Stress Free Summer Events

March 1, 2006       Craig Causer      

Summer is the season for exotic locales, vacations from work and time spent with friends and family. Despite the season’s endless entertainment options, nonprofits have not taken a vacation from holding summer events, many of which have proven effective without overwhelming staff, volunteers or organizations’ expense statements.

Who knew that Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were sowing the seeds of the summertime event when Dee Dee took to skydiving to silence a chauvinistic Frankie in Beach Blanket Bingo? Actually, it took a woman battling Crohn’s disease to prove that taking the plunge could mean raking in the cash.

Two years ago, a Maryland woman with Crohn’s decided that she wanted to show the world that she was still active and able to do all of the things that an non-afflicted person could do. She arranged to jump from a plane to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) in New York City. Her solo efforts raised between $2,000 and $3,000 and was the genesis for what has become the foundation’s Jumping Blue Beans event.

In 2004, CCFA’s first Jumping Blue Beans event was held at an airfield in New Jersey. Each jumper was required to pledge a minimum of $500. The event attracted 33 people and raised $40,000, according to Roger Komen, vice president of new enterprises at CCFA.

“The event was such a success the first year that we’ve gone from the Jumping Blue Beans to expand to what we call the Skydive Across America,” Komen said. “We have five locations on one day and you can choose which you’d like to attend. This year it’s on May 14 and it’s going to be in Houston, Chicago, Las Vegas Farmingdale, N.J. and Sebastian, Fla.”

Komen’s goal this year is to raise $100,000, though he believes the event will reap as much as $125,000. Costs fall between $25,000-$30,000, he said, which includes “significant discounts” on the jumping price at the five locations. The event has received free advertising in publications such as Parachute News.

Arranging the event is simple, according to Komen. From start to finish, the set-up takes six months. The most time-consuming decisions include finding the right locations and the appropriate chapters to support it. Aside from adding the organization’s Jumping Blue Bean mascot and T-shirts to the mix, the local jumping site does most of the set-up work. The only thing CCFA really has to do is the administrative work and some advertising for the event, Komen said.

“We’re basically buying the jumps in bulk, so there’s a very high profit margin,” Komen explained. “All the people had to do after pledging the money was to come to the event, jump and have a great time. We take care of everything else. Last year, the average pledge was around $1,050. For the amount of work to put on this event, time and financial constraints are really not that significant and the return is very high.”

For those seeking to avoid any onset of aeronausiphobia, the great outdoors offers other viable event options, including the all-American tradition, the barbecue. The Manchester Boys & Girls Club (MBGC) in Manchester, N.H., fires up the grill to coincide with National Kids Day, which is designed to be celebrated the first Sunday in August.

MBGC found that many of its parents with kids in camp go away during the summer weekends so it schedules its annual event from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. on the prior Friday evening. The evening is billed as the Bring Your Family to Camp BBQ and Open House, where the kids who attend its camp throughout the summer can invite their parents and families to come and join them at camp.

Of course it helps that the organization also owns a 20-acre camp facility that includes cabins, a pond, a pool, a playground and ball fields.

“Many of the kids are inner city youth who can’t afford the programs as it is, so we don’t see a lot of direct donations coming back from the parents,” admitted Tracey Adams, associate director of development at MBGC. “But we invite our donors to come out with their families, as well. We call it a free feel- good event for them. They can come and see their dollars and work and have the opportunity to meet some of the kids.”

This meet, greet and eat is made possible through the donation of all of the food, including hot dogs and hamburgers and dessert. Local businesses provide the supplies and the nonprofit’s staff cooks it. Last year, 350 people attended and there was enough food that MBGC rolled over the excess to feed its summer camp.

All told, the event rings up a bill less than $1,000, Adams said.

“We mailed out postcards to our donors, about 400 postcards at 23 cents a piece, and that is the main cost,” Adams explained. “We did invest some money in the Boys & Girls Club national site where we ordered promotional materials and items such as frisbees and T-shirts that said National Kids Day. So about $400 on all of that. But really, when you’re at the event and you see the kids having fun with families, staff and supporters, it’s really a small price to pay.”

Summer events can be done by air, land or sea, or in the case of Legacy, a Regional Community Foundation in Winfield, Kan., the local aquatic center for recreation. For more than six years, in the small community of 15,000, 200 women have gathered at poolside to raise approximately $1,000 annually for the foundation.

“We usually don’t start until 8:30-9 p.m., when it starts to get dark,” explained Pam Moore, executive director of Legacy. “There’s really no organized activity or anything. It’s just a way to take over the swimming pool, rest and relax without the children and let the ladies stand around and chat in the water. Everyone brings finger food and they take a donation at the door. There isn’t much more to it than that.”

The evening costs “a couple hundred dollars,” according to Moore. Legacy gets approval to use the pool and it sends out invitations. Administrative work involves a few hours of planning and people willing to keep the database up to date.

New Zoo Revue

For those donors who contribute at least $125, The Oregon Zoo Foundation has provided an added incentive to become an early riser on Saturday mornings. Four times per year, June through September, the Portland-based zoo opens its gates from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. for the “Early Hours” program.

Select donors have the privilege of early admission to the zoo where they spend an hour with a designated animal and one of its keepers. Early Hours has been popular, pulling in 200 people per event on nice weather days. The event is designed as a fulfillment and not a fundraiser.

“I schedule my four dates with different keepers on the grounds,” said Lisa Goodwin, membership and annual giving manager at the zoo’s foundation. “On the day of the event, myself and the gate staff check the donor club members who come in. They spend an hour with the keeper. They don’t go behind the scenes or anything, it’s time specifically set aside to speak with the keeper about that animal or other animals in that area. We also have a couple of volunteer educators who are there. That’s three staff, two volunteers and one hour.”

The foundation assumes the cost for the staff person at the zoo’s gate, and since they are unionized, that amounts to a minimum of four hours time, which is approximately $30 to $40, Goodwin said. The keepers are already at work at that hour so the foundation does not have to pay for them.

Postcards for the event are sent to donors via one mailing conducted in the spring. The printing, mailing and postage are the primary expenses for the event and those fees come in at under $2,000, Goodwin added.

“It’s scary how little time it takes to put together,” acknowledged Goodwin. “It’s done mostly by email. I think I had one meeting with the general curator and it was for 10 minutes. Then we do these event alerts on the week of the event. I also help with the check-in. I would say it takes a total of six to eight hours for preparation for the event.”

While the Oregon Zoo offers an inside glimpse of its resident animals, another nonprofit features its creatures in soft-shoe and song. For the first time, Project PLASE, a housing provider for the homeless in Baltimore, is turning to a professional theater performance to raise funds. The nonprofit sold tickets to the theater production of The Lion King, housed at the classically-restored Hippodrome Performing Arts Center.

Project PLASE purchased 82 tickets and although the prices were not discounted due to its status as a nonprofit, it did receive a general group rate discount.

“It was $68.50 per ticket and we sold them for $100,” said Sarah Waters Zic, director of communications and development for the nonprofit.

“We knew we wanted about 100 tickets but it’s such a popular show. So, I came up with 82 because that’s the number I could get in the best seats for the price range that we selected. We’re not going to make a ton of money off this event. We’re more doing it to get the word out about who we are. We’ve been around for 30 years but a lot of people don’t know us.”

When the idea was floated in November 2004, Project PLASE had to balance its risk since the ticket fees were all up-front costs. Ultimately, tickets went like hotcakes, so much so that Waters Zic plans to purchase 200 next year.

The evening includes a wine and cheese event and a silent auction. The organization is working to procure items. Since the event is a performance and is held at the Hippodrome there is no clean up. All Waters Zic has to do is draw parking maps and post the silent auction items on its Web site.

The organization paid the $3,500 fee for the wine and cheese, which includes Hippodrome staffing, bartenders and security, up front and saved eight tickets for sponsors. Sponsors were targeted at the $1000 level. Although Zic said multiple sponsors were lined up, none were confirmed as of press time. She estimated that the organization will make between $3,000 and $5,000 in ticket sales and the silent auction, not including sponsorships.

Initiating the event entailed Waters Zic and Project PLASE board members selling tickets. Much of the advertising was already built into the show, she added.

“Clear Channel (producer of The Lion King) has done so much of the marketing of the show, which is another reason why this is an easy event,” Waters Zic said. “There are posters and ads in the paper every weekend. So people are getting excited about The Lion King. We put it in our newsletter and that’s about it. The rest has been word of mouth. It’s been a great way to ride on somebody else’s advertising.”

Staff affection

With all of the types of events available, funds to raise and constituents to appeal, the population often overlooked is the people behind all of the hard work. The Illinois Facilities Fund ( IFF) in Chicago has a remedy by combining an event for its staff with its annual retreat.

Each summer the organization holds a half-day staff retreat to focus on a specific staff development issue. The staff then heads off for an outing for the latter half of the day. The event last year was held at the tourist locale of Navy Pier on the lakefront of Chicago.

“We played around with a lot of ideas but decided on taking advantage of one of the tourist attractions at Navy Pier,” explained Robin Toewe, marketing communications manager at IFF. “They have a replica of one of the tall ships from the 1800s. You don’t have to organize food or other details. It’s certainly a smaller and shorter event — it’s just a few hours cruise on the lakefront – but it does keep things really simple rather than doing some banquet hall event where you have to cater food.”

IFF incurred the cost for staff members but spouses, family and friends were required to pay for their own ticket. Despite the positive feedback, Toewe is unsure if the cruise will happen again.

“There were a lot of ideas that were presented, like going to a Cubs game or having something like the picnic again,” she said. “But the majority liked the idea of a local attraction.”