If it seems to you like there are more charitable fundraising events than ever, you are not wrong. Auctions of every variety, galas, beer tastings, and don’t even get me started on the multitudinous versions of walks and runs out there. When I started in non-profit animal sheltering over twenty years ago, there were far fewer non-profits and, therefore, far fewer fundraisers.
Back when our Walk was a mere ten years old- and yes, that is our very own Adrienne Trafford rocking the leggings at right.
Back then, the Walk type fundraiser was pretty squarely in the pocket of animal shelters since, you know, dogs walk. Humane Society of Berks County, with its 35 year old Walk for the Animals, is among the oldest around. Over time, as Walks have become more ubiquitous because of their relative ease to conduct- “Hey, everyone, we’re walking, hope you show up!”- the number and diversity of groups has exploded. Cancer walks, domestic violence center walks, walks for Horses, walks for schools, pro-life walks. I even saw a walk for Beethoven or something. Half of them have added dogs to the program, so we don’t even have that unique aspect going for us anymore.
The latest boom in events are beer festivals. This is one area in which I think we were way ahead of the curve. The first beer tasting fundraiser I and fellow staff put together was over twenty years ago when we worked for a neighboring county’s organization. That was back when craft beer was still microbrew, you were lucky to find a bar with more than a couple taps and one of them had Bud Light and the other wasn’t likely to be much better, and you had to drive across the county to find micros or imports (shout out to Buy Rite in Morgantown for carrying Franziskaner!). There may have been another beer tasting fundraiser that long ago, but it pre-dates the internet and I haven’t found one.
In the past decade we brought the model of a small, non-frat boy dominated, fun beer fest to Berks with the Pints for Pups events. It quickly caught on and became one of our signature events. Of course, there had always been the for-profit warehouse bacchanalias and these began to proliferate, as did the smaller local non-profit versions, especially after the change in the Special Occasion Permit rules (which Humane Society of Berks County was instrumental in bringing about, so you’re welcome everyone else) expanded the list of eligible organizations exponentially. Where there used to be one in Berks County there are now four or five or more.
The gala type event, and often the associated auction, tended to be reserved for the “big boy” charities with the higher end donors in past decades. Hospitals, conservancies, museums, and the like tended to dominate this type and when little fellas like animal shelters got into the action it was pretty paltry competition. Fortunately, I had been tutored in Chester County (shout out to the lovely and wonderful Jane Thouron), the land of the swanky gala, in not just how to put one on, but how to create a culture of giving among an attached crowd that built on itself over the years. We brought much of that experience and structure to our events in Berks, especially the Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction, and very quickly grew the event to the point where it routinely broke the $100,000 barrier so rarely achieved by any organization, let alone an organization our size (tiny by comparison to most) and we were trouncing the performance of the “real” charities who tend to have a lock on successful events.
How did we do it? The easy answer is the old chestnut, make an event fun, and we did that. I think our events are pretty fun: we switch things up pretty well, we have great entertainment, good food and booze, and all the things that make people want to attend rather than prefer to just send a check and stay home. That’s the easy answer. The truer answer is that we have always worked our butts off in creating a critical mass of people attached not merely to the fun event itself, but to the purpose of the event and the funds they raise. We put special thought to ensuring we have an array of events at all entry points, from free community events for large numbers, like the Walk, to smaller crowd, higher dollar events like Pints and the Auction. However, even those events, with added benefits for big dollar sponsors, have reasonable pricing and sponsorship opportunities since we know not everyone can write a big check. That’s why the Arf’s Art (Berks) and Wags and Whiskers (Lancaster) Auctions provides tickets to artists who donate their creations to both the auction and the Patron Preview Parties because they are as much a donor as the person who buys their art. We do our best to thank everyone, regardless of level, although with as small a shop as we run, we never do it as well as we could or would like to.
We also try to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of raising money at the expense of spending huge amounts through things like consignment items in auctions (great, it sold for $10,000 but we have to pay $9,500!) or by treating expenses like it wasn’t real money. It is real money. It’s real money someone is donating to us that could go to the animals and our programs. I know donors appreciate that but our vendors often don’t when our staff negotiates pretty hard bargains for the services we pay for.
Most importantly, we try to make sure that everyone who attends our events not only has a good time, not only gets thanked, but knows exactly what we are doing on their behalf, with their money, with the money raised from them and with their help. Our events are where we raise funds for specific purposes. We’ve applied event funds to creating Berks County’s first free, public dog park. To opening its first public, non-profit animal hospital. To opening the first modern, non-pound type adoption facilities, to provide free, targeted medical services to prevent parvo outbreaks, to create Pennsylvania’s first nationally accredited non-profit animals hospital, and much more.
That’s why, despite the intense competition for donor time and money from all these other events, even ones which sometimes are pretty patent knockoffs of our own, ours still do really well, even during economic downturns or other factors which could really damage them. And it’s why, when I see the latest billboard for the local “Beer Auction Gala Walk for the Dogs of Earthquake Survivors” I may say to myself, “Really? Another one?”, but I don’t begrudge them for trying.
I know we not only try harder, we do better, and we do better with what do raise than most manage. And we do it with the loyal and deeply appreciated support of all the people out there who don’t just want to attend an event and they don’t just want to “help animals”, they want to attend our events and help us help animals in the very special, unique and uniquely effective way we do it at Humane Pennsylvania, Humane Society of Berks County, and Humane league of Lancaster County.
If you are one of those people. Thank you and I hope to see you soon. If you haven’t yet been to one of our events, you’ve been missing out! Please join us- you won’t just have a good time, you’ll know you are going to empower us to do some really good work on your behalf.
We know that being first and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee. It’s about being the best. And we strive to not just to give you the best event to attend, but to do the best possible work that can be done, anywhere, with the donation you make.