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How to Throw a "Barn Raising" Bee Party: Organizing Events for Community Service or to Handle Your Own Big Project

Updated on December 25, 2015
Barn Raising
Barn Raising | Source

Part One: The Planning Stage

I started as a community organizer when I got "voluntold." It was my own fault for asking questions!

I'd just moved to Florida and was attending the Spring Equinox rite at my new church. After the altar, ritual gear and the egg shells had been cleaned up, the elders sat in a circle on the wooden floor of the UU church we rented and started discussing the various projects and committees they were working on.

"Is there an environmental committee?" I said, forking the last bit of tabouli salad off my plate.

The President of the Board looked up with a gleam in her eye. She knew a sucker when she heard one. "How about you start one?" she said.

I'd been a high priestess for our tiny coven back home, but I'd never taken on a project like this before. Within a week (since they made the announcement of my new committee head position right there at the ritual) I was surrounded by a small group of volunteers.

"What sort of project should we do first?" I said, still a bit stunned that I was going to have to pull this together. I was happy to volunteer, but not near ready to become a community leader.

They stared at me with blank eyes.

"How about a garbage cleanup?" I said. Someone suggested the beach, and the Environmental Committee was up and running.

In the two decades since, I've been the organizer of community work parties for everything from sewing projects to park and beach cleanups to moving parties and house painting parties, to "getting out the newsletter" parties.

Work is so much easier when it's shared. And more fun too!

I've been organizing community service events for my church and other groups for twenty years. My projects range from neighborhood cleanups to temporary soup kitchens to fundraisers, large-scale rituals and many more.

Whether you're putting together a small event or one for hundreds of people, this article is designed to help you make organizing a group effort easier.

Apple Picking Time
Apple Picking Time | Source

What's a Barn Raising or Bee?

It's an ancient practice that our ancestors used to get things done for the community. Its roots probably extend at least as far back as Paleolithic times when various clans and small tribes would gather to hunt mammoths and other game.

Other names for it include a "raising bee" or a "rearing," or a community work party.

Why is it called a bee? Oddly enough, not from the busy, buzzing social insect. (Are we sure? I'm not!) According to Wikipedia, it seems to come from a English dialect word bean or been, which means "help given by neighbors." And that comes from the Middle English bene, "a prayer," "boon," or "extra service by a tenant to his lord." I suspect it's probably related to the French bien and Spanish bueno, which both mean "good."

I always knew beans were good for you!

In Cherokee the word gadugi, meaning "cooperative labor" or "working together." is the word for a work gang of men and/or women. It more specifically refers to helping with the garden or harvesting crops for an elderly or infirm person. The root gadu means, "bread."

There are a bucket-full of similar words in other languages. Which shows just how ancient and widespread the practice is.

Barn raisings and other "bees," such as the quilting bee were extremely popular in 18th to 19th century America, and are still a tradition held by the Amish and Mennonites. They fell out of popularity in the late 19th century. But by bringing folks together to do our part to help our communities we can carry on that tradition.

Check out this Barn Raising

Witness (1985)
Witness (1985)
Not only is this a great movie in it's own right -- besides I'll watch anything with Harrison Ford! -- it also features scenes at an Amish barn raising.

Getting Started With Your Plan

You'll probably want a notepad and pen for this, or a open file on your computer.

I usually start out drawing a mind-map, then organize onto a notepad or the To-Do List program on my computer.

A Clean Up at the Park

Park  Cleanup Poster
Park Cleanup Poster | Source

Define The Scope of Your Project

What specifically needs getting done? Are you doing a neighborhood garbage cleanup? Trying to feed the homeless? Do you need help moving or to paint your or someone else's house?

  1. Is this a personal project or a community based one?
  2. Does it benefit one group in particular or is it broader based?

    For example, a fundraiser for your church or school would be the former, feeding the homeless, or building a Habitat for Humanity house would be the latter.

  3. Does this project require help of a skilled or technical nature, or can anyone do it? Some of both?
  4. Will it be open to the public, kept to a smaller community or group or more private, such as just family and friends?

    And how many people do you hope to have? 10? 100? 5000?

Who Can Help and Who's Invited?

Make a list of the communities, groups, friends and family that you wish to invite.

  1. Make a list of specific organizing volunteers that you have access to, and their skills and talents.
  2. Decide whether your work party will be adults only, or if it's okay for folks to bring the kids.

    If your party will be child-friendly, remember to invite someone to help keep them safe and handle any problems, whether a couple of parent volunteers, or some responsible teenagers.

  3. If your need involves a skill, such as sewing or carpentry or something else, make note of the folks on your list who have talent in those areas.

    Need technical help? Don't despair. This website for instance actually sells workshops on straw bale building and gives folks free labor building your house. Maybe there's a nearby expert on your needed subject who might be willing to do something similar.

  4. But don't forget the rest of your friends!

    There's probably other work to be done as well such as cooking, serving food and drinks, and cleaning up after. If you have musician friends you might even want to make note of them and ask them to bring a guitar or other instrument.

Some Jobs That Will Probably Need Doing

Depending on the size of your group and the scale of your project, these jobs might each have a committee to handle them, or just one person .to handle each task. In a smaller group, some folks may need to wear more than one hat.

Every bee is different. Big ones might need more of these. Smaller ones proabably less. Your particular plan may have jobs that I haven't dreamed up here, depending on what you're trying to do.

Even for a small bee, such as a house painting or leaf-raking party it helps to put as many different people in charge of some of these tasks as you can get volunteers for.

  • Event Director

    This person is in charge of making sure that all members/committies are communicating, that any challenges are addressed.

    Choose a person for this position who is good about details, follow-up and at motivating the troops.

  • PR Coordinator

    With a large gathering this person can help with adverstising, press releases and TV and raidio appearances. In a small group, this person might be the one who creates and sends out invitations, or writes the event up for your newsletter, blog or website.

    If spectators or passersby become interested, they might also be designated to talk about what you're up to.

  • Info Contact

    This person is in charge of answering questions, giving directions and otherwise coordinates letting folks know what they need to know about your event.

    Choose someone who's easy to contact (able to answer the phone without getting in trouble at work, for instance) and has a variety of contact methods available.

    Make sure their name and contact info is posted on any ads or invitations and that they have a charged phone - preferably a smartphone - on the day of the event.

  • Finances, Budgeting and Fundraising

    If items, supplies or other needs must be purchased, this is who figures out the budget. They might be in charge of putting together fundraising activities. If your event will charge for admission or otherwise collect money, this is who's in charge.

  • Cooks, Catering and Food Handling

    Almost any barn raiser, large or small, will want to have food. It might be as simple as asking folks to bring potluck.

    In some instances, however, you may want to have specific people in charge of organizing who brings what sort of meal. You might even have a designated cook or even a few.

    Even with a potluck, it helps to have someone in charge of letting folks know where to put the food they bring, making sure that warm dishes are kept warm, cold ones cool, that plates and utensils are set out and that as many items as possible have their own serving spoon.

  • Security

    For huge events you might need to hire actual security. Even in a smaller project, it helps to have one person designated to be in charge if something goes wrong.

    For example if volunteers begin bickering over something. if unhappy bystanders get involved. Or if the police take exception to the size of your group and want to check up.

  • Emergency Services

    For this, you'll want someone calm and level headed, and preferably someone who has First Aid, medical or other first-response skills.

  • Greeter

    Someone to stand by the door, let folks in, and explain what's going on. They might be just a smiling face to hold the door and direct folk towards the kitchen with their potluck offerings, or they might hand out an itinerary. If your group is collecting money or tickets at the door, this should ideally be at least one other person, so the person handling money doesn't get confused.

  • Entertainment

    At a small event, this might be a friend with a violin, guitar or drum. At larger ones, they might be in charge of locating and hiring (or cajoling) bands, DJs or other entertainment, as well as any equipment involved with that.

  • Cleanup Crew

    This really should BE a crew rather than the duty of just one person.

  • Childcare or Kid's Entertainment

    If children are welcome at the event, it pays to have someone in charge of making sure they're having a fun time. If you're trying to get a project done, it may also be helpful to keep them out of their parents' hair. And of course if there's even a remote possibility that children could get hurt, you want someone watching them and being careful.

  • Location Coordinator

    Many of your barn-raising projects may already have a built in location. A moving party obviously takes place at the locations where the person is moving to and from.

    If, however your project needs to rent a hall, church, parking lot or other venue, this is the person who researches it, determines whether everything you plan is safe and allowable in that spot and arranges it.

  • Vendor Liason

    If your event will have booths where folks can purchase food or other items, this is the person in charge of locating those vendors and handling any issues regarding them.

  • Rides Committee

    These folks ensure that members who need rides are coordinated with someone who can help them get there.

  • Decorators

    For some events, such as a fund raising party, you may wish to have someone in charge of decorations.

Robe Making Party Invitations
Robe Making Party Invitations | Source

Decide on a Date and Time

If you plan on sending paper invitations you'll want to keep in mind the time it will take to mail and receive them. If you plan to advertise in your group's newsletter or in a local paper, you'll want to be aware of lead time for that.

Your date will also depend on your need. Are you moving next week? Next month? Does a community member need emergency help right now? Is this something that can wait? Or a project you need done yesterday?

A good rule of thumb time frame is 2 months in advance for small to medium barn raisings, which will most often allow your guests to save your date.

If you can and need to gather folks faster, it's always possible, just plan to be more dependent on phone and email communication. If you have more time to spare, fantastic!

For large events you may need to coordinate as much as 6 months to a year in advance.

Some bees might be timed to the seasons or to particular holidays. In many climates a gardening or herb walk could be challenging in January. House painting might be an issue during the rainy season. It's probably unwise to orchestrate plans that require a great deal of physical exertion for months when you expect extreme heat.

You might also wish to avoid busy holidays and dates, such as the winter holidays, the Super Bowl or a weekend when there will be another large festival in your area of a type that your members are interested in.

Consider where you're going to hold this. Some types of working parties have their location dictated by the need. If you will be outdoors, have a bad-weather plan. And be sure you communicate that to your members.

If you need an expert plan plenty of time in advance to work with their schedule and allow them to help you get the word out.

If you're actually raising a barn or house you'll probably need permits from your local government. In fact you might not want to even schedule a date until you have those. You might need extra time to gather materials as well.

Other large scale events may require permits as well. Give yourself extra time to ensure that those are in place.

How many hours will the project take? Do you need just a couple hours? An entire day? Certainly the more people you have, the faster it can go.

I once planned a full week "open house" moving party where a few friends at a time could drop by anytime to help, according to their schedule. A trucker friend even volunteered his tractor trailer for the trip and left it in the yard so that it could be filled in accordance with that schedule.

Figure Out Your Budget

What can you afford? Doing your barn-raising for free or next to free is certainly possible, depending on the project.

Job Specific Materials and Tools

What materials and tools are needed specific to your particular plan? A "help packing to move" party mostly needs empty boxes (liquor stores are often a great resource for this) and leftover newspaper. A "get out the newsletter" party might need stamps, envelopes and printer paper. A beach cleanup needs garbage bags and protective gloves.

Do you have enough tools to handle the job based on the amount of people you expect and the work that needs doing? Can any of those be borrowed for the event?

Will you need to rent tents or porta-potties?

Who is Benefiting From Your Bee?

In the case of a single homeowner it makes sense that they take care of the majority of necessary materials. However your community may wish to help them defray some of those costs, especially in the case of someone with financial hardships.

If you're planning your event for a church, school or other good-sized organization, there may already be funds and a budget in place.

For occasions like a neighborhood cleanup, it's easiest to have everyone pitch in and bring their own garbage bags, gloves and tools.


What will invitations cost if anything? If you're mailing them through postal mail, remember the cost of postage, envelopes and any construction materials. If you send your invite by email you can do it entirely free.

Party Supplies

What party supplies do you need? Do you have enough serving bowls and spoons? Don't forget the "usual suspects" such as such as cups, plates, napkins, spoons, forks, knives, extra ice, toilet paper and any clean-up items you may need like garbage bags, paper towels and cleanser.

If you're decorating, you'll want to account for those costs as well.

Food and Drink Considerations

Potluck is the traditional barn-raising food. As with the idea of splitting the labor, potluck allows everyone to share in both the cost and the work of cooking. Besides, potluck parties feel like a feast, and usually are.

If you can easily afford catering, and enjoy catered parties, by all means go with that. If not, figure out what you'll need in the way of groceries, drinks and such. Can you afford pizza? Cheese and crackers? Beer and wine?

Easy snacks such as party mix, chips, etc, or a tray of veggies and dips might be smart too. And it never hurts to plan for those folks who forget or aren't able to bring food.

In cases where folks will be moving across a large area, such as a park cleanup, it might be easier to suggest that they bring a bagged lunch and water bottles for each of their family members and guests.

Even with a potluck, it's smart to budget for some form of drinks. Depending on the preferences of your guests and helpers, the season of year and the nature of the work, that might be tea and soda, or beer or wine, or mulled cider.

If you're hosting your event for a small group, depending on your friends, the offer of free beer might be an incentive for them to show up. Or it might keep them away.

Be responsible!

If your project requires anything that could be dangerous, such as driving or the use of power tools, either do not serve alcohol, or keep alcohol strictly for after-work-is-done celebration.

Make sure there's an alternative for any kids and non-alcohol drinkers.

Leave plenty of wind-down time in your schedule so no one drives home drunk.

Getting the Word Out

Create an invitation, RSVP cards (optional) and thank you cards. You can create paper invitations or if you're good with graphics you can even create your own photo and send it via email.

It's easier to create the thank you cards while you're in the process of making the invites.

Paper Invitations

Enlist your kids or grandchildren if you have. Get a box of crayons and let them draw pictures on construction paper, then paste those to a printed invitation. Ask them to focus on subjects related to the bee, or just use whatever they come up with. Have fun with glue and glitter if you want.

If you're planning far enough in advance, you can even hold a mini card making bee with a few crafty friends.

Card Creation Websites

There are even websites that will help you create an invitation, collect RSVPs and send out thank you cards. I found several by searching for "free invitation websites."

Some of these sites rely on advertising, others have some paid premium services, so if you hold work parties on a regular basis, check out a few sites and see which you like best and what services fit your budget.

Social Networking

If your community group has a newsletter, website, blog or forum, by all means put your event on the calendar there.

For some of our projects we use Meetup to organize. Depending on your type of group and work project, you might also use Twitter.

If your community has a Facebook Page you can use that. I'm not a fan of facebook, though, since lots of things get lost in the timeline.

You can even create a hashtag for your project.

Remember, stores that your community members frequent are another form of social networking. For instance we advertise events for our pagan events at the local metaphysical shops.

Be sure to ask for permission to leave a poster or fliers with the store owner -- it's only polite! Let them know all about the event, so they can talk it up. Make sure they have a contact number or email to offer folks for more info.

Invite Check

  1. A description of the work to be done, such as "Help Edna dig her garden."
  2. Date and times -- both your expected start time and finish time.
  3. Who's invited? Are they welcome to bring a friend? Is it open to the public? Is it just for members of your community group?

    Is it geared to a particular segment of the community, such as seniors, motorheads, computer geeks or Chihuahuas from broken homes?

  4. Any tools or items they should bring to help accomplish the job.
  5. Information on what food or drink will be provided and what they should bring.
  6. Add any additional motivational information such as:

    "Clem was hit pretty bad by last week's flood. The waters reached a foot and a half above his front porch. He's getting on in years and could sure use a hand with cleanup and repairs."


    "Free beer!"


    "While we're there the Conservation Office has arranged a cool slide show and a special visit to the area where they rehabilitate wounded manatees."

  7. Need more folks to help volunteer as organizers? Ask for that too. Include information on whom to contact.
  8. If weather could be a consideration include information on your contingency plan, whether it's a rain date or a caution to bring sunscreen.
  9. Special needs info:

    Indicate whether alcohol is acceptable or if the barn raising will be alcohol free.

    If you have large pets or animals that might escape or that people might be afraid of or allergic to, let them know.

    If children are invited, let folks know. If it's adults only, state that.

    If it's a surprise or secret for someone, let them know who NOT to tell.

    Any other considerations they might want to know about.

  10. Address of the location and clear concise directions to your location.

    Remember that not everyone has GPS!

    It helps to include both street names and landmarks, and possibly to give directions if coming from different parts of town.

    Add in a map if possible and needed.

    If your location is challenging to find, plan on decorating the way there or putting up some sort of signs. Give information on what those will look like, such as, "Look for the pink ribbons on the mailbox."

  11. Phone numbers and email of any important contact folk.
  12. Best means to R.S.V.P. if that's desirable for your type of bee.

Include On Your Invitation, Fliers or Other Advertising

I've seen it happen too many times!

You send out invites and fliers and then forget to include important info. Like how to get ahold of you. Or directions to the location. Or not to bring dogs because the owner's allergic.

Or oh my gosh -- the Date!

Double and triple check your invites to make sure everything important is included before you send them out.

It helps to give not just the date and time, but the day of the week, for instance: "Saturday, June 8th, 10am-6pm."

I'm calendar challenged, and if I want to get involved in a project, I might not realize it's on my workday (I don't work a normal work week) unless someone points it out.

Make It Easy to R.S.V.P.

If you're sending a paper invitation, include a stamped postcard or a card and stamped envelope to send back. If sending invites via the internet make sure you have a way of organizing your replies, and keeping track of who will be there.

Make sure your email and phone number are available. (But wait! You should have done that one already, right?)

Expect some folks to R.S.V.P. yes, and then have to cancel last minute, or simply forget.

Expect that others might not bother R.S.V.P.-ing but will show up anyway.

DO NOT force them to fill out a validation form via email or twitter to respond to your invite. You invited them. That's YOUR job. You need to either add them to your allow list or disable that nonsense -- at least for the period of your bee.

Other Considerations to Be Aware Of

  • Parking

    Make sure you have plenty of space to park, or organize places where folks can meet and carpool. Ask neighbors in advance if they mind someone parking in front of their house. And of course be courteous in how you and your community treat their property.

  • Alerting the Folks In Charge

    When we do cleanups at our local parks, there are no rules about who or how many people can visit at once.

    The beach we most often clean is a Conservation Area, so I always check with the rangers ahead of time and make sure they are okay with us doing a cleanup there. Usually they're thrilled. And the slide show thing was actually something they were nice enough to do for us.

  • Make Easy on the Disabled

    This may be as simple as making sure Granny has a comfortable chair when her knees get tired.

    Or it may mean making sure your venue is wheelchair accessible, or that you have Sign Language interpreters for a speech someone's planning give.

    This will depend on how public or private your venue is, the needs of your community and who is likely to come.

    At our church rites we only provide seating for those who actually need it. Those who can sit on the floor or stand are expected to do so. Before every ritual we make sure to announce, "If you don't need a chair, leave it for someone who does."

  • Permitting Laws for Large Groups

    Depending on the size of your event and where it will be located, you may need to have one or more permits. Check with your Town or Country Clerk to find out.

  • Other Permits and Rules

    Some places require other permits for particular types of activities. For example, here we need a permit for a yard sale.

    Make sure you're not going against any noise or similar ordinances.

    If the community you're organizing in concert with is an established non-profit, church, school, etc., make sure you are working within their bylaws.

    Our church requires that anyone under 18 must have a permission slip signed by one of their parents to attend any event when not accompanied by an adult. Many of our parents sign a permanent form that we keep handy at our events, so that their kids can attend without their parents if they wish.

    Your group may have similar rules, or others to be aware of.

  • Alcohol Laws

    Alcohol sales can be a large money-raising portion of some fundraisers.

    If you're going to be serving alcohol at a public event, make sure that's legal under your jurisdiction and that you comply with all relevant laws and the regulations of your venue.

    In most places it's illegal to sell alcohol without a costly license. Here's one way I've seen that gotten around: One booth will sell a blue-painted rock. The booth next to that would trade blue rocks for wine or beer. Technically they weren't selling it.

    If you're going to try this look into it carefully! You do not want to get in trouble. Make sure that tactic is absolutely positively safe before attempting it or anything similar.

A Few Funny Laws You Might Want to Take Into Account

Don't organize an event in Honolulu HI that includes singing loudly after sunset.

Don't organize a bare-handed fishing contest in Kansas.

If you include a puppet show as part of an event in New York City, don't do it in a window.

Just say no to whale fishing events on Sundays in Ohio. (Really?)

And if you're in Toledo, be cautious either about the gender of your volunteers or the food you allow to be served. Because it's illegal to hold a piece of cheese in your hand while talking to the opposite sex.

What I Wish I Could Show You

There's a "rule" on the internet that suggests that if you don't have photo or screenshot proof, it doesn't exist.

If I were writing this article a few years ago, I'd have hundreds of photos. Then one day my hard drive got burned to a crisp in a house fire. One of the many losses that happened that night was the files I'd kept on our many community service projects that docummented some of the fun and useful projects we took on.

Also understand that our church does not allow photography of rituals in progress or of any members without strict permission, so we don't photograph that part.

With no photos to show you I'll tell you about a few of them. The ones I remember most:

The interior of a trash bag collected on New Smryrna Beach. Besides the usual trash there were several comdoms and a hypodermic needke. Imagine stepping on this as you walked along the sands!

One of our members hanging from a stone bridge over the edge of a stream to collect garbage. Another member is holding his waist so he doesn't fall in.

A few dozen people traipsing along the beach at New Smyrna, trashbags in hand.

Folks setting tins of cooked food up on a park picnic table to feed the homeless.

Friends helping me load the entire contents of my house into a tractor trailer.

Kids, aged 4-16 playing "Statue" as part of an Asatru community camping trip where I staged a bunch of kid's games. In this photo the youngest child is terrified that the evil "Stone Giant" (played by a member of daunting size) is going to "get" her. Despite her fear (and his,"oh honey, don't be scared, it's okay") she holds fast, and pretends to be a statue. Amazing bravery. She will be an exceptional young woman.


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