GRAND RAPIDS — In creating successful fundraising events, it’s about who you know.
The logistical challenges of planning and executing a large-scale event or fundraiser can be daunting. However, many West Michigan nonprofits have figured out the main ingredient needed to pull off an event successfully: relationships.
Kids’ Food Basket, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit pledged to provide impoverished children a meal to take home for dinner, holds multiple fundraisers and events during the year. Unlike many nonprofits, Kids’ Food Basket does not organize most of their fundraisers from the top down, but allows community members to organize independent events to benefit the organization.
The first step Bridget Clark-Whitney, executive director at Kids’ Food Basket, and her team take when working on development is to identify individuals in the community that believe in the mission of Kids’ Food Basket and have the connections and follow-through to pull an event off. These “champions” are, in effect, the fundraising arm of Kids’ Food Basket, as the organization does not traditionally hold events itself.
“First and foremost, it’s all about relationships. You have to find these champions of your organization,” Clark-Whitney said. “Who are they out there, and do they have the personal capacity, the personal circle of influence that can create some sort of an event for you?”
Those “champions” typically take the initiative to reach out to the staff at Kids’ Food Basket. The staff, especially outreach director Christine Lentine, works on a plan to determine the organization’s involvement in the event.
“At first they fill out some information so that I really understand what their goal is for the event and in what capacity they really want Kids’ Food Basket to play a part, but it really ranges,” Lentine said. “Our involvement really depends on the needs they have from us.
“While we may contribute, we really put the ball in their court.”
Unlike most events put on for the benefit of Kids’ Food Basket, the organization is involved in some of the planning of the annual Juice Ball fundraiser started by Tommy FitzGerald, a local chef.
“Juice Ball is a huge event,” Clark-Whitney said. “That one gets a lot of attention and has really developed into a well-run event.”
Like other events put on to benefit Kids’ Food Basket, the Juice Ball grew out of a local personality’s desire to help the organization in its mission.
“Tommy (FitzGerald) is an amazing champion of our mission,” Clark-Whitney said. “He loves Grand Rapids; he feels very strongly about good nutrition and childhood brain development. That’s why it’s such a great partnership for him.”
Tommy FitzGerald, chef at Cafe Stella in Grand Rapids, throws an annual, widely attended fundraiser for Kids’ Food Basket, the Juice Ball. Held at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids on a weekend near Fitzgerald’s birthday, Jan. 8, the Juice Ball proceeds go to help defer the cost of buying the most expensive item in the take-home dinners Kids’ Food Basket provides: juice boxes. The event routinely draws sponsorships from local organizations.
Beyond relationships with community members, nonprofits must also find ways to cultivate a supportive volunteer base. That’s been the charge for the organizers at Grand Rapids-based Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), which relies on its relationships with a substantial volunteer base to help with fundraisers.
One important factor the UICA must address while planning events is how to attract the volunteers to participate. The UICA puts on multiple large fundraisers during the year including the Odd Ball gala in September, the Holiday Artists’ Market in December, and Live Coverage, an auction-based event in February. Due to the nature of the organization, the vast majority of the staff at these events are volunteers who donate their time to the organization.
The UICA promotes the perks of being a volunteer in order to staff their events, said Taylor Greenfield, volunteer and facility rental manager at the UICA.
“One of the obvious perks is getting in for free,” Greenfield said. “The other fun part is you feel like you’re helping out and you’re kind of behind the scenes making it actually happen. … It’s feeling like you’re included in the cool ‘making stuff happen’ side.”
At events like the Odd Ball, volunteers act as waitstaff and are typically attired in fanciful costumes and makeup, an aspect of volunteering for the UICA that Greenfield said was a selling point.
While the task of attracting and managing volunteers at events held in venues as large as the Steelcase Town Hall can be daunting, Greenfield highlights two guidelines to keep in mind: communication and comfort.
“I think you need to treat your volunteers well, making sure they are comfortable and they are happy,” Greenfield said. “We have a volunteer break room for our volunteers to hang out in if they get overwhelmed.”
On the communication side, Greenfield stressed the importance of clearly communicating with volunteers early and often in the planning process.
“The communication side is huge, especially from the get-go. It’s immediately letting them know when they need to be there, what they need to wear and where they’ll need to be for the evening,” Greenfield said. “Usually we will have a volunteer orientation prior to an event ... making sure that everyone knows what’s going on all the time.”
Lentine and Clark-Whitney of Kids’ Food Basket also appreciate the importance of communicating clearly with their partners to ensure that event objectives are met and there are no logistical hiccups.
“We’re developing a checkpoint system to make sure everything is taken care of,” Clark-Whitney said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about your relationships with your champions and then cultivating those champions for your cause.”