Before I knew that I was working as a fundraiser in a teaching hospital (my title was Asst. Administrator of Pediatrics), I was invited to participate in the execution of several special events. In a usual week, the majority of my time was spent working with doctors and researchers to complete applications for federal research funding (stay tuned for a scintillating blog post on indirect costs in NIH grants). But across several months there was a flurry of events and I got to play a small part in their success. I take no credit for the strategies or planning of these events (I was a small fish in a large organization) but I learned a lot that I still apply in my work and training curriculum.
In 1977 John Schneider became involved in a nascent fundraising organization, the Children’s Miracle Network and its Telethon. By 1994 he was still engaged with the non-profit and playing a part in local fundraising efforts. That’s where we met (and danced the night away … that’s the story I’m sticking with). His attendance, and the excitement generated by his celebrity, showed me the power that one person can have on event attendance. Were there people who attended merely to see “Bo Duke” in a tux? Unlikely. But his participation offered a sense of excitement that spread across the ballroom.
As my career continued and I moved into positions where strategic event planning was part of my role – this lesson stayed with me. Celebrity presence at the International Red Cross Ball was always additive. Known names added legitimacy and a little thrill to invitations and, when they were good sports, to the event as well.
I don’t know the contractual details of John Schneider’s attendance.. but I do know (now) that there are usually contracts involved in these relationships / endorsements. And that the fundraiser who celebrates celebrity engagement without considering its impact on the net results of the event… and the net results of the next year’s event… is forgetting their long-term commitment to the non-profit’s mission.
The gala was not my only special event fundraising that year. There were going to be rubber duckies in the East River! Thousands of rubber duckies! They would all be numbered and one lucky duck would swim to victory – upon its crossing of the finish line the “owner” of that duck would also be named a winner in a lottery like set-up. The ducks needed to be sold and this was to be my role. I met a colleague at a six-foot table that had been set up at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in the midst of the annual International Auto Show. We had a logo tablecloth, a cash box, a receipt pad, and demo duckies. And people signed up! I’m still not sure of all of the lessons of this week (or maybe I’ve forgotten them) – but one that sticks with me… wear comfortable shoes to the auto show unless you’re one of those car models in a flashy dress and then you likely need to wear heels.
Now, I generally would try to find partners who were connected to my mission. I don’t see a natural match between children’s health care and the International Auto Show. But someone did… and their strategy was successful in bringing new dollars to the organization and increasing event visibility.
These events were part of a broad strategy to increase visibility of the hospital’s pediatric programs across New York City. Their success, and the connected success of the Children’s Miracle Network, also included some lesson in the hazards of event-based fundraising:
1. Celebrity relationships can bring both short-term and long-term results to an organization – be sure you’re working with people who truly care about your mission.
2. There will be supporters swimming in the crowd – there’s always an opportunity to talk about your work.
3. Someone else might have a winning strategy – so keep listening to all of the ideas.
4. Smile! You might want to use that photo in a blog post later.
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