Fundraising In All Shapes And Sizes

Coming up with ways to raise money while being held at knife-point is probably not the best time for such brainstorms. But, that’s how one board member of a charity raised $250 for her group.

Eschewing regular old bake sales and car washes for the more unusual, the fundraising methods in this compilation grab headlines, stop traffic, and all but “Bash” the competition. The ideas were among the dozens emailed to The NonProfit Times after a request was placed on NPT Instant Fundraising , an email newsletter of the publication that goes to 120,000 nonprofit managers across the country.

Take H. Frances Reaves, for example. The Adoptions Together board member began her daily 6 a.m. jog one morning this past February, but not before hitting a few unexpected hitches.

Undeterred by snow, “I fell down the steps (just outside my front door), hitting each one as I went down, landing on the brick sidewalk,” said Reaves, director of business development at Mintax, an East Brunswick, N.J.-based economic incentive consulting firm. With little more than a bruised ego, Reaves headed along her usual path toward Baltimore ’s Fort McHenry National Monument .

It was at Fort McHenry that Reaves encountered the speeding truck that led to her unabashed protestation, that ultimately led to the life-threatening imbroglio Reaves describes as “so unexpected” — all at just 15 minutes into her run.

“This man gets out of his truck — I could tell it was his company truck by the writing on the doors — yelling at me that I have no right to tell him he was speeding,” recalled Reaves. Taken aback, but hardly frightened (“In the back of my mind, I knew this was someone I could outrun.”), Reaves explained to the man the point of a crosswalk, to which he responded by pulling a knife from his back pocket.

“This guy wasn’t exactly Mr. Stable,” said Reaves, laughing. “But all I could think at the time was, ‘How dare anyone do that to me.’”

Reaves escaped her aggressor, returned home and called the police, who then arrested the man at his place of work.

In addition to attending a mandatory anger management course, 30 hours of community service, and 18 months of supervised probation, “I insisted that he pay money to (Adoptions Together, a nonprofit child placement and family support agency based in Silver Spring, Md.),” said the one-time prosecutor Reaves.

“When I handed the ($250) check to (associate director of Adoptions Together Dawn Musgrave), I said, ‘You know what, this one really cost me,’” added Reaves, now able to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Of Reaves’ unusual mode of fundraising, said Musgrave, “we don’t recommend this to our fundraisers. But every $250 helps.”

In a similar move, although not quite as deserving of the unabashed disclaimer, “Do Not Try This At Home,” this next fundraising idea is more extreme sports than just extreme.

Special Olympics Connecticut (SOCT) holds an annual, statewide “Penguin Plunge.” Beginning in December and running through March, eight branches of the nonprofit ask willing participants to raise money by plunging into frigid waters. The money is used for year-round programs and sports training for Special Olympics athletes.

“We solicit brave souls with warm hearts to participate,” said Robert Garguilo, director of special events at SOCT. “What they do, each Penguin — we call them, lovingly — goes out and raises money for our cause, then jumps into the ocean in the middle of winter.”

Need another cliché? “We like to call it, ‘Freezin’ for a Reason,’” he added, “and the reason being our charity.”

Plunging into freezing water has a long history in Connecticut and around the nation, including in Hawaii , where, according to Garguilo, “they fill swimming pools with ice.” The oldest plunge for the organization, in its 16th year, is in Madison , Conn. , he said.

With a minimum pledge in the form of a $25 registration fee, participants solicit friends, family and co-workers to increase that base pledge. In addition to the door-to-door approach, SOCT makes available to participants the option of setting up individual home pages via the SOCT Web site, called the TeamRaiser functionality.

“Through their home pages, participants can email friends and family, saying, ‘Here’s my story.’ Maybe they have someone in their family who’s part of Special Olympics,” explained Thomas Aitchinson, corporate communications manager for the group’s online fundraising vendor, Convio. “It’s another way of getting (donor) support that they couldn’t otherwise get.”

The eight statewide plunges this past winter raised more than $326,000 for SOCT, the bulk of which, according to SOCT development coordinator Michelle Robinson, is due to the “user friendly” online fundraising functionality. But, it was not the organization’s best year. “We had a really bitterly cold winter and numbers (of participants) were down,” said Garguilo. Anticipating a milder winter for 2005-2006, Garguilo added that he expects the Madison plunge to raise $75,000 this year.

With the food, prizes and entertainment all donated by individuals and businesses, said Garguilo, “we have very limited expenses.”

Giving with attitude

Marty Arnold understands the value of running a low-cost fundraising campaign, with a twist. Following a year of dismal fundraising returns, Arnold, an active member on the Stewardship Committee of the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids , Mich. , decided it was time to stir things up. Together with the seven other committee members, she pieced together The Grumpy Givers Guide , a brochure the committee planned to mail out as part of Fountain Street’s 2004 annual pledge drive.

“A lot of people just don’t understand what the real cost of (running) a church is,” said Arnold, a grant writer for a private, nonprofit children’s home. “In the past, it seemed to always come down to a bunch of rich people bailing us out. Well, the days of that are gone.”

The campaign was a call to arms in the hopes of meeting several lofty goals. Arnold said the goals are usually “too high, so we never reach (them). But we like to dream big.”

The mechanics were simple. At a cost of around $500 for materials plus postage, Arnold and company created a three-fold brochure with a Q&A theme to be mailed to potential donors. Utilizing all available — and free — resources, Arnold employed the skills of husband Paul, a graphic designer, and the faces of legendary, and famously grumpy, sports and pop icons ranging from Archie Bunker to Dynasty alumna Alexis Carrington “posing rather uninformed questions,” said Arnold.

“On one, we have Archie Bunker asking, ‘I throw a few bucks in the plate, that’s enough, isn’t it? Do you think I’m made of money?’”

The committee hoped church members would realize what Fountain Street needed was a commitment of funds, rather than simply throwing “a few bucks” into a plate every now and then. For the message to circulate, however, Arnold said she knew it would have to be bold and engage potential donors.

“We wanted to keep it light, (but we also) wanted something that would grab attention and hopefully motivate people to give a little more,” Arnold said. “But it was tongue in cheek all the way.”

Of the name, Arnold was equally tongue in cheek. “Simple: when we would ask for more money, people would, well, get grumpy about it. We hoped they saw a little of themselves in it.”

The church raised more than $800,000 during 2004. Due to the donor response, the Fountain Street committee decided to stick with the winning formula, but with a new spin, for the October 2005 pledge drive.

“This year we are doing a magic theme,” said Arnold . “For example, we have a silly graphic of a person being sawed in half, and it will read, ‘Give so we don’t have to cut staff.’”

In step with the tongue in cheek approach, a few years back the Los Angeles Mission needed to raise money for basics, such as underwear, for its clients.

The nation’s largest homeless shelter, with an annual budget of more than $20 million, set out to find the money. The unusual fundraising idea jumpstarted when Pastor Eric Foley, then president of the mission, happened upon a group of men over the moon with excitement about the day’s turn of events.

“They were excited,” said Foley. “The mission had just gotten in some underwear.” That’s right, underwear.

What followed for Foley was an education in humanity and the inspiration for that year’s fundraising campaign, aptly titled, The Great Underwear Shortage .

“They talked about how they deal with only having a single pair of underwear, describing how they make that pair last,” said Foley. “It was ingenious, but a terrible oversight (on the part of the donors).”

Shocked into action, Foley took an equally ingenious idea and turned it into a fundraising campaign that would both educate donors and remedy the problem. “It’s at the core of basic humanity to look at this need (for underwear) and say, ‘this needs to be met,’” said Foley.

The mission mailed a No. 10 envelope emblazoned with a pair of, well, used underwear to 240,000 donors. Foley further spiced things up with a description in the accompanying letter of how folks on Skid Row survive with one pair of underwear.

“Underwear is massively underrepresented in donations (to the mission),” Foley explained in the letter, which he paired with a request for donors to “tuck a buck” or, in other words, write a check. Beyond the low-cost direct mailing, Foley’s campaign received media exposure, courtesy of radio station KLSX-FM, on which Foley staged a successful “underwear-a-thon” with donors calling in to make pledges of briefs.

“That was kind of weird for us,” said Foley of the appearance. “(But) we ended up doubling response rates from the year before.”

Foley, who now works as an independent fundraising consultant, is well versed in how to best raise money for nonprofits. “Nonprofits ask people to become personally involved. There is a quantifiable change in financial participation as people become hands-on involved in a foundation, as they get acquainted with the issue and it becomes real (to them),” said Foley. Succinctly, “funding follows involvement.”

With the advent of increased safety measures, donating blood has become a widely accepted method of charitable giving. But with the need for both blood and funds, the Community Blood Services Foundation (CBSF), a New Jersey-based blood bank serving more than 37 hospitals and medical centers in New Jersey and New York , hopes funding will follow involvement.

In her first year as executive director at CBSF, Bonnie Sirower, CFRE, formerly director of annual giving at Iona College in New Rochelle , N.Y. , decided to try something new and arranged the First Annual CBSF Crossword Puzzle Tournament to be held November 19.

“Blood bank fundraising is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Sirower. “People think that if they give blood, they are doing all they can. What they don’t know is that it costs between $200 and $300 to process the blood, and that’s just the beginning.”

The event will consist of a one-day crossword puzzle bonanza, with sponsorship by Random House Puzzles and Games, which will donate $1,500 in cash prizes, along with an assortment of crossword books and games for the winners. The top money raiser (at a minimum of $500) wins free entry and hotel accommodations to the March 2006 American Crossword Tournament in Stamford , Conn. Several New York Times (NYT) crossword constructors, including NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz, will create the blood-themed puzzles for the event, as well as officiate.

“We are basically starting from scratch here,” said Sirower of the relative newness of the event and of fundraising at CBSF. “We hope to build up a good donor group from this.”

A longtime crossword enthusiast, Sirower is entrenched in the network of puzzlers around the nation. At Iona College , where her Crossword Tournament became an annual event, Sirower said that she raised more than $5,000 each year. She hopes this year to raise $8,000 for CBSF.

Only $200 of the registration fees will be spent on trophies. Registrants will pay $65 beforehand and $75 the day of the event. “There is a regular group of people who like to do crosswords. That forms the basis of my mailing group,” said Sirower of the list of more than 800 possible donors who will receive a notice and application via the mail. “People as far away as Massachusetts have already called in to sign up.”

Sirower said she plans to use the revenue to purchase a new bloodmobile, dedicated to the memory of Gregory Wachtler, 25, of Ramsey , N.J. , whose family donated the bulk of the money needed, and to the others who perished at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 .

Getting the word out is easier for some — such as having an established fan base (i.e. crossword puzzlers), big sponsorships, etc. — than for others. Luckily, the media latched on to fundraising appeal for Casey.

In June 2003, Donna Littlejohn, reporter for The Daily Breeze newspaper in Torrance , Calif. , caught wind of a small fundraising effort by a few employees and residents of the Beacon House Association, a substance abuse treatment center in nearby San Pedro. Through a news release a Beacon House staff publicist sent out announcing the fundraiser, Littlejohn learned of Casey, the resident watchdog at the Beacon House. Casey, around 11 at the time, required a knee replacement, a procedure that cost upwards of $1,300.

“(Casey) wasn’t just our pet, he was a working dog, part of the Beacon family,” said Art Vinsel, media and community relations spokesperson for the Beacon House.

Prompted by food service manager Bob Hoopingarner, what began as a small dance to raise funds escalated into media frenzy with Littlejohn at the helm. “Immediately after (Littlejohn’s) article came out, we were deluged by calls from pet lovers who wanted to show their support in both food, funds, and one went so far as to pay for the surgery,” said Vinsel.

The appeal for Casey received the greatest response by donors during the nearly 15 years he has been affiliated with the Beacon House, said Vinsel. “I guess the fact that it was an animal that needed help made the difference,” he said.

The bulk of the donated funds were used to cover Casey’s medical bills, with the remainder set aside for other Beacon House pets, he added.

The media was also instrumental in launching an day at the ballpark for A Family for ME, Maine ’s statewide recruitment initiative for foster and adoptive families.

Chany Ockert, a former recruitment specialist for the charity, wanted to reunite for a day siblings separated in foster care. She utilized strong media relationships to make it happen. “We wanted to provide an avenue for the siblings to visit each other, but, naturally, we lacked the funds,” said Ockert.

Channeling outside assistance to promote the event, Ockert’s Take Me Out to the SeaDogs Game campaign in 2003 was a hit — straight out of the ballpark.

“Over the year we’d built a tight relationship with a radio station (WMSJ-FM), so they gave us free airtime,” said Ockert. “Later, television and newspaper also got on board to help out.”

Via the radio station, Ockert asked listeners to donate money to purchase a family four pack of tickets to the Portland minor league team’s game — two adult and two child tickets, with each child accompanied by his foster parent.

“Within one hour, we raised a quarter of the needed tickets,” said Ockert. “Within a week, we had doubled the number of tickets we had hoped for.”

Of her decision to hold the event at a minor league game, Ockert said she wanted something that was relatively inexpensive and, more importantly, wouldn’t single out any of the children.

“Nothing’s more normal than going to a baseball game,” she said, adding, “The kids absolutely loved it.”

That the kids loved it is no surprise. Not only did they attend the Eastern League game for free, the children got to meet the players, throw first pitches and run the bases. For any fan of the Boston Red Sox — which, according to Ockert, includes “most people in Maine , even if they don’t want to be” — the chance to spend a day with an affiliated team is a unique opportunity.

Moreover, said Ockert, currently the development director for New Hampshire ’s Northern Human Services, the campaign was also a unique opportunity for the donors. “There was the aspect of immediacy to the giving. Even though (the donors) wouldn’t typically buy a ticket to a (SeaDogs) game, they wanted to get that opportunity to give an immediate gift.”

Ockert understands well that the success of a fundraising campaign is due to more than simply a unique or unusual idea. “Learning how to leverage the media to getting the word out,” said Ockert, “was a big lesson in fundraising.”

Like the media, sponsorships can turn an inexpensive and novel fundraising event into a landslide success. Take the Catfish Lake Triathlon, a heavily-sponsored fundraising event with a little something for everyone.

For the Four County Counseling Center in Landsport , Ind. , a community mental health facility, the Triathlon, to be held this month, is a departure from the norm. “We have so many golf tournaments and bowling tournaments in our four-county area, we wanted to do something different,” said Lita Rouser, the group’s development director.

As is the goal of most, if not all, nonprofits, Rouser sought to build and diversify her organization’s donor roster. “We want to hook in people who wouldn’t otherwise go to the other events,” said Rouser. “So we decided to go with the popularity of paintball.”

Rouser approached Catfish Lake Family Fun Center owner Chris Canal with her idea. Canal proposed a slight modification. He came up with the twist of holding a triathlon, said Rouser. Two more activities were added to the list: casting for fish in a stocked pond, and driving a golf ball down a fairway. Teams of four compete for the top honors of “Most Heart,” “Rowdiest,” and “Most Resilience.”

Better still, Canal provided the venue free of charge.

Rouser solicited sponsorships from local businesses, enticing each with the opportunity to set up and decorate a hospitality table at the event to promote either services or products. To further raise funds — with a goal of $10,000 — teams will pay a $100 entry fee.

“People seem really excited by (the event). Just by the number of phone calls, people seem to be getting a real kick out of this,” said Rouser, a little more on the nervous side herself. “Nerves come with doing an event for the first time.”

Whether or not the event is largely successful, Rouser views it as a unique way not only to enlist a new demographic of donors, but change perceptions of the organization. “We want to develop an image that we are approachable,” said Rouser. “Because we’re a counseling center, people think you have to be nuts to be here. We hope to break that stigma of mental illness.”

And then there are the unique, unusual fundraising ideas that never quite take off. Be it the high cost, low exposure, or just bad timing, sometimes an idea just does not work.

The Pittsburgh chapter of Variety International Children’s Charity in 1995 decided to try a fundraiser, one with established success overseas: the Variety Bash.

An event of tremendous proportions, the Bash is notoriously a huge undertaking. Prior to the start date, a map is drawn out, usually spanning several states. To make things interesting, the modes of transportation of choice are vehicles born no later than 1979. The “Bashers,” or participants, dress in costume and solicit donations and pledges before and during the event.

The event can last more than a week, with Bashers traveling in a caravan of wackiness across state lines to visit the hospitals and schools they are benefiting. This is no run-of-the-mill, low cost, easily executed fundraising event.

“The (Variety) Bash was already hugely successful in New Zealand and Australia ,” said Celia A. Hindes, CFRE, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter. “But in the United States , it had not proven to raise much money.”

With more than 10,000 members and 54 chapters in 14 countries, and now in its 77th year, the charity, which originated in Pittsburgh , has a longstanding history of raising funds to provide for children with special needs.

In its first year, said Variety volunteer Nancy Jacob, who now works in sales in Irwin , Pa. , the Bash raised close to $20,000, a far cry from the millions the events gross annually in New Zealand , Australia and throughout Europe .

This past August, the Variety Bash held by Variety In ternational’s Australia chapter raised more than $1.4 million So why didn’t the Bash take off in the United States ?

“It takes so much to get something like (the Bash) off the ground,” said Jacob, who officiated for the event each year during its six-year run in the States. “(The United States ) is so big, you’ve got to really have people out there promoting all the time, and we had two people. If we’d kept doing it, we would have learned how to do it better and get the word out better.”

Although a local Ford Motor dealership gave some promotional support in the form of loaned Lincoln Navigators for official use during the events, said Jacob, not much else was done in terms of sponsorship or promotion.

“We used word of mouth, we handed out flyers,” she added. “We just couldn’t seem to get the local TV stations to continually mention (the event).”

But lack of promotion and media coverage weren’t the only reasons the Bash fell by the wayside in the United States . In September 2001, the Variety Bash to be held that year in St. Louis , came to an abrupt halt before it had the chance to mark its seventh anniversary in the United States . The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington , D.C. , along with terrorists taking down a plane in a Pennsylvania field, made the campaign impossible to run, and since then no one has sought to revive the Variety Bash.

“It was a beautiful campaign,” added Jacob, “and a unique way for people to raise money for a good charity. It was something different; it was special.”