Two For One

April 15, 2009       Michele Donohue      

It pays knowing some people. For City Harvest, it was more about the savings. A co-chair for the New York City-based hunger relief organization was friendly with someone at another organization, Food Allergy Initiative Northwest. Both organizations were having events at the same location on the same day and decided to cut down their budgets by sharing décor and flower costs.

"It was pretty organic how it happened," said Naomi Giges, associate director of special events at City Harvest.

Giges said the decorating partnership is just one change made this year in an effort to drive down the annual event’s cost by an estimated 15 to 20 percent while program needs are soaring.

Known as the Practical Magic Ball for 25 years, the event name changed to An Evening of Practical Magic to reflect how the event was perceived.

It’s hard to justify glamorous social fundraisers with most nonprofits battling an increased need for programs and donors might not have the budget for extravagant tickets. You can’t roll out the red carpet if you want to keep your hands on the green, so nonprofits are trying to cut costs without slashing donor relationships.

Thinking Beyond Borders is a 35-week program for students deferring college enrollment for a year to explore and learn about other countries, such as Ecuador, India and South Africa. Although 2008 was the first program year, the Fairfield, Conn.-based organization held five events last year to get off the ground and is already discussing scaling back those events for 2009, according to Jennifer Stakich, director of fundraising. "I think people understand that if they are not able to give as much, they want to see the money go further," she said.

One of the events was a fundraising Halloween party costing $100 per ticket in New York City, when the economy "hadn’t really hit the fan yet," explained Stakich.

The event reached nearly 100 attendees but the venue, dinner and drinks costs ate into revenue. "We thought that was pretty inhibiting to the fundraising effort," said Stakich. Now the organization is exploring other options, such as smaller events with reduced ticket prices and sticking to cash bars instead of open bars.

Stakich also said thinking outside the box might help secure a cheaper venue. Thinking Beyond Borders hosts a pasta dinner and barbeque event in conjunction with the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. Instead of renting an expensive indoor venue, the organization found an outdoor pavilion to rent near the running site — for just $50 a day. Stakich said rethinking costs might have been "a blessing in disguise" and expected donors to enjoy being outdoors more than an indoor facility.

The Lee County American Cancer Society (ACS) in Florida tries to mix up the event location for its annual Cattle Barons’ Ball each year. Two years ago, the organization chose the Boston Red Sox spring training field in Fort Meyers, Fla., to accommodate more than 700 guests. The event was fun but the field location came with a price. The organization needed to bring in power, a tent and portable restrooms, according to board member Jessica Barton.

This year, the organization held the Cattle Barons’ Ball in an airplane hangar at a local municipal airport. "The hangar was awesome. It was sort of magical at sunset with the small planes taking off and landing just 100 yards from the party," said Barton.

Lee County ACS still needed additional lighting, security and restrooms, but the hangar didn’t require such a large tent as the spring training event, which cut down on costs. Now the organization is looking for a venue that wouldn’t require any tents for the 2010 event – a $25,000 savings.

Giges said she tried to make cuts that wouldn’t deflate City Harvest’s event – analyzing everything from invitations to cost of labor to transition from the Food Allergy Initiative’s event seating arrangement.

"The biggest thing for us was really paying attention to what’s happening in the world, the economy and the environment," she explained. "I sat down with our budget and looked at every single line and said, ‘Is this necessary?’"

Giges said reworking invitation mailings can reduce costs. City Harvest opted for a one-color invitation versus a multi-color approach it took in previous years and changed to a lower-cost paper stock.

The mailing list was another challenge. She said the organization streamlined the list and kept an eye out for returned mail. Of course, the organization deals with returned envelopes. "It does add a little extra work, but over time you eliminate thousands of invitations you would just be wasting," said Giges. "Every little dollar counts and even things like saving on stamps and saving on return mail is important." Some people even opted-in for a Facebook event notice or email invitation.

She said organizations planning a special event should utilize their volunteer base. That way some projects can be done in-house instead of relying solely on outside event planners.

The Lee County ACS decided to build sets for a saloon and barn entry for the ball instead of renting, which allows the organization to use the sets again this year without any costs. Barton explained that some large equipment, like parking barriers and generators, were donated for additional savings. The organization saved $50,000 between the donated items, venue and catering changes, like offering beef bits and pulled pork instead of cooked-to-order steaks.

Donated items and sponsorships can take some financial stress off the event. Giges explained that Credit Suisse, a financial services company, agreed to underwrite dinner costs for the City Harvest event while the organization’s board of directors and co-chairs decided to underwrite any additional costs. That allows for 100 percent of the ticket sales to go into programming.

And while looking at every line of the budget can be time consuming, Giges said it’s crucial for the bottom line, especially when demand for services skyrockets. The mission, not an ice sculpture, should take center stage.

"We need to still find a way to raise money to feed people and even more people than we have in the past because more people are losing their jobs and lines are longer in the food pantries," said Giges. "We still have to keep going." NPT