Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

CHARITIES RETHINKING THE VALUE OF GALAS WHILE THE SOCIAL ASPECTS ARE IMPORTANT, GRAND EVENTS DON'T ALWAYS RAISE THE FUNDS A NONPROFIT NEEDS [Corrected 04/01/15]

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

CHARITIES RETHINKING THE VALUE OF GALAS WHILE THE SOCIAL ASPECTS ARE IMPORTANT, GRAND EVENTS DON'T ALWAYS RAISE THE FUNDS A NONPROFIT NEEDS [Corrected 04/01/15]

Article excerpt

In September, eight senior staff members at Asset STEM Education met to plan a gala to mark the 20th anniversary of the South Side- based nonprofit. Asset had already reserved a 2015 date for the event at Duquesne University's Power Center ballroom, and needed to discuss details such as speakers, a menu and how to budget expenses so it would reap a profit from the gala.

But the more they talked about how much money would be spent on food and the venue, the less enthusiastic the staff became about the idea of a formal fundraiser.

Then there was the challenge of filling the room with donors. "If I was a business that was invited, how hard would it be for me to fill a table? That's always difficult," said Cynthia Pulkowski, executive director of Asset, which provides science kits to schools and science-based consulting and training to educators.

Because Asset was already exploring a way to help pay for its programs for schools and groups with limited resources, its staff and board of directors agreed to scrap the gala. Instead, they appealed to donors to contribute directly to the nonprofit's new scholarship fund.

The Hillman Foundation stepped up with a gift of $50,000, followed by significant donations from businesses such as Westinghouse, Bayer, PPG, Dollar Bank and Mine Safety Appliances. Eventually, Asset had commitments for $120,000 - double the amount it hoped to raise at the gala.

While traditional charity galas remain the norm for many organizations, some nonprofits that may have once held large, big- ticket events are opting for more casual - and less costly - ways to raise money. Some acknowledge that prominent social events are a tough sell since corporate and individual donations fell off during the Great Recession, while some say they don't want to bog down staff and spend resources planning and executing large, expensive parties every year.

"A lot of organizations aren't particularly well equipped to do a big gala and it's a tremendous investment of time," said Rudy Rosen, a research professor at Texas State University's Meadows Center for Water and Environment who also lectures and consults on nonprofit fundraising.

Sprout's Hothouse

That was the case for the Sprout Fund, a Garfield nonprofit that finances early-stage community and cultural projects.

From 2003 through 2010, Sprout held its annual Hothouse fundraisers at various redevelopment sites in the city, such as Bakery Square in Larimer, before that former Nabisco factory was occupied by Google offices and retail shops. A Hothouse at Bakery Square in 2009 drew an estimated 3,000 patrons over three hours, said Mac Howison, Sprout's senior program officer.

But despite their popularity, the Hothouses consumed too much time and volunteer effort to justify the return, he said.

Sprout promoted Hothouse as "a community celebration" where it could showcase its investment projects in creative, urban spaces. With general admission tickets priced at $40 to $45 apiece, Hothouse was "never a traditional gala fundraiser," said Mr. Howison, although Sprout sold VIP-level Hothouse tickets for about $150 that included cocktail hour and pre-party that was "more like traditional donor cultivation."

However, planning and execution for the events required "dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers" to help Sprout's small staff while the challenge of securing a fresh venue each year "was equivalent to what a real estate development person at a large organization might do," said Mr. Howison.

After it dropped Hothouse five years ago, Sprout held an arts performance fundraiser, Tenacity, in 2011 to celebrate its 10th anniversary. It has since shifted its focus to gatherings for smaller groups such as periodic happy hour gatherings at bars and restaurants. The nonprofit also has built momentum around online and social media appeals, such as the annual Day of Giving, said Mr. …

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