Girls happily reading their books - at Orchard Place Des Moines

Orchard Place Events Highlited in Mental Heath Weekly

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Iowa children’s agency maximizes potential of fundraising events

“You attract people who would not send you a general contribution in the mail.”

Nancy Bobo

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 “f-u-n.”

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.

Fundraising advice

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.

Bottom Line…

Orchard Place’s two signature fundraising events emphasize offering participants an enjoyable experience, but at a reasonable budget for the organization.