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Nonprofits turn to 'fun factor' for fundraising
Nonprofits all have a mission whether they are arts-, healthcare- or humanitarian-based organizations. While missions may differ, the underlying financial reality remains largely the same – funds must be raised.
According to the National Council for Nonprofits; “Most charitable nonprofits rely upon the generosity of donors for some or all of their funding. Consequently, fundraising is an activity of major importance to the nonprofit sector.”
A number of the region’s charitable and arts-based nonprofits have established “brands” for their fundraising activities. And, it’s a strategy that often pays off. There are a number of advantages to hosting a “signature” event as opposed to switching things up from year to year or relying solely on direct mail campaigns, local marketing experts say.
A signature event is defined by “longevity and name association,” said Briana von Elbe, account executive at Pearson & von Elbe Advertising. “The public instantly recognizes the cause with the event.”
She pointed to the annual PAVSA (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault) Art Auction, scheduled for November, as an example. “People already know the general date, time and what to expect – silent auction, dinner, entertainment,” said von Elbe.
Pascha Apter, CEO of marketing firm Giant Voices, which helped Essentia Health Foundation organize and market its Legacy of Hope gathering in August, defines a signature event as one “with a creative twist, that’s held annually and a track record at least three years long, which requires a loyal following of donors and supporters.”
Signature events aren’t new in the nonprofit world, but appear to be gaining momentum.
“I imagine nonprofits have been finding ways to be creative and stand out from the competition since the beginning,” said Apter. “It appears to me, however, that more and more nonprofits are getting on board and venturing into the territory of creative fundraising.”
Like much else in the world of marketing, signature events need time and repetition before they truly become identifiable with a cause. But, once established, they can play a big role in an organization’s fundraising efforts.
Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids launched its signature event, the Chef’s Gala, in 2010. It was an idea that received immediate response, selling out its first year. The annual event teams four local chefs (and their respective staffs) who work together to prepare a four-course meal for the approximately 250 persons in attendance. Fundraising also is aided by auctioning “celebrity servers,” who offer services to tables, such as musical performance.
Susan Estee, executive director at the food bank, said the idea came from a local chef who’d been involved in a similar event elsewhere.
The Chef’s Gala, which takes place in mid-winter, raised $17,000 for the food bank in 2013. The event is able to raise such a large sum because it relies almost exclusively on donations and volunteer help.
“There’s not a lot of cost involved,” said Estee. “Everything’s been donated.”
The Duluth Playhouse also launched a signature event in recent years – Casino Night. Last spring was the third year, said Christine Seitz, executive and artistic director.
Casino Night was an idea that one board member brought back from the Twin Cities, and it’s added a unique touch to the group’s fundraising effort.
“Three years ago, we were looking for a fresh angle, something different,” said Seitz.
The Duluth Playhouse rents the casino props and equipment from a Twin Cities company, but limits its own financial exposure by recruiting business “table sponsors” to cover costs. Seitz reports it has been well received with more than 200 persons attending each year. The Duluth Playhouse has an annual fundraising goal of about $30,000 for the event.
While launching a successful signature event can be a boon for a nonprofit in need of donation dollars, there are also downside risks.
“Not making enough money for the amount of time and effort the volunteers and staff put in is the big risk,” said von Elbe. “You need people that are going to follow through on what they say they are going to do. For example, if you are going to have a silent auction, you need auction items. Local businesses usually donate those items, but you need volunteers to call and make those arrangements.”
Many organizations find ways to mitigate the financial risks with donated supplies, a local legion of volunteers and business sponsorships. Still, a lack of success can make for a long year if funding sources prove insufficient.
“There are risks involved in hosting any kind of fundraising event,” said Apter. “Will people get it? Will they attend? Is it too creative? Is it not different enough? Will it alienate traditional donors? All (these concerns) rise to the surface when being bold and creating a new signature event.”
But, when it clicks, a signature event can engage donors to a cause in a way that simply doesn’t happen with the traditional donation mailer.
“A signature event gets people excited about supporting a cause,” said Apter. “It brings people together for an interesting experience and often creates buying competition among attendees which can significantly benefit the nonprofit.”
“Unlike direct mail, a signature event gives the organization’s staff an opportunity to engage with their supporters,” said von Elbe. “Relationships are built, questions about the organization can be answered, the organization can really make a connection and explain its mission.”
And, of course, there is also the fun factor.
“People look forward to it, the chefs look forward to it,” said Estee of the Chef’s Gala. “The food is always interesting and unique.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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