its success and popularity. The name ideally should not only give some idea of the activities to be enjoyed, but should invite interest and questions about details. Thus, a Fourth of July festival could become "Heartland Heritage Days"; an environmental educational event, "Spring in the Woods"; and a pork roast, the "Pig-E-Que".

The community's unique location, ethnic interests, or special beautification efforts may lend themselves to titles such as "Old Man River Days", "Illinois Valley Fair", "Kirchenfest", "Jordbruksdagarna", "Marigold Festival", or "Better Living Show". An Ohio community combines numerous parades, contests, pageants and other special activities under the overall title of "Holiday at Home"

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About the Author:

This publication is a revision of the 1976 circular by Robert P. Humke and Anne Murray Stenolen. This edition was prepared by Robert D. Espeseth, recreation resource specialist, Office of Recreation and Park Resources, Department of Leisure Studies and the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. It is designed especially for groups planning their first communitywide events; however, the material will also be of value to those evaluating existing events in the hope of making them more successful.

North Central Region Extension Publications are subject to peer review and prepared as part of the Cooperative Extension activities of the thirteen land-grand universities of the 12 North Central states, in cooperation with the Extension service - U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C. The following states cooperated in making this publication available.

University of Illinois (publishing state)
Kansas State University
University of Wisconsin

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