December 23, 2014

FERN Talks & Eats successfully launches but not without its challenges

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What happens when you put investigative journalists and chefs on a stage?

The Food and Environment Reporting Network, or FERN, last month executed its long-planned live event called “FERN Talks & Eats” to an audience of 250 people in Brooklyn, New York.

The sold-out event raised the nonprofit’s profile in New York, attracted future sponsors and donors, and exposed it to some lessons in event planning. FERN also spent nearly $18,000 more on marketing and supply costs as a form of investment for future programming, according to executive director Tom Laskawy and his team’s report of the lessons learned.

The FERN team summarized their observations and conclusions in a report provided to the Investigative News Network as part of their INNovation Fund agreement. Laskawy wrote the report on behalf of the team, including communications advisor Naomi Starkman.

In the report, he said FERN Talks & Eats has been successfully launched as a brand and are confident there is a “path to profitability.” They also write that the key to success was compelling content.

“As our metrics demonstrate, we were successful along many dimensions,” he wrote. “While we did not show a profit, that was partly a strategic decision to invest in the branding and ‘buzz’ that will make future events easier to market and promote.”

The event was an experiment in audience engagement and business sustainability funded in part by the INNovation Fund. FERN Talks & Eats showcased a panel of FERN’s investigative journalism, culinary presentations, entertainment, and food tastings at the Green Building in Brooklyn, NY.

FERN Talks & Eats is hardly the first journalism event put on by a news organization, but it is the first to focus on a specific brand of journalism. To FERN, the experimental event presented an opportunity to expose people to the news organization’s coverage on food and its environmental impacts.

Back in April 2014, FERN was named one of eight grant recipients of the INNovation Fund—an initiative by INN and the John S. and James L. Foundation to spur innovative projects in nonprofit journalism. FERN Talks & Eats offered a creative outlet to achieve one of the goals of the grant, which is to engage with new audiences.

But the November 3 event came with its share of challenges. FERN’s report on the months leading up to the event offers a glimpse into how the event was planned and the challenges faced in executing a high-quality event with many layers.

The report listed several challenges, including:

  • Staffing: The work behind the design, production and promotion of the event was split between Starkman and an event planner outside the organization. It did not want to give the event planner full control of the show. Therefore FERN said it had to devote one core staff member to oversee control of the content and the brand. Distributing authority and tasks caused communication issues with its contractors and writers.
  • Promotion: FERN says it was challenging to articulate the concept of the event to its partners. The report says this was the first event that required a “great deal of effort in educating partners as to how to position and explain the event.”
  • Creative cohesion: Because the event was part editorial content and part entertainment, FERN said the writers struggled to communicate with the creative team. “The creative team also spoke a slightly different language than our editorial team, reporters and journalists did—it was a communications challenge to define terms and set expectations.”

Overall, people liked the event and called it “very appealing,” the report said.

“The survey results tell us very clearly that we delivered on the event from the perspective of the audience experience—a fun, unique evening of stories and performances about food with excellent food and drink,” he wrote.

FERN spent a total cost of $84,000 to pay for the venue, marketing, five chefs, entertainers and food for 250 people. The nonprofit’s proposal projected $60,000 in estimated total cost for the project.

Laskawy said the cost overruns were part of a “strategic decision” to invest in marketing to be used in any subsequent FERN Talks & Eats events, and that the money to pay for it came from the organization’s general budget.

But FERN said it made $66,500 in revenue partly because it secured more money in corporate sponsors than it had anticipated and it was a sold-out event.

Money aside, FERN Talks & Eats offered the nonprofit a list of lessons that they hope to pass on to future events. For example, FERN says it now has the materials, a highlights reel and videos of individual performances that will help sell the concept to stakeholders in the future.

Among other lessons FERN learned:

  • Set clear expectations of all participants: FERN Talks & Eats turned out to be a big food “festival,” and therefore required expertise beyond just a quality caterer. Adding music, performance and other elements “was very successful and can be replicated by others,” FERN says.
  • Be comfortable bringing outside specialists: When there are so many elements involved, like food and entertainment, FERN says that the key to success is to find the right team and give full authority to a single person to make final decisions.
  • Focus on quality promotion and content: The report says it was “partly a strategic decision to invest in the branding and ‘buzz’ that will make future events easier to market and promote.” FERN credits the quality of the stories and the food for the success of the event. Because people liked it so much, they are likely to recommend it to others or attend another event.

What remains to be seen is whether FERN Talks & Eats will be replicated in another city or in a different form. A clue to the likelihood of that happening rests on the level of interest in sponsorship and potential audience engagement.

In the next phase of this project, we’ll look at what happens after FERN Talks & Eats goes from live event to video content living on the web.