Iowa children’s agency maximizes potential
of fundraising events
“You attract people who would not send you a general contribution in the
July 9, 2015
By Gary Enos
Every year on a weeknight in March, groups of
costumed adults gather at a Des Moines, Iowa, music venue to participate in a
grown-up version of a spelling bee, although there doesn’t appear to be much
grown-up behavior going on. As a local entertainer in a bee outfit with a
beehive hairdo facilitates the purposely undignified proceedings, which feature
contestants “bribing” the bee’s judges to stay in the competition, the event
raises critical funding for Orchard Place, a Des Moines organization that
offers a continuum of mental health services for children.
“It takes a lot to explain the spelling bee to
people,” Orchard Place Vice President of Development Nancy Bobo told MHW.
Having completed its 12th annual event last spring, “the concept has evolved
and gotten zanier,” Bobo said.
What’s easier to explain is the financial impact
of Orchard Place’s two signature annual fundraising events, neither of which
resembles the typical fundraiser one might find in a mental health services
organization. The March spelling bee and a May Moonlight Classic bike ride
through the streets of Des Moines raise around 20 percent of Orchard Place’s
overall fundraising revenue, and in both cases the organization has managed to
turn these ideas into highly recognizable community events that can be
undertaken with fairly minimal expenses.
“Events are one prong of a comprehensive
development program,” said Bobo. “You attract people who would not send you a
general contribution in the mail. It gives you an opportunity to share
information about your agency.”
Seeking something different
But while many mental health treatment
organizations conduct fundraising events, Orchard Place seems to make an extra
effort to remind everyone that the first three letters in “fundraising” are
The idea for the spelling bee originated from
the friend of a board member, who had seen a similar event conducted in another
state. Half of the revenue from the event is raised through corporate
sponsorships. The rest is in the form of “bribe money” that participating teams
bring with them to donate at stages of the event in order to stay in the
lighthearted spelling competition, Bobo explained. Groups of friends and
corporate colleagues often make up the competing teams.
The bee’s judges dress in robes and are
accustomed to receiving homemade cookies or other gifts from the teams. Some
contestants enter the stage to preselected music that often coordinates with
their costumes. Prizes are awarded for creative costumes, team names and
enthusiastic cheering sections. “People love competition. They love being able
to strut on the stage,” said Bobo.
Another element of the event’s success, she believes,
is that participants see a specific benefit to what they’re doing, in that the
bee’s proceeds fund summer programming for children served by Orchard Place (as
opposed to something less tangible, such as general operations).
This year’s event raised $75,000, with only
about a 5 percent expense ratio, Bobo said. The venue donates its facility to
Orchard Place for the evening. “We try to get everything donated,” she said.
Orchard Place uses a variety of advertising channels for its events, and finds
that each of them attracts attention.
Expenses by definition have to be a little
higher for the Moonlight Classic, a nighttime bike ride event that involves a
police presence, digital signage and other measures to ensure participant
safety. Bobo said that in the fourth year of this event on May 30, Orchard
Place took in just under $100,000, with around a 25 percent expense ratio.
The Moonlight Classic replaced a daytime biking
event that was generating weak results, Bobo said. While the opportunity for
riders to see the cityscape by night is considered the main attraction, this
event also features music and costumes. “You have to keep events fresh,” Bobo
said. “You need something that puts a new shot of interest into the event.”
Corporate sponsorships constitute the major
revenue source for the Moonlight Classic, which this year featured a 14-mile
route and attracted more than 700 riders. Several of Orchard Place’s programs
benefit from the ride’s revenue, including a summer school program at its
residential campus, a Latino outreach program and youth enrichment programs
encompassing both after-school and summertime activities.
Bobo acknowledges that even when the budget for
a fundraising event can be kept low, the planning of the event remains a very
labor-intensive process. “There are a thousand details,” she said. “People
notice if you’re missing a few.” It is important to have buy-in from the
executive leadership of an organization for such a commitment, she said.
She advises other organizations in their event
planning to try to identify natural partners in the community, based on the
nature of the event (such as local bike clubs that are involved in the
Moonlight Classic). “Who could we attract who would bring more attention to the
event?” she said. She added that it is important not only to attract sponsors
and their cash, but to find ways to keep them engaged in the event.
And even if an event has generated results for
some time, Bobo believes it is always worthwhile to breathe new life into a
concept — and perhaps even to acknowledge that an event might someday have to
be replaced with something else. “Every event has a life to it,” she said.
Orchard Place’s two signature fundraising events
emphasize offering participants an enjoyable experience, but at a reasonable
budget for the organization.