Thursday, March 27, 2008

How To Start Your Own Non-Con

by Keith Giles

When I first came up with the idea for this "Non-Conference" I wanted it to be something simple, easy to pull off and to duplicate.

I've had about 4 years of experience planning, marketing and running conferences and events of this sort, which really helped me to understand how a scaled-down "Non-Con" could be done effectively.

The advantages of doing an event like the Non-Con is that its "small on purpose" design takes a lot of the pressure off of constantly trying to get more people to come. The Non-Con works best if it's small. In fact, the smaller the better.

Our first Non-Con was just over 100 people and honestly, I would have been happier had it been more like 50 or possibly 65 people, but, even as awesome as our first Non-Con was (and it really, really was awesome), I would have personally been happier with a smaller, more interactive group.

So, the pressure is off in many respects when you're promoting and planning a Non-Con. If you end up with 30 people count that as a success. It will be a great day with less people who are truly interested and passionate about your shared dialog.

To effectively plan a Non-Con you'll need to outline the basics of your day. I'll use our Non-Con as an example, but please feel free to tweak or change any of the day's elements as you see fit. It's your Non-Con, after all, not mine.

I usually break the day up into thirds. The first third is the check-in, meet and greet time, shared breakfast/coffee, welcome and session one (which includes worship songs and response time, along with the main speaker/facilitator).

The second third is lunch, workshops, and session 2. The third session is dinner, session 3 and possibly a late-night session where people are more free to hang out, find a corner to relax in and connect with their new friends.

So, plan out your day. Who are your 3 main session facilitators? Will you have one person lead all 3 sessions or will you invite 3 different people to share? Who will lead your workshops? How many will you have? How long will they be? Our workshops were only 1 hour and next time (if there is a next time) I'll make them 2 hours long so that everyone can really take the time they need to explore our themes.

No matter what you plan throughout your day be sure to keep in mind that simple is better, less is more and those long stretches of time where people are just eating and talking to each other? Those are the best parts of your day! Give people time to connect, to talk and to interact. That's one of the things that makes the Non-Con so different from the average, large-scale conference.

Our Non-Con had a 3 pronged focus. We started by talking about the Gospel of the Kingdom (David Ruis), we followed that by talking about our calling to live out the Gospel in our everyday life (Keith Giles), and we ended by exploring God's heart for the poor and the broken and the outcast (Jackie Pullinger). To be fair, all 3 of those discussions spilled over into each other throughout the day. That was totally cool, actually. It helped to illustrate how these 3 things are intertwined in the life of those who follow Jesus.

So, you may want to follow a similar theme, or maybe you want to focus on human trafficking, or on the homeless, or on Christian Unity, or...whatever. It's your choice, but be sure up front what your themes are and be sure to communicate those clearly in your marketing and messaging about this day. (More on this later).

In this area I feel like I am overly blessed. God has brought some amazing people into my life and some of them are good friends. I mean, I have relationships with a wide variety of published authors, worship leaders, artists, and a few world-class leaders. You might not be in that same position. So, when you sit down and begin to draw up your wish list of facilitators your options might not include someone with a well-known name or a recognizable face. Honestly, that's ok. Again, your goal isn't to draw a crowd of 500 or more. Your goal is to gather just 50 to 100 people who share your interest and your passion about the theme in question.

Once you've made your wish list of facilitators go ahead and invite them to your Non-Con. Start by introducing yourself (if you need to) and by explaining the vision for this special day. Your facilitators need to understand that you are inviting them to speak for less than 100 people, not a massive event with thousands of people. If they catch the vision for this day (conversational, relational, interactive, open dialog, on a theme, etc.) they will be more likely to cooperate with your vision and their expectation will be for something small and humble right off the bat.

Again, I have some flat-out amazing friends who are front-line practitioners in the area of justice, community development, evangelism, missional life, and the arts. These are people who may not have written books or appeared on television but they have the talent and the experience to really speak to people.

Once you've established a theme for your day try to build workshops that (more or less) touch on that theme. At our Non-Con I had an Arts workshop even though our main sessions didn't touch on the arts, but I did so because a lot of what we were talking about are topics that are very challenging to artists and have an incredible impact on the arts today. It's ok to go off the map a bit and it adds to the value of your day.

When you invite your workshop leaders, again, plainly explain to them the vision for this day and lower their expectations. You're not calling them to fame and fortune, you're calling them to teach and to encourage and to share what God has invested in them with others who will be blessed by that experience.

If you know a few people who can lead worship in a small group setting, invite them to come and hang out for your Non-Con and lead others in worship. Keep it to one guitar and maybe one percussionist. No big bands. No loud guitars. No "buy my new cd" please. Keep it simple and the worship will be sweet and people will be drawn to a place of humble adoration. God is the object of our worship time. Let's remember that.

If possible, try not to do this inside a church. Our Non-Con was at Triangle Square, a local shopping center in Costa Mesa. I think nearly everyone who came to our Non-Con was amazed to find out that this was a church. Soul Survivor Church was gracious enough to let us use their facility. The reason I chose this location was that it didn't look like a church, it didn't have a sign outside that identified it as a church, and it didn't "feel" like a church. It was a neutral location and that was by design.

Why? Because I've learned over the years that if you say, "Come to Conference X at Hillside Baptist Church" people who are not Baptist will say, "'s a Baptist event" and they will stay home. It's sad, but it's the hard truth.

If you want your Non-Con to attract a nice cross-section of the Body of Christ in your area, please avoid denominational language and locations and terminology in all of your correspondence.

I'd recommend scouting out a local community center, or look into renting a local high school gymnasium.

One option would be to look into using a local college chapel or perhaps a reasonably priced hotel conference room.

I use to set up all of my website stuff. I used it to build the Non-Con site because it was free, it was simple and easy to set up and it fit our whole "we're not a conference" vibe. Oh, and it was free.

Setting up your Non-Con blog/website is very simple. First, register for a Google Mail ( account. Next go to and set up your blog page. It really doesn't matter what you call it, (i.e. - ""), because the next thing you'll need to do is to go over to and sign up to purchase a URL name for about $6.95. I purchased "" for two years (since my event would fall just after that first year expired) and did a re-direct for that URL to point to my blogspot page:

It took about 30 minutes and cost me $15.00. You can do this. Really.

Once you've set up your main website/blogger page, you can begin posting your basic "What Is The Non-Con?" teaser post. Use mine at if you like. Go ahead and steal it and make it your own. That's what it's for.

If you want to get fancy (and I did), you can open two new blogspot/blogger websites (all under your same gmail login ID) and call one "SCHEDULE" and call the other "WORKSHOPS".

Next, link those two pages to each other in the sidebar and then link all of them back to the Main Page sidebar. (The dashboard function in your blog will show you how to do this. If you have trouble just set up all blogs and then email me for help with the linking function or ask a friend who knows HTML).

NOTE: I'll offer the option to anyone who wants to do their own Non-Con to use the existing link as a main hub. I'll be your webmaster for your event and all of the Non-Con events can be hosted on this one main website. You don't HAVE to do this, but if you want to have me take care of the website updates and links and stuff for your Non-Con event I'll happily do that for you. Just let me know.

Details about WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and WHY are essential. You can embed a Google Maps link into your page (like I did, under "SCHEDULE") and search up hotels in the area (again, thank you Google), and post that info too.

Have your email contact on their somewhere so people can ask you questions. Use an alternate email just for this event if you're afraid of getting spammed into oblivion on your main, personal email (recommended).

Be sure to tell everyone a bit about who your speakers and worship leaders are (but don't go overboard. Remember, less is more).

Feel free to link back to our main NON-CON page ( so people can get a sense that this isn't the first one. It helps build credibility if they can connect what you're doing with what we did here. Use us to make yourself look good. We don't mind.

Again, I have benefitted from years of event marketing experience with Soul Survivor, Arms of Love and my own little conference stuff over the years. The Non-Con was actually my 3rd event with David Ruis, for example. So, I've slightly perfected this in my area.

To get your marketing started for your Non-Con you'll need an email list. First, start with your own personal list. Ask your friends to forward your emails to their friends, and if you use an email service such as Topica (recommended) be sure to check that box that says, "Forward to a friend" so others can do just that.

My secret is that a few years ago I googled every local church website I could find and went to every one of them and harvested email addresses for worship leaders, pastors and especially benevolence pastors.

I also have friends at Soul Survivor, Transparent Productions (a local Christian concert promoter), and since I write for,, and other websites, I have friends who are willing to send out my event info and website link via their own email blasts. You should do what you can to leverage similar resources.

I also marketed the Non-Con via this blog and my free, weekly e-newsletter [Subversive Undergound]. If you decide to do your own Non-Con you can count on me to market your event on my blog and newsletter too. It's all in the family now.

I usually use a local full-color glossy print company to purchase 2,000 postcards for like $250. (Remember, you'll need someone with graphic design skills and photoshop or illustrator, etc. to help you design the postcard graphic front and back and set it up on the printers template...this will cost you money too).

For the Non-Con I decided not to go the postcard route since we were getting steady registrations and it didn't seem necessary to spend that money. However, if you want to do postcards and you don't want to spend a lot of money here's what I recommend.

Get a stack of brown paper grocery bags and a box of sharpie markers. Assemble a group of friends together and buy some pizzas. Have everyone tear out rectangles and start hand-writing on each the following:

MARCH 1, 2009

*Again, keep it simple. The name "Non-Con", the date, last names of your speakers, the price, the website (most important), and the price.

Drop these at local christian bookstores or, if you're really feeling adventurous, stuff them inside your local free weekly news magazines (if you have one), or drop them in local restrooms, tape them to bulletin boards at the local college, etc.

Guerilla marketing is fun, effective and best of all, it works!

I absolutely demand that you use for your online registration. They are a free online service. They allow you pass along the credit card fees to the customer and they mail you a check each month. Nothing could be easier.

If you're having shared meals, I'd recommend charging the $40 per person, or if you feel like your speakers/facilitators are interesting enough even $50.

Our event just about broke even on everything, but we also paid out an honorarium for David and Jackie and we bought a little gift card for each of our workshop leaders too.

I used a very basic Microsoft Xcel spreadsheet to map out my break-even point on registrants based on the $40 per person price. I knew that if I didn't get at least 45 people were were dead meat. You need to know that sort of stuff too.

The shared meals were very crucial to our interactive element at The Non-Con. This meant that I had to be sure that people would stick around to eat together and that the food we provided didn't suck. We had pizza for lunch (about 30 pizzas altogether) and El Pollo Loco for dinner (they have party packs to serve 50 and 100 people).

We purchased water, drinks, chips, nuts, snacks, etc. at the local Costco (or Smart and Final or other bulk food store).

Coffee was purchased in 5 gallon jugs from a local coffeeshop we love (not Starbucks). They provided the cups, sugar, creamer, stirrers, etc.

Find volunteers to help you. For the Non-Con, especially if it's your first event, I'd recommend you have dedicated volunteers (not you) handling these jobs:
*Registration (2 people)
*Set up/Tear down (2 people)
*Food Prep/Clean up (2 people)

Please try not to let all of this be done by the same 2 people. Please don't make yourself one of those 2 people. As the event coordinator, you need to be available to see the big picture and to make sure that everything else about the day goes as planned.

Pray!! I cannot stress enough the importance of prayer in these cases. Make sure that it's really God's idea for you to do something like this and that you've heard from Him about the theme, the speakers, and the details of this day.

Also, keep in mind, things WILL go wrong. Not everything you plan will work out as you had intended. It's ok to roll with the flow, and most likely the average person at your event will not even notice most of what doesn't go as you planned.

Please feel free to email me if you are seriously considering doing your own NON-CON event in the next year or so. I'll be happy to assist you and to answer any questions I can.

My email is:
"elysiansky" (at) hotmail (dot) com


1 comment:

Danny said...

That is really good advice. Although I don't have the time right now to set one up, it sounds like a really interesting idea and something I would love to be involved in.