Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2012, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
SEATTLE IS A CITY known for having the highest number of fundraising auctions per capita in the country. Over 400 charity auctions take place each year throughout the Puget Sound area.
So it is not surprising that for Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP), a 20-year-old youth organizing group, an auction was a key part of its annual grassroots fundraising strategy since it was founded in 1992.
But a few years ago, after nearly 18 years, SYPP’s auction was losing steam. Youth members were uninspired by the “dinner + program + silent and live auction” formula. Many of SYPP’s constituents and community members, primarily low-income youth and people of color, felt disempowered by the consumerist model of auctions and politically conflicted about replicating an event that historically served to buy and sell women and enslaved Africans. The board and staff were experiencing auction fatigue, and the whole organization began questioning if it was time to leave the auction behind.
Don’t get me wrong—auctions can be effective fundraising events. And the formula of a sit-down dinner with an entertaining program and silent and live auctions have endured for years and will continue to do so. SYPP’s auction had long been a successful fundraiser, grossing over $25,000 a year and attempting to have a youth-centered vibe with an array of auction items that were affordable to youth members and their families. But despite the money it raised and the intentions put into the event, SYPP felt the growing concerns about the auction were too important to ignore.
Taking the leap to break with tradition was harder than it sounded. As an ally and former staff member of SYPP, I witnessed how SYPP’s board, staff and members engaged in a thoughtful process and took careful steps to communicate with different stakeholders, get the opinions of trusted allies and former leaders, and solicit community input on what to do about the auction.
In our interview below, Sunny Kim (SYPP’s current co-director) and Jeremy Louzao (SYPP’s former co-director) share the process that SYPP went through to determine if and how they should retire the auction and the best practices and lessons they learned along the way.
Jeremy: The first thing that triggered introspection was the passing of SYPP’s historical auctioneer, Larry Taylor. Larry was an auctioneer who was deeply tied to the community, he was an alumnus of one of the high schools that many SYPP members attend, and he genuinely seemed to understand and believe in what we do at SYPP. When he passed, SYPP tried working with a variety of different auctioneers year after year, but none of them had those same ties to the communities of color where SYPP organizes. Their focus was much more on simply maximizing dollars for the organization.
When the process of working with auctioneers got to that point of sort of mechanically figuring out how to squeeze as many dollars out of our supporters as possible, that’s when we started to really see that all was not right. In informal and formal debriefs, youth also expressed feelings of being tokenized as they stood next to items or told emotional stories with the express purpose of upping the fundraising amounts. At one point, an auctioneer even suggested that we auction of “child labor” from our members as a joke auction item, and that went over pretty badly.
Also, procuring auction items required more than 3 months of intense door-to-door ground work from youth interns and staff for an organization as small as ours, the auction was just a huge pull away from our youth organizing work.
Sunny: The last few years before deciding to leave the auction behind kept showing us signs that it was time to move on. The auction felt stifling and at odds with SYPP’s youth-led mission. Our majority youth board and adult staff members acknowledged that the auction had become too mired in its own history. Also, the singular focus on purchasing products left little room for celebrating the work of youth organizers and for celebrating the community that supports us.
YP: What was the organizational process to assess whether or not to keep the auction? How were members, staff board, and allies involved?
Sunny: We had layers of conversation among members, staff, board and alumni. While evaluating the auction of 2010, staff and youth interns realized that the criticisms of the event had been brought up before with little done to address them. While debriefing with the board of directors, the possibility of leaving the auction behind was raised and evaluated. We compared the cost to SYPP to hold this event and compared it to projections of what we could raise with a fundraising event that wasn’t driven by selling items. We also discussed how this would fit in with our larger fundraising strategy and whether our community would be receptive to this change. Throughout this process, youth members and staff were fully engaged. Prior to publicly announcing this, we reached out to a handful of strong supporters to solicit their feedback.
Jeremy: We had a special meeting of SYPP members and adult allies to discuss the pros and cons and to run numbers. Then it came to a vote at the youth-driven board meeting, and it was unanimous in favor of moving away from the auction.
YP: What did you replace the auction with? Why did you decide to try something new versus just alter the auction event? How was the idea of the Fam Bam born?
sunny: We replaced the auction with the Fam Bam, which is all about building connection between supporters, youth, and their families. It’s a creative and unique celebration of how all generations contribute to social change, from our ancestors, to our supporters and alumni, to our current members.
Jeremy: The Fam Bam was born out of a youth-led planning meeting, and the actual name started as just a joking suggestion from Lyndsey, a high school senior. But we all loved it, and the name stuck.
The overall idea came out of our values. What we loved about SYPP’s past auctions was that it was an annual community event where we could report back to our supporters and include them in our organizing and our politics. But it was always overshadowed by the consumerist elements of the auctions—especially in the amount of prep time that item procurement got versus the actual planning of our program.
So, we decided that instead we wanted to have an event that had a fun, warm community celebration vibe but kept our actual politics and organizing front and center.
Sunny: We actually started off with a big brainstorm to figure out what kind of fundraising event would be able to fill a hole that would be left by the auction. The idea that spoke the most to all of us was an event centered on engaging youth members, their families, and the SYPP community. We saw it as a chance not just to celebrate the youth members, but as a way of building community and growing our family.
Sunny: We sent out a letter along with our annual report that asked our community of supporters to leap with us as we made this change. After sending out our intentions, there were many in the community who thanked us for naming consumer driven capitalism and the dynamic it plays. There were others who thanked us from their positions within other nonprofits who appreciated the thought and intention behind our shift and our dedication to the mission of our organization. Some of those people told us that they shared our letter with their directors and their boards.
Jeremy: A few people said that they would miss the good deals they got from the auction, but the overall response was resoundingly positive. I was personally blown away by how supportive people were. And they backed that support up with their dollars, as well.
Jeremy: The impact has been very positive. It created a lot of energy and goodwill with adult supporters, and brought in more volunteers. Most importantly, now that we didn’t have to do item procurement, we were able to push our campaign work farther than we had in years. The youth also had a lot more fun because they were the MCs, instead of having an auctioneer.
Sunny: In its first year (2011), the Fam Bam netted the same profit as the auction and shows potential for more growth as it becomes an established event. The impact that matters more to us can be seen in how organizers and attendees engage with each other and with the event. People who attend have told us how much more fun they have, how much they learn about our work and how much they look forward to attending next year.
YP: What best practices would you suggest around the process of evaluating and retiring a fundraising event? Jeremy:
1) Go back to your mission and values. How does the actual process of organizing your fundraiser contribute to building your mission, or does it distract from your mission? If it feels like a necessary evil, then the event probably needs to be retired or retooled.
2) Involve your community in the decision as much as possible. Openly discuss all the pros and cons. Brainstorm as many different options as possible. Play around with a lot of numbers and projections, and let your supporters and board members play with those numbers, too. This kind of collective, collaborative process really helps bring out a lot of creativity. Further, it generates positive energy about the new thing that you are creating, rather than fixating on the negatives of the thing that you’re leaving behind.
3) Maintain a rigorous process of debrief and reflection. One reason why many organizations stick with the same old fundraising events year after year is because it’s just easier to keep following a tradition, even if it’s not quite working. Whether creating a new type of event or continuing an older event, organizations really should have a critical eye on what they are doing each year. I think this is something that we lacked after each auction because we were so relieved to just have it done each year. I think we continue to run this risk with the Fam Bam—who says we need the same type of Fam Bam each year? How can we keep the creativity going each year? The planning process needs to continue being dynamic so we don’t get stuck in a rut.
1) Weigh the human and mission-based costs along with the financial cost when evaluating your fundraising event. Ask yourselves: Does this help build our community? Does this support the growth and leadership of our members? Does this still feel fun? What do we lose by trying? What can we gain?
2) Engage as many leaders within your organization as possible in evaluating every year’s event. In all likelihood, if you’re thinking of retiring an event it is because it has been a long time coming. Be diligent in collecting and responding to feedback and be willing to engage broader conversations about how things are done and why they’re done.
YP: Any last thoughts you think are important to share?
Sunny: Trust that your people will be there with you. The people who support your work are there for you because they believe in what you’re doing, not because of the type of fundraiser you’re holding. While you learn what works best, ask for their help and support.
Jeremy: We need our fundraising to contribute to our movement building and community empowerment work, or else it’s draining vital energy and creativity from where it should be channeled. It was hard to start making this change at SYPP, but with the Fam Bam, we at least took a step in that direction, and it’s something I’m really proud of as a former co-director.
Dear SYPP alumni and supports,
Seattle Young people’s Project is about to make a heartfelt, but risky change to our fundraising strategy, and we’re counting on your support to pull it off.
After extensive discussions among members, staff, some alumni, and the Board of Directors, we have decided to discontinue our annual auction fundraiser. Instead, we are excited to pursue some new fundraising ideas that better reflect our values and capacity. Please, read on to hear about our reasons, our plans, and how you can help us take this bold step.
Year after year, SYPP has been able to pull off auction fundraisers that are warm, fun, and also sustain our youth-led organizing work. In fact, last year was our most financially successful auction yet, raising almost $27,000. However, there are a number of things about the auction that just don’t sit right with us, and don’t feel like a good fit with our mission.
- Youth members often feel tokenized, standing behind products and on stage for just a few minutes to ask for money. For all the work this event takes, they want an opportunity for more authentic interactions with their supporters.
- As a social justice organization, critical of cut-throat capitalism, we feel sad to have our biggest event of the year so focused on consumerism. In fact, many youth’s own families and communities feel priced out of the event. We want to connect with you about our work, not about buying things.
- With only two staff and two youth interns, the auction monopolizes almost 3 full months of SYPP’s capacity. This is time that can and should be better used to push our organizing forward and to grow youth power in Seattle. If we are going to spend three months going door- to-door across Seattle, we want to be asking our neighbors to build a movement, not just donate gift certificates.
- Just as we’ve seen more and more organizations borrowing the fun Bowl-a-Thon model, it seems that every year more local groups are doing auctions. In fact, Seattle has an incredibly auction-heavy fundraising climate compared to other cities. At SYPP, we think it’s time to try something different.
- While we loved professional auctioneer Laura Michalek’s work last year, ever since our long- time auctioneer Larry Taylor passed, the SYPP auction just hasn’t felt the same to us.
For these reasons and more, SYPP is looking to change things up.
3 SYPP Values, 3 New Initiatives
This year we are launching three new fundraising and community building programs that are rooted in values that matter to us at SYPP:
- Building an intergenerational community that honors youth’s justice work.
A Dinner and Celebration of the SYPP Family
-Saturday, May 21st, 5:30-8pm-
This dinner will gather SYPP’s entire community of members, supporters, alumni, and parents to celebrate together as a SYPP family. Like the auction, there will be giving opportunities like fund-a-need and the dessert dash, but the focus will be on having fun, meaningful sharing about SYPP’s work, and honoring each generation’s contributions to building social change movements. GOAL: $10,000
- Appreciating SYPP’s legacy and listening to those who come before us.
SYPP Alumni Story Project and Giving Circle With SYPP coming up on its 20th birthday, there are hundreds, if not thousands of community members who count SYPP as one of their first activist homes. We are creating a project to reconnect with these SYPP history makers, to learn from their stories, and to seek their support to sustain SYPP into the future. GOAL: $2,5000
- Expanding class-accessible fundraising that values people’s time contributions and relationships
Major Fundraiser Program
While we love our Major Donors and appreciate their sizeable annual contributions, we also want to expand spaces for supporters who might not have deep pockets, but who do have deep commitments to youth empowerment. We are recruiting 10 major fundraisers, who will utilize their own passions and chosen communities to raise $1,000 over a 12-month period. GOAL: $10,000
SYPP NEEDS YOU!
This change in our fundraising is much less about the money, and more about sticking to our values. But that doesn’t change the harsh economic realities out there.
In order to make this risk work out, we need our SYPP community to show up for us. We still need captains for the SYPP FamBam!, we need alumni to reconnect with us, and we need Major Fundraisers.
What will your contribution be?
SYPP’s Board and Staff
Thank You to Our Donors!
dune 2009-May 2010
Adam Croft, Adam Fletcher, Adilakshmi Brahinaindam, Adrienne Neff, Adrienne Wiley-Thomas, Ahmad Azeez, Alena Suazo, Alex A. Guy, Alexis Allison, Alice Keller, Alice Park, Allison E lkins, Amanda Wake, Amber Robbin, Amber Vora, Ameer Kim El- Mallawany, Amir Sheikh, Arnmara Kimso, Amy Bhatt, Amy Hagopian, Amy Peloff, Amy Wagner, Ana Lucia Degel, Andrea Parra, Andrea Williamson, Andrew Hedden, Andy Allen, Andy Marra, Angela Hsiao, Angela Kanevski, Anjali Teckchandani, Ann Waters, Anna Baldwin, Anna Lee S Preyapongpisan, Anna Von Essen, Annelise Heinz, Annette Wong, Anthony Ricardi, Anu Taranatli, April Fehling, Ariana Flores, Ariel E Wetzel, Asher Simon-Scherer, Barbara Burns McGrath, Basil Weiner, Beata Bowen, Ben Dunlap, Ben Secord, Benjamin Lim, Bernie Fischlowitz, Beth Silverman, Betsy Elwood, Beverly Sims, Bob Hook, Bobbi Reitzes, Bonnie B Swanson, Brandon D Martin, Brandon Salter, Brandon Tuber, Bretnie R. Esclienbacli, Brett Hough- ton, Bria Chakofsky-Lewy, Britt Ashley, Brook Brown, C. Bradley Kramer, Caitlin Coslett, Caitlyn Galloway, Callie Shanafelt, Calvin Burnap, Cara Pierson, Carina Del Rosario, Carmen McDowell, Carol Herrner, Caroline Faria, Caroline Teal, Caryn Kupfer- man, Case Frantz, Cassandra Howe, Cecilia Kiely, Charles Montange, Chen-Chun A Lin, Chera Ainlag, Chio Saeteurn, Chloe Waters, Chris and Loren Louzao, Chris Crew, Chris Mandick, Chris Robinson, Christian Dapiaoen, Christina Mork, Christine Gering, Christine Guiao, Christine Olah, Christoph Hanssmann, Christopher Hanson, Claudia Waters, Clayton Williams, Colton Carothers, Corey Edmonds, Cori Hook, Craig Howard, Cynthia Upde- grave, Dale Tuber, Daniel Frederick Minton, Daniel Moore, Danielle Drummond, Darius Morrison, Darryl Robbins, Dave Wolf, David Beebe, David Citrin, David Dunneback and Lisa Wolterink, David Graham-Squire, David McLanahan, David Reitzes, David V Wong, Dawn Aiken, Deborah A. Fandel, Debra S. Everson, Delila Leber, Denise Dempster, Denise Goldader, Denise Minard, Dennis Montgomery, Dennis Reynolds, Derrick Rickert, Diane M. Ellis, Diane Pederson & Evelyn O’Connor, Dibbon C Joy, Dipika Nath, Donald Mitchell, Donald S Morgan, Donna Denina, Donna Olson, Dorota Czub, Dorothy Jo Lower, Duncan R Autrey, Dung Nguy, Dustin Fujikawa, Eakta Khangura, Eden Lord, Eitan Isaacson, Elaina Ehis, Elana Dix, Elena Hillard, Eligio Martinez Jr, Elinor A Graham, Elizabeth Jamieson, Elizabeth Payne, Ellen Winiarczyk, Ellery Russian, Elsa M. Croon- quist, Emily Lynch, Emily Paddison, Emily Popkin, Emily Sisson, Eric D Carter, Eric Lowney, Eric Ward, Erik Andersen, Erin Cawley-Morse, Erin Doherty, Erin Lennon, Erin Spencer, Esther John, Eugene Allison, Eugene Kidder, Eva Dale, Evan Jacobs, Evan Schiefelbine, Farrah Garan, Fernanda Oyar- zun, Fletcher Christie, Foley Ricchi, Frances and Arun Das, Fred and Susan Shanafelt, Frederick Kingston, Garry & Marjorie Prince, Gary Thomas, George Cheung, George Oliver, Grace Kong, Greg Hasenoehrl, Gregory J. Richardson, Guillermo Carvajal, Gul Subaykan, Guy Astley, Haley Kerr, Hanifa Junejo, Hannah Mason, Harold and Frances Myer, Havens Tipps, Helen Amanda Riglii, Helen Christine Pratt, Helen Read, Helen Stillinan, Herbert and Erica Bergamini, Herbert and Shirley Bridge, Hester Angus, Hilary Han, Hilary Stern, Holly Lim, Holly Sheehan, Ilsa Govan, Irene King, Irene Yoon, Jacinta Howard, Jack Ciraham, Jacob Lund- wall, Jacqueline Kelley, Jaideep, James A. Douglas and Alexandra Harmon, James C Jenista, Jarni Armstrong, Jamilah King, Jane Mee Wong, Janet Miller and Donald Villar- real, Janine Krebs, Jams Menzel, Janna Cawrse Esarey, Jared Leising, Jeanette Seinke, Jeff J. Lin, Jeffery Wildenstein, Jenn Bowman, Jenna Crouch, Jennifer Dtiong, Jennifer Hydrick, Jennifer Macchiarelli, Jennifer Pae, Jennifer Yim, Jenny Lowery, Jeremy Louzao, Jeremy O Siiner, Jessica Koch, Jessica Nelson, Jessica Swetin, Jessie Benet, Jillian G. Nieder, JKL Mastenbrook, Joe Sherman, John Jinkyu Won, Jolyn Leslie, Jonathan Brier, Jonathan Fuchs, Jonathan Squire, Jordawn Overton, Joseph E. Knight, Josh Fogt, Josh Powell, Joyce Yang, Judith Aplin, Julia Curren, Julia Gold, Julia Kaplan, Julia Robinson, Julie Cella, Julie Haehn, Jyotsna Koorapati, Kaitlyn Zech, Kalpana Krishnainurthy, Kara Nostrand, Karen Hayes, Karen Toering, Karin Miyazaki, Karyn Williams, Kat Vellos, Kate Benward, Katherine G. Hultquist, Kathleen Fujikawa, Kathryn V. Brett, Katie Heidere, Katie Pencke, Keith Fletcher, Kent Jewell, Kevin March, Klianie Ha, Kim Berardi, Kim Toskey, Kim- berly Anna Marshall, Kiran Dhillon, Kirsi, Kristen Kao, Kristin Tucker, Kristina Deptiydt, Kristina Logsdon, Kurt Kaiser, Kyla Lackie, Kyle Rapiñan, Kylie Gursky, Laila Suidan, Lambert Rochfort, Laura Donovan, Laura Finn, Laura K Brett, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Laurel Smith, Lauren Parke, Laurie Pierson, Leah Montange, Leland Campbell, Leno Rose-Avila, Leona Domingo, Leslie Fenton, Libby Wayss, Lillian Hewko, Lillian Wu, Linda Fowells, Linda Jansen, Lindsay Hofinan, Lisa Allison, Lisa Dittinar, Lisa Karl, Lisa M. Taylor, Lisa Quinn, Luningning Mayor-Talmadge, Lyndsey Runyan, Lynn Gravatt, Lynn Sereda, Lynne Nguyen, Mad- havi Murty, Maggie Pollack, Maia Williams, Mana Borenstine, Manish Chalana, Marc Mazique, Marcos Martinez, Maree Cho Ness, Marek Falk, Margaret Bostelrnann, Margaret Kent, Margaret Sigley, Margarita Medina, Maria Morales, Marianne Mork, Marie and Dale Hedden, Marilyn Henry, Marilyn Klompus, Marina Skumanich, Marisa Ordonia, Mark Dudzinski, Marni Levy and John M. Hughes, Marsha Cogdill, Martha Flores, Martha Koester, Martha Wilson, Martin Cassidy, Marty Liebowitz, Mary Anne Mercer, Mary Brett, Mary Elizabeth Hawkins, Mary Fox, Mary McDougal, Maryellen Ferro, Matt Hamilton, Matt Johnson, Matthew Goldberg, Maxx Tomlinson, Maya Ainichai, Maya Sheppard, Meg Cummins, Megan Bott, Megan Hirsh, Mele Aho, Melissa Firuz, Melissa Miller, Melissa Stultz, Mia Mingus, Michael Drummond, Michael Gast, Michael Helfer, Michael Hurlock, Michael Pierson, Michelle Stack, Micliiko K. Yamamoto, Mijo Lee, Mike Buchman, Mike Kai, Mo Avery, Mohammed A Rizvi, Molly Landreth, Molly Nissen, Mondi Mallory, Monica Aufrecht, Morgan Dutton, Murthy Chimata, Namchee Chan, Namita Chad, Nancy Clark, Naomi D Mura- kawa, Nathan Yoffa, Nathaniel Shara, Nayeli Dault, Neelu Bhuman, Neena Makhija, Neil Cainpau, Nicole Trimble, Nipun Mehra, Nishant Verinan, Norma Andrade, Odawni Palmer, Pamela Alt, Paolo Caoagdan, Patricia Mork, Paul Brown, Paul C Soper, Paula Tomlinson, Pearlie Welch, Pervez Romani, Pranati Desiraju, Pritesh Patel, Rachael Myers, Rachel Ceballos, Rachel Tangen, Ray Hsia, Rebecca Larson, Rebecca Melonson, Rebecca Saldana, Rebecca Wisotsky, Richard B. Harwood, Richard Doherty, Robert T Moore, Robin Park, Robin Russell, Rodger Kline, Rosetta Lee, Ruth McCauley, Ruth Yarrow, Sabrina Roach, Sahar Romani, Saif Romani, Sakina Hussain, Sally Soriano, Salmun Kazerounian, Sam Smith, Samer Araabi, Samira Shirdel, Samuel Smith, Sanchez Juwo, Sandra Lee, Sandra M. Gresl, Sanjeev Dwivedi, Sarah Brown, Sarah Fonts, Sarah Kim Randolph, Sarah McFadden, Sarah Nell Reynolds, Sarah Richardson, Sarah Thomas, Sarah White, Sean C Rollosson, Sean O’Neill, Selma Dillsi, Seth Wessler, Shaline Samy, Shannon Leahy, Shannon McMullen, Shannon Roach, Sharon Hing, Shashwat Srivastav, Sheena A. Mangicap, Sheena Miller, Sheri Hinshaw, Sherry Amundson, Shideh Shirdel, Shilpi Biliari, Shiwani Srivastava, Sid Peter- son, Simon Adriane Ellis, Skylar Brett, Sophia Wheelwright, Sowjanya Ravela, Soya Jung, Stacey Mertes, Stefanie Skiljan, Steph Lee, Stephanie Myers, Sung Cho, Suriny Kim, Susan A. Popkin, Susan B. Elizabeth, Susan Koch, Susan Shanafelt, Susie and Don Drui- iond, Sylas, Tad Crawford, Taen Sclierer, Taja-Nia Henderson, Tamika Williams, Tanya Lee, Tara Woodbury, Teddy Wright, Tera Oglesby, Teresa Wang, Thomas Heinz, Tisha Satow, Tracy Maier, Tsu-Yin Chang, Uma Rao, Vay Hoang, Vincent, Vivek Bah1, Vivian Weston, Walter Smith, Wendy Somerson, William C. Zosel, Yasmeen Perez, Yenifer Baynes-Gastirans, Yuh-Line Niou, Zeke Spier, Zenda Boss-Hall.
Major Donors ($250+)
Abelard Foundation and Common Counsel, Adam Fletcher, Alan Greenbauin and Laura Thorne, Andrea and Alan Rabinowitz, Anjulie Ganti, Becky Liebman, Boo Torres de Es- guerra and Joann Alcantara, Brett Houghton, Carol Heinz and Mike Beebe, Daniel Cordas, Diane Morrison and Joel Bradbury, Duncan Autrey, Elizabeth Little and Family, Ellie Graham and Steve Gary, Erin and Daniel Parshall, Es