Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jul/Aug 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
FOR MANY OF US, A FUNDRAISING “SPECIAL EVENT” conjures up the image of a big, more-formal-than-not banquet, complete with fancy food and wine, a celebrity speaker, a high cost ticket price, and five-figure table sponsorships that raise tons of money. However, the flip side of these events, as many fundraisers know, is that they are expensive, labor-intensive, and a little daunting to organize or even attend, particularly for groups whose members may not have connections to prospects who can make large gifts or may not be able to afford $100-plus tickets.
But “special event” doesn’t have to mean galas or golf tournaments. Although each of those types of events can be great fundraisers as well, your group should not feel pressured to take on a cookie-cutter event if it doesn’t suit your constituents and donor base.
Many small nonprofits don’t have donors who can throw down a $25,000 event sponsorship, but they do have several hundred people who can make small gifts and who share a certain identity that unites them. Whether you work with low-income mothers or students from inner-city schools, the specific cultural values and traditions of your group can provide a wealth of creative ideas for out-of-the-ordinary special events that can draw a crowd, raise money, and give your supporters and donors a fun, memorable experience. When planned as part of a larger fundraising strategy, even smaller-scale special events can be opportunities to bring in new donors, raise awareness of your issue, and help strengthen your individual donor program.
The three Bay Area-based groups profiled in this article prove that special events can be as unique as your organization, and that the more connected your fundraising event is to the culture of your members and constituents, the more successful it will most likely be. Pay close attention to the cultural cues and customs of your group and what people get excited about. Brainstorm ideas with your board, staff members, or clients about what they think would be fun and what kind of event people in your community would attend. As these groups’ events demonstrate, special events can be fresh, innovative cultural productions that transform your community’s values into a successful fundraising activity.
Founded in San Francisco, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) is a grassroots, all volunteer, membership group of gay and bisexual Asian and Pacific Islander men. GAPA’s mission is to further the interests of queer APIs by creating awareness, developing a positive collective identity, and establishing a supportive community. Though its political component, the group does voter education and outreach on issues such as marriage equality and endorses candidates for political office. In addition, each year GAPA holds several events where members can socialize, build community, and raise money for the group. Among them is an annual banquet fundraiser featuring high profile gay API personalities, such as George Takei (Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” series and a vocal supporter of same sex marriage who recently married his partner Brad Altman). The group also does performances and outreach at community events such as San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride Parade.
But GAPA’s signature event is “Runway,” an annual beauty pageant/drag show that began in the 1980s to address the lack of venues, even in the culturally diverse Bay Area, for gay API men to perform. Since then, GAPA members have turned this negative situation into a community tradition. “Runway” turns the conventional, all-female “beauty queen” contest on its head by featuring only male performers who are all Asian/Pacific American. “Runway” contestants conjure up elaborate drag queen costumes, replete with feather boas, glittery jewelry, and evening gowns or debonair tuxes and sharp suits to compete for the titles of Mr. and Miss GAPA. Contestants walk across the main stage and down a runway to the cheers of audience members, many of whom wear flower leis. A panel of judges— which can include local celebrities and politicians—chooses the winners of the contest. Mr. and Miss GAPA get trophies, and Miss GAPA is crowned with a tiara.
Every year, the pageant is hosted by Tita Aida, a well-known figure in the gay API community who has a flair for putting on a good show. The campy glamour of the event is one of its hallmarks, but contestants don’t leave politics out of the picture. Recently, for example, during the height of the fight for same-sex marriage in California, one “Runway” contestant wore a wedding gown and a sash that read “Marry Me,” and instead of a veil wore a wedding cake on her head.
“The contestants bring unique flavor to the event,” says Alex Baty, GAPA board member and chair of the group’s social committee, which runs special events. “That level of camp makes ‘Runway’ different from a regular beauty pageant.”
The event—now in its 22nd year—has gained a reputation as a fun and popular tradition in the Bay Area’s gay API community. It is also a fundraiser, raising as much as $7,000 from as many as 300 attendees, mostly through ticket sales. The main expense is the rental of the theater venue.
Because GAPA has no paid staff the entire event is organized by a volunteer committee of board members and other supporters. And since “Runway” has become such a tradition for GAPA members, publicity is mostly through word-of-mouth. The event also provides an automatic way for GAPA to publicize its annual banquet, another way that it contributes to the group’s fundraising efforts.
With offices in San Francisco and Oakland, Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) is a nonprofit grassroots group of low-income immigrant Latina women. MUA’s members come together for education, leadership development, and political empowerment, participating in community campaigns that address critical issues for these women: immigration, jobs, education, health care, and domestic violence. The group’s members are the driving force of the organization: they recruit new members to meetings and trainings, provide peer support and counseling, and do grassroots fundraising to support the organization.
One of the MUA’s special events is the quermes, a recreation of town fiestas celebrating the national independence days of the women’s home countries. Because most of MUA’s members come from Mexico and Central American countries, they decided to organize the quermes not only to raise funds for the organization but also to provide a taste of home to their friends and families here.
“One of the things that people like about going to the quermes is that it’s a family event,” says Maria Jimenez, MUA program director. “It reminds people of their childhood, of things that they did back home.” The events provide a family friendly space for community members to gather, socialize and have fun, as well as contribute to MUA’s fundraising efforts. MUA’s members have organized a mini-version of the fiestas for the past several years, with four to eight members taking the lead on planning and selling tickets to the events. The quermes is held in an outdoor area near the group’s office; there are booths and tables where members sell traditional food and handicraft, and areas for playing games.
A unique and culturally specific fundraising activity at the quermes is the registro civil (civil registry), a playful game that pokes fun at the institution of marriage, in which a team of “police” wander around and “trap” either actual couples or just two people who may or may not know each other, and make them “get married.” Couples are even given rings, a veil, and a jacket for their “wedding.” Humorous vows that play on frustrations and stereotypes people may have about marriage and gender roles are used in the wedding “ceremony.” For example, “being of unsound mind and body, I promise to be lazy.” The fundraising component is that people who have been tagged must pay $5 to $10 to get married—and the “police” sometimes strategically pick two well-known community leaders who are then asked to give more money than the usual amount. If someone resists the marriage, they are taken to a fake “jail” where they have to stay for a time or pay a five to get out and return to the party. Both the files and the wedding fees raise money for the organization.
The quermes is almost completely member-run and does not incur major expenses for the organization. Several dozen MUA members get involved in planning, fundraising, and helping out on the day of the event. As many as 150 community members have turned out for the event, and MUA members have raised at least $3,000 in profit from a single quermes. A bonus is that the event gives MUA members a chance to learn about raising money in a way that is culturally appropriate and connects to their lived experiences, which can help them eventually become more skillful as fundraisers.
“I think it’s effective for raising money here because it’s a way of bringing our culture from home here to the United States,” says Jimenez. “The way that people raise money in the States seems really formal to us, and this is a way of being much less formal. And for people who feel intimidated about raising money it’s a way of getting them involved in fundraising and in the process teaching them about setting goals. It’s an introduction for people who never would get involved in fundraising otherwise.”
In 2006, Californians for Justice (CFJ), a statewide grassroots organization working for racial justice in public schools, celebrated its tenth anniversary with four special events, one at each of its regional offices. CFJ staff knew that they wanted the events to be as youth-friendly as possible so that the group’s members—almost all high school students of color—would feel ownership of them and have fun participating. At the time I was the development director at CFJ and oversaw planning for these events statewide. I was also aware that because most of our donors are adults, we needed to integrate our youth members’ cultural creativity and enthusiasm with a strong fundraising campaign to take full advantage of this important anniversary. In order to achieve this goal, we involved CFJ’s youth leaders actively in organizing the events from the start, so that the events could reflect their interests, spirit, and energy.
“We broke into committees with a mix of youth and adults on each committee,” says Stacy Kono, the event coordinator for the Oakland celebration. Each event’s committee consisted of between five to twenty people. “At the planning meetings, we played icebreakers, got updates about the campaign work from youth and staff and then got down to business. It was a leadership development opportunity for both youth and adults because we were all learning how to work well together.”
Although the events had many of the same fundraising components as a regular gala, CFJ incorporated as much about its organizing work in schools as possible into these activities. For example: sponsorship levels were named after high school classes, from “Freshmen” to “Graduate”; youth fundraised by asking their friends, teachers, and families to buy program book ads and event tickets; and staff reached out to CFJ’s allies for sponsorships, including teachers’ unions, policy advocacy groups, and local elected officials we had worked with.
The program for the events also took advantage of the organization’s youthful spirit by presenting a fashion show with student leaders modeling old CFJ campaign T-shirts as a way to review the group’s ten-year history. The youth leaders were excited to “walk the runway” onstage as their friends, families, and community members cheered them on. The T-shirt parade enabled the youth and the audience to learn more about CFJ’s biggest accomplishments and campaigns.
In terms of fundraising, CFJ’s 10th anniversary campaign was successful, raising more than $80,000 through a combination of sponsorships, program book ad revenue, ticket sales. and pitches at each of the events. The campaign also gave all the student leaders, staff and board members involved a positive experience of fundraising that inspired them to set higher goals in the future.