Crop Circles & Sleeping Late

November 1, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

For most fundraisers, it wouldn’t help much if they told their donors to get lost. It has become a windfall for the Life Adventure Center (LAC) of the Bluegrass in Versailles, Ky.

Don Fulford took over as executive director in 2008 after running a medical society foundation and was having a tough time getting donors, grants or visitors to the 575-acre learning center. Then he heard about for-profit farms that were bringing in 10,000 to 20,000 visitors annually by creating mazes within their cornfields. “We thought we’d give it a try, and it’s been really amazing,” Fulford said.

Fulford describes LAC as a typical nonprofit when it comes to sources of revenue, seeking grants and donors, as well as getting some earned income and sales, to amass an annual budget of about $1 million. He expects to net approximately $60,000 from the maze this year.

The 16-acre maze is open from Labor Day until Nov. 1. Fulford expects at least 10,000 people to pass through, paying from $10 to $12 each. Sponsors cover the approximately $20,000 for maze construction. A firm that does about 100 mazes in 45 states designs it. Sponsors, a local bank and television station, have their logos designed into the maze, along with symbols representing the center’s programming. “Some organizations are getting even more than that,” he said. “For our second year, that’s just really exploding. Now we’re getting to a point where sponsors are calling us to get into the maze for next year,” Fulford said.

A ‘CORNY’ IDEA

The maze isn’t just about earned income for LAC. It has also brought more people interested in the farm and learning center. “We’ve increased our programming,” Fulford said. The maze has helped boost LAC’s newsletter mailing list by almost 800 names.

“That was our biggest challenge, getting people out. We started pointing out there’s a lot of educational, hands-on things they can do. Once we engaged them, it was incredible,” Fulford said.

Participation rates at the center have skyrocketed, said Fulford, from fewer than 2,000 families in 2008 to more than 12,000 last year, and more than half of those directly attributable to the maze. Earned income jumped from $85,000 to an estimated $315,000 this year, he said.

The maze has solved many of the organization’s problems, according to Fulford, with potential donors visiting the corn maze and then getting exposed to the LAC’s learning center. “One of the biggest problems for many nonprofits is just getting people in the door to see what you do,” Fulford said. Interested families also sign up to win giveaways by adding their names to the center’s mailing list.

Among the center’s year-round activities are camping, environmental education, equine programs, a working farm harvesting hay and corn, and hosting teachers, parents and school groups. The maze, which also has been used for overnight camping and corporate retreats, encompasses less than 3 percent of the group’s real estate.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that each year, it’ll get bigger and bigger,” Fulford said. It might not take long for Fulford’s wish to come true. A Wall Street Journal report a year ago noted a rise in what it called “agri-tainment.” Small family farms across the United States in some cases have boosted gross revenue from as little as $50,000 to $1 million by converting parts of their properties into mazes during the fall.

Rural Hill in Huntersville, N.C., about 15 miles north of Charlotte, started doing a corn maze in 1998, hosting it every other year until 2004, when it became an annual event. “The demand was there. It was hard to afford not to do it,” said Executive Director Jeff Fissel. The maze has become the historic site’s biggest fundraiser and includes other activities, such as a pumpkin patch and hay rides during its 10-week run each fall.

“The corn maze itself is what allows us to continue,” said Fissel, who aims for more than 20,000 visitors to the maze each year. “I think it has gained in popularity. People are seeing it as a normal fall activity,” he said. It takes 60 to 90 minutes for visitors to complete the seven-acre maze.

Revenue from Rural Hill’s Amazing Maize Maze was about $200,000, according to the organization’s most recent federal Form 990, accounting for nearly half its $500,000 in total revenue that year. A working farm and historic site, Rural Hill hosts other events throughout the year on its 265 acres, including sheep dog trials and a Scottish festival, which are other big fundraisers.

VIDEO DIVERSION

The idea for a 24-hour gaming marathon called “Extra Life” came to Jeromy Adams when he had exhausted all other ideas to give back.

“I am a gamer. I do not walk or bike,” said Adams, radiothon director at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMN). “But I realized I could do something else to make a difference.” In its fourth year, Extra Life has grown from a standalone event in the Texas area to an international event embraced by the 185 hospitals in the CMN network. After going national in 2010, the event raised $465,000. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, CMN has seen contributions increase from the gaming marathon’s beginnings, from $120,000 in 2008 to $170,000 in 2009. All money goes back to the local hospital where it was raised.

Adams began Extra Life in 2008 after an experience with a young leukemia patient, Victoria “Tori” Enmon. A gamer, too, Enmon made a great impression on Adams, leading him to ask the gaming community to donate their own video game equipment.

“Stuff came in from all over the world,” Adams said. “We received money, game consoles and video games. We literally covered her whole bed with items that had been donated. At this point I realized that gamers were not as young as I thought, and could be counted on for contributions.” After Enmon died in 2008 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 15, Adams knew he had to do more. Designed as an “inclusive” event, Extra Life participants are asked to raise money by recruiting at least four sponsors. Each sponsor donates a minimum $1 for each marathon hour. This year the event has 6,000 gamers signed up. Increased corporate support has come from Microsoft and GameStop, which has promoted the event in its stores.

“We have been really seeing an outpouring of support from some major gaming corporations,” Adams said. “I’m finally seeing Tori’s story told. We will never be able to communicate how huge of a person she was, but we are getting closer. It’s getting more and more fulfilling for me. It has not been about the dollars raised, but being able to Google her name and find compliments about the way she lived her life.”

He admits it is not healthy to play video games for 24 hours, and recently made the marathon a little more flexible. Participants can now complete the marathon on their own. They do not need stay for the whole 24 hours. Some parents have used the marathon to regulate how long their children are playing video games, said Adams. A parent will let a child play video games one-hour per night for example, while continuing the marathon on subsequent days. Crediting the program’s success to the collaborative nature of CMN’s hospitals, Adams said he feels joy when he sees bedridden children worrying about completing the next level of a video game rather than their own medical condition.

“The folks that I’m having the hardest time explaining Extra Life to is people who do not play video games,” which is most people, said Adams. “People fail to realize that video games are outdoing all other kinds of medium in consumption. For the children at our hospital, their childhood does not really follow them. We now have a whole new profession of people trying to have kids feel like kids. Video gaming is just one of the tools they can use,” he said. NO DOZING Continuing the trend of fundraising in everyday activities, LetGive in New York City has released an alarm clock app that donates 25 cents to a favorite charity after a user presses the snooze button.

Elizabeth Fastiggi, chief strategy officer of LetGive, said the program, aptly called “Snooze,” tries to capitalize on fundraising through someone’s normal lifestyle. “We’re all about integrating opportunities to utilize a person’s lifestyle,” said Fastiggi. “Anyone can develop an app for people to donate, but it is content and functionality. Another important part of this is that a lot of organization’s donor base is getting older. They need to start cultivating younger donors. You find these young people on their smart phones and computers.” Released this past August, the app has been downloaded 3,000 times and has 1,500 active users. Fastiggi said that no specific donation amounts are known because they have yet to integrate the platform with a payment processor.

Every two weeks users are sent an email report of their charges. Once confirmed, contributions go to the charity. Users can also opt out of the charges all together. LetGive takes a 20-percent transaction fee (inclusive of the fee paid to the payment processor). It would take 500 presses of the “snooze” button for a charity to receive $100.

Although the app has only 13 nonprofit partners so far, once the payment processor is integrated, users can donate to 750,000 organizations. “The point of the app is to have a user engaging with an organization when they would not normally,” Fastiggi. “We asked ourselves: ‘What’s the simplest thing we do?’ and realized people were increasingly using their phone as an alarm clock. It shows that although we do something that makes us feel guilty, an aspect of it can be good.” NPT