Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cold meats, wet feets, and white rubber tents

I've been doing some reading lately on the would-be demise of certain fundraising events. Before (and during) my tenure as a nonprofit arts exec, I've had the opportunity to organize and execute events for a few different places, as well as do a whole-lotta installations in and around NYC working for an event lighting company.

The semiotics of these events have always baffled me. Well-off folks in nice clothes congregate in close quarters under rubbery tents in damp grass and eat hot food that has gone cold that cost twice as much as a good meal in a decent restaurant on any other night.

The mathematics are worse. Typical direct mail campaigns cost about $0.15 to raise a dollar. Many events cost at least $0.35 on the dollar - with some costing more than they raise. The health care and arts sectors are notoriously inefficient at generating ROI at events. I'm a bad blogger because I can't find the article that backs this up - I think it's in my office, and I'll post it when I turn it up.

There are certainly good reasons to hold fundraisers - also called "friendraisers": building brand, recharging emotional capital, and creating networks of stake holders. But how do white rubber tents and the dense damp atmosphere under them promote those activities?

Now that many nonprofits are run by folks in their 20s and 30s, and their supporters are more and more drawn from the baby boomers and less and less from the Greatest Generation, the semiotics of these events are in a moment when they can and should evolve. Rather than perpetuating the mystique of black-tie gatherings, let's take advantage of baby boomers' fondness for all things Springstein, shiny Harleys, and kitschy TV nostalgia. And I'm not just talking centerpieces - really re-engineering these events to be fun and to meet the expectations of the people we're asking to attend them.

There's a lot of room for comment and debate on this topic - it's a big issue, and my run at it here is a little slap-dash - but having come out of my big annual fundraiser last week, it's been on my mind. Comments are appreciated!

Posted by Chris Casquilho

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