Luscious libations, delicacies from 14 of Chicago’s hottest restaurants, fabulous music and décor guests enjoyed the works at the 22nd annual Cocktails for a Cause gala at Galleria Marchetti last November. Beyond the glitz and glam, though, the real attraction was meeting the goal of $210,000 raised for pediatric research initiatives at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute affiliated with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Cocktail for a Cause is an annual signature event that attracts nearly 600 people each year. It is also one of the most successful, longest-running charitable events for young professionals in the city, says Jason Gordon, co-chair of the Children’s Research Fund Junior Board and an attorney at Winston & Strawn LLP.
So, how do event organizers do it year after year, putting together a great program that keeps people coming back to donate? “You have to walk a fine line between throwing an awesome party and hosting a fundraiser,” says event co-chair Amy Gerstein, a senior event planner at healthcare communications company CAHG.
A FACE FOR THE MISSION
First, Gerstein says, focus on the mission. “It should always remain at the forefront of the evening,” agrees Jodi Fyfe, a principal at Paramount Events and founder of the breast cancer awareness fundraiser Tickled Pink Chicago, which currently benefits Bright Pink Chicago and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this February.
“A genuine, heartfelt connection between guests and the philanthropy’s culture and purpose are essential,” seconds Debi Lilly, chief eventeur of A Perfect Event in Chicago. Also a nationally recognized entertaining and design expert, Lilly organized the Dream Believe Achieve gala to benefit Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at Kitchen Chicago/City View Loft in the spring for 300 guests. The event raised $225,000 for teacher salaries, supplies, operating expenses, the Parent Teacher Association, special events and field trips.
Lilly knows guests expect to be entertained and want an opportunity for networking with peers; they also want to experience the charity’s brand up close and in person, so it’s always a good idea to share the charity’s story. Lilly did so by emphasizing the school’s ties to the community: The school’s own Dad’s Band rocked the house, neighborhood restaurants provided refreshments and photos of smiling students and teachers adorned the walls and tables of the space. “Authenticity works,” she says. “The faces and voices of those who’ve been touched and helped by the charity mission are critical.”
At Cocktails for a Cause, organizers spoke briefly about the event’s mission, while the program book offered a detailed look at the research of Dr. Katherine Barsness, the scientific rock star whose work in surgical modeling was being funded. Barsness uses a 3-D printer to replicate a child’s specific injury or disease so surgeons, who only may have seen the rare ailment a few times in their careers, have something to practice on before the actual surgery. While the reason for raising funds was serious, the event was a lighthearted celebration of hope.
“The environment also has to match the mission,” notes Justin Jacobson, CEO of Chicagobased Platinum Events, whose team transformed Block Thirty Seven into a pink paradise for the 2014 Tickled Pink Gala.
To do so, they created intimate lounge vignettes through the use of piping and draping, brought in four-sided bars with 10-foot-tall flower arrangements, illuminated the perimeter in hot pink lighting and projected pink, blossoming roses onto the concrete walls. Using a palette other than pink, the color for breast cancer awareness, would have made guests feel disconnected, Jacobson explains.
It was a similar vision in constructing an immersive gala for Connections for the Homeless at the Michigan Shores Club in Wilmette in March. The idea was to have guests experience a room similar to one found in a single-room-occupancy hotel, which offers the least expensive, short- and long-term way for someone to get off the street. “It let donors feel and see what a huge impact their contributions made,” says Chairperson Amy Morton, owner of Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston.
Lilly says other details like a logo experience, video messaging and photography also bring the philanthropy’s culture and mission to life. She likes to design lantern/candle collections wrapped with artful custom graphics of the mission to add beauty and warmth to the setting and visually reinforce the event’s purpose.
SAVE TO PAY IT FORWARD
Don’t spend the entire budget on setting the mood, especially when there are ways to reach out to vendors to minimize costs. “It’s disappointing when most of the money raised has to pay for the event when it’s possible to wow people in less-expensive ways,” Morton says. She suggests foregoing live bands for DJs, hosting a cocktail party instead of a seated dinner and choosing venues and vendors that offer discounts or will donate items at cost.
Finding the right donors is crucial. “Seek sponsors who are truly passionate about the cause,” advises Fyfe. She’s found that most of the best restaurants in Chicago are willing to take part in charitable events. For the Dream Believe Achieve gala, a dozen local purveyors, including Pure Kitchen Catering, Real Russian Vodka, Revolution Brewery, Glazed and Infused, Flacos Tacos and Bittersweet Bakery, donated cocktails and small plate menus. “This allowed almost 100 percent of the proceeds to go to the school,” Lilly says. In return, the participating businesses were elevated in the eyes of the community.
Found Kitchen donates its space, food, beverage and labor at cost to nonprofits on the first Monday of each month. In one instance, the Greater Chicago Food Depository hosted a donor dinner in April featuring dishes made from the ingredients most often donated to food banks. “It’s a way of giving back and introduces the restaurant to people who are passionate about making a difference in the world,” Morton says.
Meanwhile, the 65 members of the Children’s Research Fund Junior Board work “every connection we possibly can to get the best deals and get as much donated as possible,” Gerstein says. This helps the organization adhere to a strict ratio: 20 percent of every dollar brought in can cover costs while 80 percent must fund the research.
But sometimes you need to spend money to make money. This is increasingly acceptable in the post recession era, and will “ultimately yield a return,” assures Jacobson. Donors are approached by many charities, so consider your competition: “What is going to get them to buy a ticket to your event?” he asks.
One such way to attract guests is through social media campaigns. Consider the hashtag (#), which makes an event “simplistically accessible” to donors on a global scale, according to Jacobson. Even if supporters are not physically there, they can connect through live shares and streaming photos and donate via mobile auction bidding and online services.
Lilly also invests time upfront researching donors’ social media handles and liking and following their social media pages so she can share and tag them with sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes images of the event. The approach is fast, easy and free, she says. “It helps sell tickets, build buzz and showcase the unique design and style of the event before it even starts.”
There are ways to do this in real-time, too. Tickled Pink Chicago for Bright Pink’s 10th anniversary gala will be the biggest event in Tickled Pink history, says Fyfe. So to build anticipation throughout the year among Chicago’s hip, young professionals, committee members—all event industry pros have paired up to host mini-events each month. These range from rooftop cocktail parties to shopping bazaars to group fitness runs, each attracting up to 300 guests at a time. The minievents are raising awareness and funds for the cause, reaching new people and generating enthusiasm for the big gala to come.
TURN UP SILENT AUCTIONS
Remember, auctions and raffles are the big moneymakers at galas, so work “all those little details to generate the most revenue,” recommends Gerstein. Chidren’s Research Fund Junior Board does not take auction items on consignment; rather, board members secure donations like vacation packages, tickets and autographed sports memorabilia so all the money can go directly to the cause.
A good tip would be to place live and silent auctions where guests can engage easily, and encourage participation through the emcee, DJ and bandleader, says Gerstein. For example, at the Tickled Pink event, members of the Chicago Fire Department worked the crowd by giving the 1,000 guests plenty of opportunities to buy raffle tickets and pink Mardi Gras beads, Fyfe says.
Morton suggests combining smaller auction items into beautifully wrapped, themed packages to raise interest and the bid amounts. Experiential items, like a safari, bring in the most money because “they impact how we feel,” she says. Case in point: A popular item at the Dream Believe Achieve gala was a watercolor of the party painted on-site by a local artist; it was auctioned after the dinner.
There’s also increasingly advanced technology to help the auction process run smoother. Because guests unable to attend the gala can bid from anywhere in the world, mobile bidding apps can turn “staid, formal auctions into fresh, thoughtful, interactive experiences,” says Lilly, who uses BidPal, BidTec and IML Fundraiser.
The technology lets people have fun on the dance floor instead of being stuck standing at an auction table, says Lori Dimun, director of operations and production at Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago. She has used mobile bidding as both a guest and during her tenure as event director at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The technology makes it easy for organizers to identify bidders, she says; and for guests, it eliminates that awkward moment of when to pull the auction sheet away from another interested party. Note these tools are best suited for auctions with many items, as providers usually take a percentage of the money bid, according to Dimun. You’ll also want to make sure cell reception is adequate and ensure the nonprofit is comfortable with the technology from a privacy and security standpoint.
FANCY UP THE FOLLOW-UP
A successful fundraiser doesn’t end when the last donor leaves. In fact, the event may be the first step in cultivating a long-term relationship. Whether you offer an intimate gathering or blowout gala, thanking guests is always essential.
Morton was hugely impressed by the handwritten thank you notes that were sent to attendees of the Youth Organizations Umbrella (YOU) benefit dinner held last February at the Evanston Golf Club, which raised nearly $300,000 for programs in two Evanston elementary schools. “It was so unbelievably personal that I can promise you, every person in that room is going back and telling someone else, ‘You can’t miss this event,’” she says. (Another big wow: YOU Executive Director Seth Green knew every person’s name in the room, Morton recalls.)
Supporters of the Tickled Pink gala receive thank you notes, both handwritten and emailed, as well as personal phone calls, says Fyfe. Meanwhile, Lilly thanks donors and vendor partners for events like the Dream Believe Achieve gala by tagging them in social media. “Keeping your eyes to the future will help make sure those funds keep coming in,” reminds Jacobson.
TEAMWORK FOR THE WIN
It takes a village to pull off a memorable fundraiser. Having a large group of people involved helps with word-of-mouth chatter and publicity and gets people to the event, says Gerstein. In her case, new Children’s Research Fund Junior Board members join each year, bringing with them fresh connections and ideas. This year, Gordon says, the board created a host committee of city trendsetters to reach out to other young professionals who might not be familiar with Children’s Research Fund Junior Board or Cocktails for a Cause, but who are committed to pediatric research—doing so was a big success.
Giving back is a core part of A Perfect Event’s business model, too, says Lilly: “It’s something we’re all responsible for.” Fyfe and Paramount Events share her dedication. In addition to Tickled Pink Chicago for Bright Pink, they support the Hephzibah Children’s Association, Step Up Women’s Network, Wish Upon A Wedding, The Ronald McDonald House and Working In The Schools, among other do-good organizations.
Morton urges planners to share their talents in these settings, too. Not only can you deliver a really polished event that helps a worthy cause meet its fundraising goals, but you’ll get exposed to a huge audience that may use your services in the future, she says. What’s sweeter than that?