Not Necessarily Christmas

March 15, 2007       Marla Nobles      

Furry awards shows, hand-me-down couture, a desperate housewife,and… port-o-potties? If this past year was any indication, nonprofits eschewed the same-old, instead running with the unexpected for their 2006 holiday fundraising campaigns.

“We had so many corporate sponsors flood in for our holiday fundraiser, that our journal got so big we actually had to stop taking them,” gushed Alesia Soltanpanah, vice president of development for North Shore Animal League America. Soltanpanah said the biggest surprise was how easily the shelter garnered that corporate support.

North Shore’s DogCatemy Awards Gala, its first-ever, drew 62 pages of corporate sponsors. Soltanpanah attributed the overwhelming response to the uniqueness of the event, modeled after Hollywood’s glamour-filled Academy Awards, just furrier.

The gala, underwritten by corporate sponsors, was held this past November 29 at Manhattan’s chic bank-turned-ballroom, Capitale. Portable restrooms were set up “just in case,” with pet handlers at the ready. And just to show that, at least for one night, pets and humans were equals, the sit-down dinner was unconditional, and North Shore provided catering to both.

“There’s a lot of competition in this market, in the animal shelter world,” said Soltanpanah, who said competition is especially fierce in New York City, where numerous national pet rescue charities are headquartered. “So, we wanted to do something that would help us stand out.” Aside from the unique concept, she said it helped that the shelter’s clientele included a number of big names.

Some 23 celebrities and their pets participated in the event, from NBC News anchor Brian Williams to reality television star Lisa Gastineau, 18 of whom produced a two-minute “film” starring celebrity and pet(s). The films were shown and judged during the event, with awards given out in five categories.

The event grossed $200,000 in four hours, and nearly 15 percent of the 300 ticket buyers became new donors, “which was higher than expected,” said Soltanpanah. North Shore successfully targeted an “upper income” audience, as the $500 tickets sold fast.

Word of mouth surprisingly took the lead in North Shore’s marketing campaign, said Soltanpanah, who had expected the direct mail push to major donors to excel with ticket sales. North Shore placed ads on at least 25 Web sites targeting areas in and around New York City. Other sites picked up the ads, along with pet groups and pet-centric publications, which spread word further through list connections.

The small screen

The audience at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” got more than it bargained for when Minnie Driver took the stage on the afternoon talk show this past December. She was there in part to endorse a holiday campaign as unique and unexpected as the camel that followed close behind the actress.

One month earlier, Oxfam America unveiled its Unwrapped campaign, an online “alternative” gift catalog. “It’s a fundraising drive, and it’s certainly a way to get the word out about Oxfam, but never before have we done something like this,” said Paulette Song, a spokeswoman for the organization. “These are symbolic gifts,” she added, meaning that whatever donors purchase, let’s say a camel, they don’t receive the item. Rather, it’s used in Oxfam’s programs.

The lighthearted concept is simple, said Song. Donors can go online (OxfamAmericaUnwrapped.com) and purchase any of the 36 items, ranging from $18 for water jugs to a $50 emergency toilet to $7,500 to staff a workers’ rights center.

Oxfam Great Britain launched its own version of Unwrapped during 2004, raising “tens of millions of pounds,” said Song. The British charity doubled its expectations during the first year. “Oxfam is better known in the United Kingdom, but it’s a much smaller market. So, to have those kinds of numbers its first couple years out is remarkable,” said Song.

Oxfam unleashed an enormous marketing campaign for Unwrapped. The charity purchased ads in national publications (O, The Oprah Magazine), created one-of-a-kind Go Cards, postcards placed in kiosks in major cities nationwide, placed Web banners on select sites for major cities such as Boston.com, and used keyword buys. Song said she’s not at liberty to discuss the “actual nuts and bolts budget,” said Oxfam employed “significant resources.”

Numbers had yet to come in at press- time. Said Song, “I can tell you that for this same six-week period (Oct. 10 through Nov. 26) last year, we have far exceeded our typical fundraising numbers.” Average gift amount hovered around $109, she said.

A holiday frock

When someone mentions fashion, Washington, D.C., isn’t exactly the first destination that comes to mind. But this past September, Goodwill of Greater Washington positioned the nation’s capital as the fashion capital for a day with The Fashion of Goodwill, the charity’s second annual runway show & gala. The event, attended by 400 of the area’s elite, was held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

The objective, said Brendan Hurley, vice president, marketing and communications, was to grow the charity’s corporate support. “We just thought, what a good way to showcase our primary source of revenue, which is our retail stores, and at the same time, appeal to a market that people wouldn’t typically think would shop at Goodwill stores.”

Goodwill utilized high fashion as a way to “reposition (its retail stores) so that people understand that while most of the merchandise is donated, it’s quality merchandise.” The charity hired a professional fashion designer to style the event and professional models to walk the runway, “but everything is off the racks at the Goodwill stores,” assured Hurley. “Everything.”

The black-tie event, which for the second year preceded New York City’s Fall Fashion Week, netted $103,000 for Goodwill of Greater Washington, an increase of 3 percent compared to the inaugural event. Goodwill received significant corporate support, in the form of sponsorships and table purchases ranging from $3,500 to $30,000 each. But it was the unexpected that made the difference in this year’s profits.

“We tried something new this year,” said Hurley. “We built a temporary retail store at our silent auction, and we had people who I can guarantee you never shopped at a Goodwill store in their life practically fighting over items. Not literally, but I mean they were just going crazy.” The retail store raised $2,900 in just two hours, said Hurley, “which for Goodwill is absolutely phenomenal.”

Cyber event

When Planned Parenthood Federation of America tallied the results of its 2006 Mother’s Day fundraiser, the charity unexpectedly struck gold. The email campaign was the third most-successful online push ever for the organization.

“That’s pretty impressive, considering the most successful fundraising campaign was for Hurricane Katrina,” said Ted Kohnen, assistant director of online fundraising. The second, said Kohnen, was PPFA’s “Stand with the States” email campaign, launched this past March to fight abortion bans nationwide.

So, how did Mother’s Day compete with the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, and with one of our nation’s most impassioned issues?

“Using a celebrity gives us an angle that is not normally used,” said Kohnen, who said PPFA garnered the support and signatures of mother-daughter team actresses Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow for the 2006 Mother’s Day campaign. “Having a celebrity speak to one of our list members is like having a supporter talk to a supporter instead of the president of an organization talking to a supporter. It resonates in a different way, and gets people motivated.”

The Danner/Paltrow email was followed days later by a second email appeal to the same 245,000 list members, either thanking the donors who gave, or reminding those who hadn’t to give. “We used slightly different wording,” said Kohnen, who said by using GetActive’s conditional content tool PPFA easily segmented their list and targeted the different emails.

The Mother’s Day email had an open rate of nearly 20 percent, up from PPFA’s normal 2006 rate of 16 percent. The donation participation rate hovered around 0.4 percent, double what the charity usually gets. Kohnen declined to provide revenue, but said the campaign “definitely exceeded expectations.”

Due to that success, PPFA kicked off a similar effort in early December, this time using appeals written and signed by actress Julianne Moore, who is on the board of advocates at PPFA. A follow-up email included the signatures of actress Felicity Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy. Results of that holiday campaign had not been finalized at presstime.

According to Kohnen, these campaigns are more than just celebrity emails. “It’s partly reminding list members of all that we’ve accomplished. It’s not just saying, ‘It’s year-end, get your tax break in now.’ It’s kind of summing up the year,” said Kohnen. “And it’s partly that we want to stand apart. We’re hoping that this will be something fresh for (donors), and get them to at least first open the email.” NPT