Innovative nonprofits

10 Tips to a Successful Event


We went to a great fundraiser recently – the kind you wish you’d invited more friends to join you at. And that you hope they plan again … because you know you’ll want to be a part of it.

"Art Soup" was "an inaugural event to benefit the art and music programs at Synergy Services Youth Resiliency Center." Before launching into the tips, I think a bit of background is helpful.

Synergy Services is a well-established local organization, started in 1971 as a shelter for runaway and homeless youth. Since then, the agency has expanded its reach to include young children and women victimized by abuse.

In 2009, Synergy opened its Youth Resiliency Center (YRC). The YRC provides a "therapeutic arts-based programs delivered by the finest teaching artists in the community."

Or, in layman's terms, according to one of the Board Certified Art Therapists, Jennifer Kempema, to provide a safe, supervised open art studio to which youngsters can come and express themselves through art, poetry or music.

"There are no directed art projects or assignments," Jen explained. "We ask, 'What do you want to make?' and then see if we can help them make it."

The open, brightly lit space is crowded with paintings, writings and sculpted clay objects in various stages of completion. But it takes money to keep supplies available to nurture this kind of healing creativity. Which gets us to Art Soup, and the 10 ways it exemplifies how to organize successful fundraising event.
  1. Dare to dream. You have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish and the passion Jen and her colleagues have for their work with these kids is readily apparent. And that came through in virtually every aspect of the event, too. The focus wasn't on raising money - it was on nurturing creativity in kids.
  2. Keep your mission in mind. The event was a soup and wine tasting, and included the offer "and take home a hand-crafted bowl created by one of our youth artisans."  As you walked in YRC, virtually all available flat surfaces were covered in  brightly colored bowls and trays, which had been created and glazed by children in the program. As we left, multiple staff and volunteers checked to ensure we had selected a bowl to take with us. Local musicians played throughout the event as well, in keeping with the music therapy programs the Center also offers.
  3. Sell in-house first. Jen and fellow art therapist Callie Lawson initially hatched the idea. They reached out to two colleagues in development - Meghan Denney and Corky McCaffrey - and then to the Center's director, building a solid base of internal support while the event was still in its infancy.
  4. Spread the love (and the labor). After recruiting internal support, they turned to the Board. And to friends who knew and shared their passion and would be willing to help out. One of the biggest dangers of special events is that they become so consuming of staff time and energy they end up diverting an organization from its actual focus. A strong volunteer organizing committee will help preclude this (but that warrants its own post at another time).
  5. Be realistic. Both in time and scope. The event was scheduled more than 18 moths out to ensure time would be available to manage all the details. And from the outset, they planned to keep it small (target: 200 attendees) and manageable to help ensure its success.
  6. Think sustainable. This wasn't to be a one-time event. It had to be repeatable and scalable, something that could grow with the program and build on its opening success.
  7. Be responsible stewards. Sponsors were secured to ensure basic costs would be covered and to eliminate the risk of additional drain on an already-tight budget. Local restauranteurs were recruited to showcase their favorite soups and a local wine bar agreed to support the event as well.
  8. Make it accessible. Tickets were reasonably priced at $50. Dress, casual. Sunday afternoon from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. opened it to an afternoon or evening crowd.
  9. Spread the word. Jen and others on the committee reached out primarily through social media. Friends on Facebook. Followers on Twitter. They provided complimentary tickets to art teachers in the Northland school district and chefs at the participating restaurants, encouraging them to help spread the word as well. Synergy also promoted the event in its newsletter and mailed events to prior donors.
  10. Make it fun. Fun for the committee. Fun for the kids creating the bowls. Fun for attendees. The event was truly a celebration of the arts. Not some staid, pretentious exhibition, but an experience that is unique and inviting. Alive and in the moment. Inspiring and uplifting. In fact, we came away with a new appreciation of the healing power of arts.
And that, I think, that was Jen's hope from the very beginning. Which means the event was a success.

A Recipe for Success

At a recent Plaza Rotary meeting, I had the good fortune to hear Don Goldman, Executive Director and CEO of Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City speak about the organization’s programs to serve older adults in the area.

Although he focused on only two of the agency’s many programs, the approach he described included many of the ingredients for success that any organization – especially a nonprofit – should nurture.

Start with Imagination

Don came to JFS not with a background in nonprofits but from a series of successful telecom positions (marketing, strategic planning, and operations). He joined at the urging of an acquaintance who was also a board member and felt the organization would benefit from an infusion of “outside thinking.”

JFS continues to be open to change.

 “An organization needs to 're-invent' itself periodically to meet the needs of constituents,” he says. “Any organization that continues to do what it has always done the way it has always done it is doomed.”

Add a Bit of Collaboration

JFS is in the enviable position of having some 120 very similar agencies … agencies that are entirely autonomous, are not in direct competition, and from which it can learn.

About five years ago, Don attended a conference facilitated by the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, an organization formed to help advance its member networks through “advocacy, consultation, education and networking.”

At the conference, Don saw a presentation by a San Diego agency that had implemented a new ride-share service using software developed by the spouse of the program director.

Stir in Innovation

At the time, Don was part of a team examining how to provide transportation services to its aging constituency. Another Kansas City organization had launched a program in which a staff scheduler used a manual telephone tree system of calling volunteers for needed rides. The program was cumbersome and would be difficult to scale.

Don was intrigued by the San Diego model, which allowed volunteer drivers to sign up for requested rides at their convenience. He approached the agency about licensing the software.

“The original program had been developed in a very informal way,” Don explains. “The developer had not really thought about licensing.”

But with his technical and marketing background, Don saw the opportunity. JFS worked with the developer to fine tune the product and Kansas City’s JET Express was born. (As was another organization, RideScheduler, a managed-transportation solution that is now also licensed to 15 or 20 other Jewish Family Service agencies.)

And a Pinch of Proliferation

JET Express started with a handful of volunteers who provided 20 to 30 rides per month. Today, there are more than 60 active (trained and vetted) volunteers who provide about 300 rides per month. And the program continues to grow.

“The scalability works,” Don notes. “If we double the number of rides, staffing doesn’t double; it may go up 10% or so.”

And that’s just vertical growth.

JFS is now working with the same developer in an attempt to modify the software to work for its Help@Home program which provides minor home repairs and other services to help older adults maintain their independence.

Help@Home is also an effective response to a real need of aging constituents. The same recipe for success seems applicable as well.

Finding Great Ways to do Good Work

What happens when good intentions are infused with passion and imagination?

I thought of that this morning as I read an article in the New York Times about a rabbi in Atlanta who used a $5,000 contribution (from a donor who wants to remain anonymous) to open a gemach to provide confidential, no-cost loans to members of the community.

Such commitment to make a difference is inspiring. And a powerful force.

Just a few years ago, a TiVo computer program developed Kiva, an online service to connect donors in developed countries with entrepreneurs in third world countries. In 2005, the organization issued its first seven loans, totaling $3,500. Since then, Kiva provided microloans to 685,000 entrepreneurs (80% of whom are women).

And it’s not just small loans that can make a difference.

In 2002, a San Francisco educator teamed up with a local author to find a way to help overburdened teachers connect with concerned creative professionals to inspire students learn to read and write. Today, 826 Valencia helps more than 6,000 San Francisco students … and seven additional chapters have been launched in cities across the country.

Nor is it just in Atlanta, San Francisco or New York, but all over the country. Consider some of the more innovative local models of assistance and support.

Harvesters BackSnack Program provides backpacks of food to low-income children for the weekend, to combat weekend hunger. Launched in 2004 with 30 students, the program now serves more than 15,000 students each week.
Kansas City’s Medicine Cabinet was started in 2003 by a group of healthcare professionals formerly affiliated with Baptist and Trinity Lutheran hospitals who wanted a way to meet medical needs for which funding is typically not available. The group didn't want to create more bricks and mortar, and today works through nine agencies with a combined nineteen intake sites across the metropolitan area.
The Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association was founded in 1998 by a brand new, energetic foster parent who found out first-hand the kinds of support that was needed. From those humble beginnings, the organization has grown to be a powerful force, both in terms of its advocacy for and support of children in the foster care system.

These are just a few of many available examples. And the efforts of each are amplified by a growing cadre of volunteers and supporters who share an interest in and commitment to their mission.

I’m proud to be a part of those efforts, personally and professionally.

Because, when good intentions are infused with passion and imagination, we can change the world!