Thinking big enough about your special event? Here’s how

Browsing through my Sunday paper one September day, a photo caption caught my eye:

Home Sweet Home Gala raises $400,000”

Whoa! I had to look again. Yes. It said $400,000. I figured the newspaper must have added an extra zero.

To those of you who live in big cities, $400,000 raised for a charitable event probably doesn’t sound like such a big deal. But the paper I was reading was the Providence Sunday Journal. The organization was Crossroads Rhode Island, the largest nonprofit provider of homeless services in the state.

To put this fundraising total into perspective for you, you’ll need a bit more data about Rhode Island.

  • The total state population is just over 1 million, making up just over 400,000 households.
  • The largest city, Providence, has a population of  just 174,000.
  • There are only two Fortune 500 companies in the whole state. And one community foundation.
  • The unemployment rate, at 13% in September 2009, was the third highest in the nation. (In 2013, it’s 9.1%, 2nd highest)

Even in a booming economy, $400,000 would be a pretty huge fundraising gross for an event in Rhode Island. If I had to guess, it’s probably in the 10 top events in total funds raised.

I had to learn more. So I went straight to the top and called Karen Santilli, the Vice President for Marketing and Development at Crossroads.

“Yes, our September gala raised just over $400,000.” Karen told me. I learned that was more than they raised last year.

No, they didn’t have a Hollywood celebrity or famous speaker, which the other events that raise the biggest money often have.

“Can I write about this for Contributions readers?” I asked. Karen agreed. Let me thank her now for her graciousness and kindness in sharing their formula for special event success.

Five Years and a Winning Formula

This event started in 2004 when Travelers Aid of Rhode Island changed its name to Crossroads Rhode Island. Karen told me that “the event chair at the time felt strongly that we had to do something very unique to celebrate the name change and help people remember who we were.”

So they put their heads together to create a truly WOW event that would keep people talking and eager to see what they would do the next year.

Here’s their winning formula:

  • The event is always held in a unique place, like the top deck of a parking garage, or an airplane hanger, and on the unfinished 3rd floor of a factory under renovation.
  • It’s theme is always based on the concept of “home” to remind everyone of Crossroads mission.
  • The theme inspires or is inspired by the event location.
  • The event is fun! And the fun starts with the creative marketing and sponsorship materials.
  • The event itself knocks peoples’ socks off with its amazing decorations and wonderful surprises throughout the evening.
  • And the planners don’t forget that the goal is raising money – lots of it. There are many opportunities to give throughout the night.

The production formula

“Our event is quite a production,” Karen explained. “Costumed actors from the community theatre RISE on Broadway donate their time to help create the theme. Our incredible designer, Richard Pascarelli of ‘Richard Pascarelli with a Twist’ creates the most extraordinary setting.

“For example, this year’s theme ‘Home Sweet Home’ was designed around the book Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Guests signed in a candy shop and really felt like they were in the book.

“It’s really hard to describe just how creative everything is but your readers can see videos of past year’s events. The 2008 event was “The Journey Home,” 2013 was Down the Homestretch (a horse racing theme).

“We have about 60 volunteers who help Richard and Crossroads fabulous Special Events Manager Pat Campellone create the decorations, arrange the tables, set up the space and keep things flowing throughout the evening. That includes many of our wonderful staff who get a paid day off in exchange for their service. Staff love the event so much that they recruit friends and family members to volunteer that night.”

The event has great food, a sit down dinner and a live band and dancing. The speaking program, limited to the CEO and the Board Chair, is “very, very brief,” Karen explained.

The fundraising formula

“The event has always been targeted to RI businesses and corporations,” Karen described. “This year we had two top corporate sponsors at $30,000 and four at $25,000, all the way down to $2,500 for sponsors.”

Karen told me the event tickets are so sought after that companies use them to reward their top employees. Earlier this year, when she asked a friend who had been at the 2008 event if he would be there again this year, he lamented how hard it is to get invited to the company table.

Because you can’t count on having your boss invite you, Karen explained, they’ve sold more and more individual tickets at $150 each. Individual sales totaled about $35,000 in 2009.

“We had 625 people at the event this year … so many that we had to stop selling tickets because there just wasn’t enough room for everyone,” Karen sadly remembered.

Karen explained that there is also a raffle – they start selling raffle tickets in advance and continue through the night of the event. There are only three raffle prizes, all pretty big, and all donated. This year, the top prize was The Ultimate Chocolate Lovers Dream: A trip to Switzerland. “We raised $23,000 between the raffle and the 300 Wonka Bars in which were hidden 5 golden tickets for smaller prizes. We sold all 300 of those during the cocktail hour.”

Of course, Crossroads ensures that their sponsors and other supporting businesses get lots of great exposure. For example, Karen told me that this year they surprised their guests by unveiling the Chocolate Room after dinner, with platters of beautiful hand crafted chocolates donated by RI chocolatiers. The business cards of the chocolatiers were on the tables. At least two of the businesses told Karen later that they acquired new customers who specifically mentioned that they discovered their chocolate at Crossroad’s event.

The solicitation plan

I asked Karen how they solicited for tickets. She replied:

“This year, because the economy was bad, we sent our sponsorship pledge letters in January, which was earlier than usual. In late May, we hand delivered a sponsorship confirmation package to secure our sponsors’ pledges for the event. Those packages are a tease to get everyone excited … their amazing design hints at the theme without ever disclosing it. This year, the packages were based around top hats filled with candy. Last year, they were mini suitcases (in line with the travel theme). Again, we don’t reveal the theme but the packages are designed to further stoke speculation and expectations about the event.

“After that package is delivered, a team made up of our CEO Anne Nolan, our incredibly dedicated Board Chair Howard Sutton and his wife Kim, me and our fabulous Special Events Manager, call or personally connect with each of the sponsors on our sponsorship list.”

Karen told me that the event invitation is mailed in July. This past year it was a really sparkly package with top hat and candy wrapper designs. Last year’s invitation looked like a travel packet.

I wondered if they used any electronic media to support the event. Because Crossroads sends out an eNewsletter every week or every other week or so, they are able to include “save the date” notices promoting the event.

About a third of the individual tickets were sold online thatyear.

Keeping the mission front and center

Some of you might wonder about the decision to hold such an event in this economic climate.

Karen told me that they, too, had many reservations about running the event that year, given its joyful themes and the bad economy. All around them, other organizations were canceling their events.

At one point, Crossroads even considered switching it’s event to one of those non-event events where people just send money but don’t come to anything. “You can only do that kind of thing once,” Karen said.

“In the end, canceling or changing the event simply was a bigger risk. This event is a really big fundraiser for Crossroads. Our work depends on the money we raise.”

Proceeds from this event make up about 20% of Crossroads total annual fund giving of $2 million (up from previous years, by the way).

As their clients depend on services made possible with the money raised from this event, Crossroads decided that the event had to go on. Even more so as the bad economy was driving more and more needy people to their door.

So, they forged ahead, expecting corporate sponsorships to be down that year, which they were. But what they didn’t expect, which was a wonderful surprise, was the strength of the individual ticket sales. The growth in individual tickets made up for the drop in corporate sponsorship, and then some.

There are other ways the mission is reinforced during the event besides basing the theme around the concept of “home.” For example, in keeping with this year’s creative theme, information about community need and Crossroads programs was printed to look like a newspaper broadsheet. Last year the info was printed on a safety instruction card like you’d find on an airplane.

It just so happens that Crossroads had its own social enterprise at the time, The Copy Center at Crossroads, which designed and printed all of the fabulous event materials and invitations. This bulk of the workforce of this for-profit LLC were student trainees in Crossroads vocational services program. The fabulous print materials were great promotions for The Copy Center which was highlighted on all event materials.

A friend raiser too

Karen told me that this event introduces a lot of new potential supporters to Crossroads. Everyone who comes is always wowed by the event and can’t stop talking about it. First timers are really interested to learn more about Crossroads mission and programs. They spread the message to their friends and family.

This year, Crossroads acquired 400 new names and emails as a result of door prizes and other sign ups at the event.

And in a small state that seems to have at least two charity events on any given night, this is an event that people actually look forward to from year to year.

And next year?
“Of course, it’s a surprise” Karen reminded me. “But it will be fabulous and we hope that you’ll come.”

This article was originally published in Contributions Magazine.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE is President of Cause & Effect Inc.. Cause and Effect Inc helps social benefit organizations tap the full potential of their board and community, make strategic decisions, tell more compelling stories, and raise more money.  You can reach her at