Nonprofits fill pockets … err … coffers

April 1, 2001       Matthew Sinclair      

Sex sells. It may also give.

Actually, what may make donors give is tastefully expressed nudity, several organizations have found out.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) based in White Plains, N.Y., and the Leukaemia Research Fund (LRF) in London were the recipients of the proceeds from The Ladies of Rylstone 19-month calendar.

The ladies, whose Alternative Women’s Institute had been selling "village calendars" of scenic views of the northern English village for years, disrobed in memory of the late husband of Miss February.

Rick Geswell, senior vice president for revenue development at LLS, said the women called the organization directly and asked whether it would want half the proceeds of the calendar. "We thought it had a little bit of risk," he admitted. "Our fear was, we’re not England. They’re cheeky."

Andrew Trehearne, head of communications for LRF, said the ladies approached them when the calendar was almost complete. "We are still not sure how much it has raised," he said via email. "It is about £400,000 in the U.K., but we still have monies to come in from sales in the United States and the United Kingdom."

Trehearne said the ladies had hoped to sell a few copies in the local pub and shop, expecting to raise only a couple thousand pounds. "We thought they would get more interest, but even then we were not prepared for the global interest that followed."

Both Trehearne and Geswell said there were key ingredients that made the calendar, in particular the quality of the photography and the sincerity of the ladies themselves. "Forget the subject matter," said Trehearne, "every photo is perfectly staged and a photographic work of art in its own right. As time passes we have begun to realize just how important it was to get the feel of the photos right."

Said Geswell, "This certainly captured the imagination of people, whether you liked it or hated it." And most people in America seemed to love it, except for "one person who was offended by it in Pennsylvania somewhere." he said. "The local chapter people responded to it."

Trehearne, too, said there was little negativity about the calendar.

"I could count the number of letters complaining about our association with the women on the fingers of one hand," he said. "We did discuss whether the calendar would have a negative impact on our traditional fundraising base — predominantly older, conservative — but it just has not happened."

Geswell said he believed LLS has received about $60,000 so far, "but we haven’t received anything (yet) from the second printing."

And that money required very little effort on LLS’s side. "We didn’t do a lot of advertising or marketing," he said, though the calendar was made available to those who donated $20 or more.

Once may have been enough, though. Geswell said with a laugh. "I’m pretty confident we wouldn’t (recommend it to other nonprofits). I think it’s very risky."

Essentially, the organizations took a shot when a unique opportunity knocked, and LLS doesn’t expect it to knock the same way again. "I’d never do this on my own," Geswell said. "It was what it was meant to be. It was a good idea. It happened. It was done with taste."

But good ideas rarely go unnoticed, especially when nudity is involved. For example, inspired by the British women, the St. James Community Service Society in Vancouver, Canada asked Lorrie Williams, 60, to join in its topless calendar. After she’d done the photo shoot, Williams, who’d received numerous honors as an educator and charity official, ran for the federal parliament.

"It was done as a lark," Williams said of the calendar. "Ninety-five percent were in favor and chuckled about it. Some people were horrified."

Williams, who finished third in the election, said the calendar was tasteful and worthwhile, though she doesn’t plan on a repeat performance. "Once is enough," Williams said. "It’s not something (an organization) can do every year," she added.

Jill Spicer, volunteer coordinator with the organization, said the calendar should raise around (Can.) $20,000, and she didn’t recommend it for other organizations. "It’s way too much work for a small development office to handle," she said.

In addition to the calendar being a fun project, "it helped build relationships for the organization," Spicer said. "It doesn’t begin and end with the calendar."

Of course, people have been going nude since Eden, and even in the nonprofit sector it isn’t a completely new device for attracting attention for fundraisers. The New York Academy of Art has held its "Take Home a Nude" auction of paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs for 10 years.

In 2000, the academy raised more than $300,000, according to Joe Heissan, the organization’s development director, who described the event as its largest fundraiser.

Last year the academy worked with ArtNet to provide access to online bids, thereby broadening the impact of the event finding buyers in Italy and Hawaii, as well as closer to the Big Apple. Changes at ArtNet, however, have left the organization without an online auction partner for its June event.

Heissan explained the event also ties into what the students focus on in their studies. "Everything is focused on the human figure," he said, including not only sculpture, drawing, and painting classes but also courses on human anatomy. "It’s an expression of our classes."

Heissan added, "The nudes aren’t there to be titillating. Some of them are shocking but that’s not the point of it."

The event has also become a way for the organization to connect to potential future donors. In addition to generating interest by showing the items up for bid a week before the auction, the academy has begun holding lectures for collectors groups and museum groups.

Though not every item includes a nude figure any more (England’s Prince Charles provided a landscape painting he created, for example), most of the paintings follow the trademarked title of the event, according to Heissan. "The name itself is catchy," he said. "It lets people know what they’re coming to. They’re not coming to see a bunch of daisies."

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