Disclaimer: Since this article discusses tax law and the IRS, I felt it important to point out that I am not an attorney, an accountant, a banker, or a current or former IRS agent. The following information is for general information purposes, meant as a starting point. As with any financial or legal matter, the advice of a professional in the relevant field is recommended.
Planning a Class Reunion in 75 Days
In this series of articles, I’ll share how we planned a class reunion at the 11th hour - on a shoestring budget - and share some helpful tips, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.
How long does it take to plan a memorable class reunion?
Everything you’ll find online will tell you a year - perhaps a bit longer or a bit shorter depending on how efficient the planning committee is and what level of experience you have in planning big events. Make no mistake; it’s a lot like planning a wedding, with a few important differences. First, you usually know how to find your wedding guests, since they’re friends, colleagues or family. In the case of a class reunion, finding everyone can be a lot more challenging – especially if your school “lost” all of your class information, as was the case with ours. Second, it’s not uncommon for an engaged couple to get help from their family in paying for at least some of the related expenses. Unless you have a generous classmate, or money set aside from a prior reunion, there is often very little to work with when you start out.
Let me describe a worst case scenario: You graduated 20 years ago, your class has never had an official reunion, the group has no money, no ticket price has been set, no bank account exists, a deposit for the banquet was placed with a venue that’s terribly overpriced, and its 75 days before the reunion. Can it be done? Extremely challenging, but yes.
Reunions can be held anywhere from parks, to halls, to hotels, and many other places. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that you are planning a reunion at a hotel where classmates can stay for the evening after a long night which will include alcohol. This also makes it convenient for out-of-towners that want to be able to stumble up to bed after a long night of partying.
Here are a few essential things needed in order to have a successful event:
1. A Leader (essential)
I can’t stress this enough: you need a chair, a president, or whatever term you want to use. You need someone that is willing to take the reins and make the final decisions. Committees are great for gathering ideas, delegating tasks, and brainstorming, but you can’t lead by committee, and projects left in the hands of a group with no leader will flounder and die; someone has to step up. It’s a task that no one really wants, but if it doesn’t happen, the event is doomed to failure.
2. Financial Planning (essential)
You need a bank account and someone to watch over it. No one should use their own account and you’ll want to get a tax id number (EIN) from the IRS so that everything is separate from each committee member’s own money. Using a descriptive name for the organization is important. For example, If your school was George Washington High School, and you graduated in 1990, a good name for the reunion committee and affiliated accounts would be GWHS 1990 Class Reunion. Including the year and “Class Reunion” in the name helps define exactly what your group is doing to anyone that sees your name, including the IRS. Having the EIN assigned to “Treasurer” was also recommended by the IRS so that if the committee members change in the future, it is simple to update everything without having to call back in and change names around with them. Ordering the EIN can be done online, but I opted to order it from a live IRS agent by phone so that I could ask questions as well. Remember, I advise that you research the legalities with the IRS, a trusted accountant, or an attorney. Many people miss this step, but when you are putting together a reunion, you’re going to be collecting money, and the money raised can be seen as taxable income unless you establish that the event is a “not for profit” activity. The IRS has rules that govern these things, and they will be helpful if you explain your situation and ask for guidance. They are also much cheaper than an accountant, but you’ll need to make your own choice on that. I was told that class reunions qualify to be tax exempt, without having to officially file for tax exempt status, as long as you raise less than $25,000, and take pains to document everything. At the end of the fiscal period for the reunion (normally one year after you start establishing the class reunion entity), I was told to file form 990-N, which is a very basic accounting of the money brought in and general information about the “organization.” They also cautioned me that failing to file at least once every three years can lead to your EIN being retired. Keep in mind that there is a distinct difference from the IRS recognizing your activities as tax exempt, and being legally classified as non-profit organization (called a 501(c)3 by the IRS). The latter requires a great deal of paperwork, has strict rules for qualification, and the application process can be quite time consuming. Donations to the reunion fund are not tax deductible if you are not an official 501(c)3 however, so make sure you don’t tell people that they are.
Once you have the EIN, you can use it to open a bank account for the class reunion and add other parties to the account, all under the EIN. I suggest that at least one other person has access to the account other than the treasurer, in case there is a problem and another committee member needs to access the account. Naming officers and having some basic by-laws was required by our bank as well, but these are relatively simple to draft. Our bank called it a “non-profit account,” but they have much less stringent qualifications than the IRS does for this. We also opened a PO Box under the class’ name for mailing purposes. This was for two main reasons: the ability for more than one party to be able to get the mail if needed, and also to establish an extra layer of separation between the officers as individuals and the class reunion as an entity.
3. Effective Communications to Classmates (essential)
In the digital age, having a website for your class reunion is a highly efficient method of communication and becomes a “one stop shop” for your classmates to get information, add contact information, register to attend, pose questions, engage in surveys (food, decorations, theme), book hotel rooms and pay for tickets - more on booking rooms and paying for tickets later.
Along with the website, you’ll likely find Facebook extremely helpful in reaching out to former classmates. Facebook allows you to: create reunion groups with events, get announcements out to members of the group, add pictures, comments, and much more. As much as I resisted Facebook at first, it became an invaluable tool in the process. It also gave our classmates a means to interact with each other before the reunion and start to reconnect. This helped alleviate pre-reunion jitters for many by helping them become comfortable with each other again before the event.
A digital, emailed, newsletter sent out
every 2 weeks in the beginning and weekly in the final 2 months is also very
helpful in communicating new information, getting excitement and anticipation
built, and helping to convince those on the fence about attending to make a
commitment to come. We used MailChimp for this. At the level that we were using it, the account was free, and we took great pains to make sure that we were in compliance with the CAN-SPAM laws - MailChimp provides details and guidance on this topic. It's a super simple format, easily customizable, and it looks great. Even better, you'll be setup and ready to get your first newsletter out in less than an hour. Future editions take even less time once you have your first "campaign" built.
Lastly, free announcements in your local media and simple postcard style invitations are cost effective ways to get the word out. We also opted to run ads in the local papers in addition to the free announcements.
4. Regular Committee meetings (essential)
These can occur via in-person meetings or conference calls, but the core members of the committee tasked with the majority of the planning must talk regularly. Communication to those that can’t attend every gathering can be provided via email or a shared workspace to the rest of the group. Sometimes life can make it difficult for everyone to get together regularly, but real-time communication just can’t be replaced by email, so a small group has to commit to be involved as “the core” in order to keep things moving forward.
5. PayPal Account (highly recommended)
This is a very helpful option. Almost all of our ticket sales revenue arrived this way, and there was no worry that a classmate’s check would bounce (imagine the embarrassment for the treasurer of having to make that call not to mention for the classmate receiving it), and it made it easier for classmates to purchase tickets when they had the option of using a credit card. As with the bank account, in order to establish our account as a non-profit account with PayPal, by-laws, a copy of the EIN letter, and a description of the nature of our group was required. Paypal gives slightly lower fees this way, and allows multiple users to be added to the account for access. Having the account setup this way will also keep everything consistent. You can easily link this account to your bank account and add a payment link to your website on the registration page.
Part Two will include selecting a venue, contracts, deposits, essential vendors and negotiation with those vendors.
Based on the popularity of the first two parts, I will be including two additional parts which will take the form of an e-book. It will also include expanded information for parts One and Two.
Part Three will deal with money raising activities, finding missing classmates, ticket pricing and sales, and in kind donations.
Part Four will give things that you will want to have at the event, final details, checklists, and links to resources we used for our planning.
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