The goal of most charity events is to generate as much money and awareness for the cause as possible. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially with countless galas, walks and campaigns vying for donor attention.
So how can organizers ensure their fundraisers stand out and stay fresh year after year? What are the best ways to build relationships with donors and maximize their contributions? Fundraising experts from six Michigan nonprofits shared what works for them.
Designate an honorary chair (or two) to headline your event.
"That’s where all the magic happens,” says Lisa Schutz Jelic, development director at the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, on how well-connected business and community leaders can use their networks to extend a foundation’s reach.
“It makes all the difference in the world because it’s not then just who you know, but who they know,” she explains.
Jelic likes to have two honorary chairs per fundraiser. Ideally, they work in different industries and already are familiar with the organization.
Their impact can be huge, assures Jelic, who found herself without an honorary chair leading up to the foundation’s largest event, the annual Kidney Walk at the Detroit Zoo, this past May.
Although 4,500 people participated, raising more than $430,000, this was less than the $630,000 raised with the help of 8,000 walkers last year. That’s partly because the 2017 chairs were CEOs of large organizations and they viewed the walk as a team-building opportunity, encouraging thousands of employees to form teams and compete in raising money.
Honorary chairs also can “open doors” to vendor and venue partnerships, says Jelic. A former chair once influenced a venue to underwrite the costs of drinks for the annual Kidney Ball, a lively black-tie affair attracting up to 800 guests. This let the Ann Arbor-based foundation put more of the funds raised into programs to fight chronic kidney disease.
The ball, which will be held Dec. 7, raises money through ticket sales, silent and live auctions, sponsorships, and by asking guests to “buy” into specific programs. “The biggest money is corporate sponsorship, and that’s where the honorary chair plays a key role,” adds Jelic.
The next Kidney Walk, featuring children’s activities, food and vendors, a raffle and team and patient celebrations, is May 17, 2020.
Make it easy to donate online.
“We get a lot of our donors online. A lot of people communicate with us that way. A lot of applicants come from finding us online,” says Tracey Cholish, who manages major gifts and planned giving for the The Pink Fund. It is a national nonprofit in Bloomfield Hills that provides financial assistance to breast cancer patients who are undergoing treatment and need help covering basic living expenses.
Key to all this is the fund’s website, which pops up quickly in online searches (thanks to savvy search engine optimization) and clearly presents its mission.
“I feel like our site tells our story. Once you get there you have no question of what we do,” says Cholish.
The website likewise makes it easy for people to host third-party fundraisers.
“They contact me with their ideas, and I provide them support. I approve their events and a lot of times, especially if it’s in another state, we then receive a check in the mail when their event is over,” says Deborah Braciszewski, who coordinates these activities.
Social media channels are used to promote these events and also give people more ways to donate. Last year, the Fund generated $18,000 through Facebook birthday fundraisers.
“We were shocked,” says Cholish of the surprise support from Facebook users. “They found us; they liked our mission; they picked us; their friends donated on behalf of their ask,” she explains.
The Pink Fund also hosts its own fundraiser. Dancing with the Survivors, held Oct. 4 at Silver Gardens Events Center in Southfield, provided five breast cancer survivors or co-survivors with ballroom dance lessons.
Dancers raise money to participate and then perform with their professional dance partners at the ticketed event, which also featured food, cocktails, auction and raffle. Last year more than 350 attended the performance, which raised nearly $149,000.
Trust The creativity of your vendors and volunteers.
On Feb. 29, 2020, the Sparrow Foundation will host its signature event of the year, the Sparrow Gala, to raise money and awareness for programs at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.
More than 800 people attend the gala, which takes over the entire University Club of Michigan State University with each room dedicated to a different activity, from dancing and auctions to casino-style gaming and desserts.
In 2019, the gala raised more than $250,000 to support patient outreach efforts for the hospital’s orthopedic department.
The key to this event’s success, says Lisa Sack, the foundation’s development and events specialist, is putting the right vendors in place and trusting their abilities. “Give your vendors creative freedom and don’t limit them because they’re the experts in their field; let them do what they do best.”
Sack brings all of her vendors together to discuss the event’s objectives and budget. “We sit at the same table and we talk through the logistics and that’s when we really get the creativity flowing,” she says.
Many vendors donate portions of their services, so Sack is sure to provide referrals and promote them at the gala.
It’s also essential to trust the volunteers who work the event. Sack has a strong core of helpers who are loyal to the foundation and understand how the gala works.
“I train them and I know that they will follow through and really take ownership of it,” says Sack of the high-level tasks
she assigns. “I think people enjoy having that responsibility.”
Trusting volunteers and vendors to elevate the guest experience ultimately means less work for her. “The more control you can relinquish, the more effective you can be overall. You have to put the right framework in place to be successful,” she says.
Excel at telling your story.
Greg Taylor was an addict who turned his life around thanks to The Salvation Army of Metro Detroit’s Bed & Bread Program, which provides meals, shelter and counseling to people in need. Now, he drives one of the nonprofit’s soup kitchen trucks, giving others the same assistance he once received.
Stories like his helped The Salvation Army raise more than $1.5 million during its 32nd annual Bed & Bread Program Radiothon in February.
“We had clients who had been helped who could say, ‘I was down and out. This is the problem I had in my life. The Salvation Army provided a meal or provided shelter. This is how your donation is allowing The Salvation Army to be the conduit that had a positive influence on my life,’” says John Hale, who leads development for the organization’s Eastern Michigan Division, based in Southfield.
Stories were audio- and video-taped for use on radio and social media, and also shared in-person during the radiothon’s live broadcast.
Hale credits radio station 760 WJR, which hosted the fundraiser, for easing the tension of some clients (who were uncomfortable doing interviews) through gentle coaching.
In addition, the event’s radio personalities and many program guests and major donors, such as Ford Motor Company Fund staff, spent time on the Bed & Bread trucks so they could share their own experiences on-air.
“They are able to meet clients and hand out sandwiches for a few hours in the afternoon or evening while our trucks are out. Then they are able to share the stories that they see, and that’s been really effective for our fundraising and for sharing what we’re really doing,” says Hale.
To date the Radiothon has raised more than $36 million for the Bed & Bread program. The next event is Feb. 28, 2020.
Stay in touch with sponsors throughout the year.
More than 800 people attended the Michigan Shines for Autism Gala at the MotorCity Casino in Detroit in April, raising more than $1 million for the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM).
Corporate sponsorships accounted for three-quarters of the money raised, which funded the nonprofit’s Navigator program. That provides free professional case management service to Michigan families affected by the disorder.
Companies sponsor the gala for different reasons. “Some people are very interested in the marketing piece of it and they want their name out there. Some of our higher levels are doing it because of a relationship with one of our board members,” says Colleen Allen, CEO of the Bingham Farms-based organization.
Different levels of sponsorship come with different benefits, from having names included in marketing, invitations and signage to getting mentioned in radio ads, speaking on-stage and having AAoM-affiliated professionals host “Autism 101” lunch-and-learns for employees.
AAoM customizes sponsorship benefits on request. It also actively stays in touch with sponsors throughout the year.
“We don’t want it to feel like a transaction,” explains Allen of sponsoring the gala. “We want it to feel like a partnership and that they’re involved in something bigger than themselves.”
As such, AAoM regularly calls and emails sponsors to share photos, stories of individuals and the impact their support is having on communities in their part of the state.
“I think that makes a big difference. That way they don’t start dodging your calls because they think every time they see my name I’m asking for money,” says Allen. “Instead, they’re much more likely to support the next year’s event."
The gala is a favorite of business and legislative leaders and features a formal dinner, live music, program and silent auction. The next one is April 18, 2020 at MotorCity Casino Hotel.
Respect Guests’ love of tradition.
People know what to expect at the 36th annual Detroit Aglow, a fundraiser for the Downtown Detroit Partnership being held Nov. 25 at MGM Grand Detroit, and that’s a good thing.
“It’s a traditional event. Tradition is its success,” says Mary Riegle, who oversees development efforts, including membership sponsorship and foundation relations for the nonprofit organization.
The Monday evening affair attracts more than 800 business, civic, philanthropic and community leaders and raises $250,000 for initiatives that include programming for Campus Martius Park, Cadillac Square and other downtown public spaces.
A highlight of the Thanksgiving celebration is when 72 roast turkeys are marched out of the kitchen and set on small carving stands next to each dining table.
“The table appoints a turkey carver and this is something that people either are gunning for and are very excited about or they’re playing chicken with each other,” Riegle says, laughing. (Carvers are provided a chef’s coat and hat.)
And just like a family Thanksgiving where unexpected guests might attend (a new colleague who recently moved here or college student who couldn’t make it home), organizers squeeze in two “surprise” guests at each 10-person table.
“People really enjoy meeting someone new, interacting with others, maybe getting to network in a way that you thought you never would,” says Riegle.
Each year new elements, such as sponsored cocktails or a photo booth, add spice to the event, but overall it stays true to its roots.
“Having done other galas, sometimes you spend a lot of time and energy trying to create something new, which may or may not pan out the way you want it,” admits Riegle.
Sticking with what people want “enables me to focus on what’s important, which is creating a stellar event while meeting the other demands of my job,” she says.
Autism Alliance of Michigan
Downtown Detroit Partnership
National Kidney Foundation of Michigan
The Pink Fund
The Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division