January 3, 2010

Pour It On: Putting the “Fun” in Charity Fundraising

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Board Member of City Garage Theatre

Whenever I get hungry in a strange city, I hunt out brewery restaurants. My belief: anyone who cares about the taste of beer is going to make pretty good food — or at least a decent burger. And so far, my belief has not failed me.

Throughout Oregon, I dug on the McMenamin’s chain. In Austin, I enjoyed Opal Divine’s. And close to home, my favorite joint is the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica. Although the Library Alehouse doesn’t brew their own beer, they do carry dozens of artisan brews, from imported Belgian lambics to my fave, Arrogant Bastard of Escondico. Their burgers are wholly unpretentious (hold the blue cheese and arugula) and consist of primo quality beef. And their Grilled Chipotle Shrimp Salad makes me grateful for every single tastebud.

Now take note, all ye who work for non-profit organizations: Library Alehouse also regularly hosts charity fundraisers. During these public events, they donate 15% of their day’s revenues to a local charity, such as the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Why doesn’t the charity just ask people to donate 100% of the money and skip all the wining and dining? Because like a good microbrew, there’s much more to such an event than meets the eye…

Overusing the “G” Word

As you might have experienced during the holidays, so many organizations told us to “give” that this four-letter word started sounding like a four-letter word. This past year in particular, non-profits were walloped by drastic deductions in donations (government, corporate and individual) and — for the arts — basic patronage. Consequently, I couldn’t open my mailbox or Facebook page without getting hit up for a hand out. I myself sent out requests for donations on behalf of City Garage Theatre, where I sit on the board of directors.

Now, around Christmas, it’s easier to solicit donations because of general feelings of goodwill and/or guilt. It’s hard to snub a charity when you’re eyeing that new 50″ LED-backlit flatscreen for your den. But now that the holidays have exhausted themselves, how can non-profits continue to ask these same prospective donors to give?

They can’t.

They can certainly try, but in this still cruel economy, many Americans are feeling drained, emotionally and financially — particularly those who just bought 50″ LED-backlit flatscreens. A non-profit might as well try to make wine from raisins. So rather than ask these people to give outside of giving season, non-profits should be answering a certain donor question — even if they never hear it asked: “What’s in it for me?”

Of course, most people would never say that directly to a charity. Some might never even think it. They’ll donate if the charity is personal (they know a member of the organization or some of its beneficiaries) or emotional (the cause touches a nerve, like Hurricane Katrina did, so that giving feels like a no-brainer).

Those aside, most charities are not personally related to the donor and might not seem terribly desperate in the grand scale of human events. That’s when the non-profit must think beyond their own needs to what would entice the disinterested. In other words, what does the donor want or need?

Some charities might be appalled at this notion of having to appeal to the self-interests of others. But ignoring the reality of the non-profit marketplace — crowded, needy, and highly competitive — is idealism, and idealism won’t pay the rent. It’s also idealistic to ignore human nature: we the people can’t help feeling attracted to something that meets our particular desires and needs.

Feed the Needs

Looking at a restaurant-based fundraiser, like those at the Library Alehouse, reveals multiple levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy being served:

  • Food: People have to eat. A charity event gives penny-pinching consumers an excuse to dine out. And if the restaurant is new and enjoyable to them, they’ll appreciate the introduction.
  • Friendship and amore: What better way to connect with new mates than over drinks and a great cause? Indeed, one way to drum up attendance is to invite singles’ clubs…
  • Networking: Whether someone needs a job or a client, a themed event makes for easier schmoozing than a generic “networking” event. The charity breaks the ice and makes everyone in attendance seem benevolent.
  • Entertainment: Let’s see, stay home and watch reruns of NCIS/CSI/ColdCase/Numbers, or actually go out on the town and interact with people not wearing toe tags? Hmmm, tough choice there…
  • Beer: No explanation necessary.

Businesses also have needs. Far too often, non-profits will hit up a business for a donation without even considering what the business will get out of it. With these fundraising events, the restaurants benefit on multiple levels:

  • Sales: These days, walk into any establishment that doesn’t ask “would you like fries with that?” and you’ll likely see empty tables. Any sales, even at a discount, would be welcome. Since these discounts are donated to a charity, they don’t cheapen the value of their dishes (as coupons might), and unlike other discounts, they’re tax deductible.
  • Exposure to new clientele: With one event, small establishments that can’t afford to advertise can now reach entire new pools of customers — and let the non-profit do the marketing for them. Some of the attendees (such as the wealthier donors) are definitely worth reaching. In addition, some of these newcomers might become repeat customers, particularly since the restaurant helped support a cause they care about.
  • Brand boost: A great way to enhance the brand of a for-profit enterprise is to collaborate with a worthy non-profit. The establishment is no longer just a business — it becomes a member of the community.

What about the non-profit organization itself? It also benefits beyond the dollars:

  • Brand boost, part deux: One challenge that small non-profits have is building credibility. The last ten years undermined trust in our society, even of various charities. Collaborating with a credible local business — not to mention a favorite watering hole — gives an unknown charity visibility, and reassures donors that it’s a real non-profit and not some guy with a P.O. Box.
  • Newsworthy event: For a community newspaper, a charity fundraiser in conjunction with a local business is much more newsworthy than a boring solicitation for donations. The key is to notify the newspaper staff far ahead of time, and to invite them all (including the receptionist) to join in the fun. The event also makes for great content on the non-profit’s blog, Facebook page and other social media. Photos from the event will later draw traffic from the attendees and their friends (don’t forget to collect names so you can tag the photos on Facebook).
  • Exposure to potential new donors: Encourage regular supporters to bring their friends, family and colleagues. Since the event doesn’t cost anything beyond the regular price of food and drinks, it’s an easy invite. The charity will also attract the attention of other diners at the restaurant.
  • Bonding: Non-profit work can get fairly serious. Such events give the organization’s staff a chance to loosen up and bond over brews and burgers. More importantly, these events enable donors, board members, beneficiaries and other members of the organization’s extended family to meet the men and women behind the curtain. Adding faces to an organization helps encourage loyalty.

In sum, the benefits of a collaborative fundraiser far surpass the value of the donations and are spread all around. In a tasty twist, meeting the selfish interests of others can actually generate more value than simply being idealistic.

And if it’s done at a microbrewery, it’s a great way to build a buzz.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. This is great article! Just sent it out to my team.
    Thanks

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