The Big Event

By Megan Willome

Every fundraiser or fundraising activity, as Nouwen says, is a way to connect with people and give them the chance to help a nonprofit make its vision real in the community.

To do that, each nonprofit hosts events that feel authentic to its character and purpose. The events change over time, based on what is resonating with the intended audience. Not every group needs a gala. Or a gala might be the perfect way to communicate what a particular group is doing in Waco.

Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with representatives from eight nonprofits about their fundraising events. They talked about what works and what doesn’t, how their events have changed and what they’ve learned along the way.

“Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.”
— Henri Nouwen, “The Spirituality of Fundraising”

Regal Celebration
The Advocacy Center

The Advocacy Center for Crime Victims & Children throws a Mardi Gras Ball each year. It’s a big event with big expenses. But it’s done that way for a reason.

“There’s a regalness to it,” said Nikki Rhea, who serves as development director. “People come for the cause. Our guest list is 350-400, and every person is there because they want to support the Advocacy Center. The party is just an added bonus. We want to keep it that way. We’re a local nonprofit; all our funds stay here.”

When Rhea joined the board seven years ago, they were looking to create a new event to build awareness.

“Unless you’ve been in our doors, you’re not gonna fully understand what our professionals do,” Rhea said.

Board members Taina Maya and Jamie Goble suggested holding a Mardi Gras ball because Waco did not have one. After visiting several balls, especially in the greater Houston area, the board decided to make the crowning of a king and queen a key part of the evening.

“They play a vital role, being honorary chairs and rallying the community. They help us raise funds and raise awareness. That’s how we make the choice on our king and queen — who has been committed to bringing attention to the Advocacy Center and then who gives financially and of their time. The one thing we ask is for them to be a voice and a face. They’re the ones on our commercials, PSAs, social media, print ads,” Rhea said. “We’d love to grow a royal court, so to speak, and increase awareness and funds. That’s huge in the Houston area. That is one piece I feel like now that it is set, we’ve just got to keep it going.”

The king and queen for the upcoming year are crowned at the ball. That surprise gets the attendees excited, and the honorees know they will have a lot of work to do between galas.

“They help sell tables. They get some people there. They ask for auction items to be donated through their centers of influence. They play an active role the night of, during the audible auction and certainly during the presentation for the next king and queen,” Rhea said. “For the first time this year we had someone turn it down because they realized the commitment, and I respected that.”

This year the ball included a casino, for folks who don’t dance. But dancing is a big draw. The event features a 12-piece band out of Dallas called In10City that the crowd loves. They even play a New Orleans-style rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

“The band members [have] become like family to us,” Rhea said. “They’ve committed to us because of our cause. They know we’re raising funds for child abuse victims and sexual assault survivors.”

For the first time at this year’s event a survivor shared her story.

“Her name was Hanna Fisher; she’s the daughter of Dr. William Peper and Amy Peper. They’re well-known in the community. She really wanted to share her story about the help she and her parents received. That was the first time that our guests were able to put a face of someone they knew with our services and why they were there,” Rhea said.

The event has grown so much that two weeks before the event Rhea was turning people away. One donor was interested in buying a table right before the gala, but Rhea explained that plating an additional 10 people that late in the planning would incur a lot of expense and nothing would go to the Advocacy Center. But if he became a $5,000 sponsor, which includes a table for 10, then a large chunk of the donation immediately would go to the center. The donor understood and became a sponsor.

That’s one reason a big event can be worth it. It’s a time when an organization can raise the funds it needs without the strings that come attached to many grants.

“Grants are a gift to the agency, but they’re also restricted,” Rhea said.

The Advocacy Center holds another event in December that attracts a different segment of the community — Designer Purse Bingo, at Melody Ranch. It includes a raffle of a Louis Vuitton handbag.

“It’s a simple event. Everyone plays bingo to win a designer handbag,” Rhea said. “It’s people who wouldn’t attend the ball, but they can afford a bingo ticket and get 20 games of bingo and a chance to win a Tory Burch or a Kate Spade purse and come with a group of girls and have so much fun.”

The bingo night was started in Hill County by former board member Nicole Crain, who lives in the area. The event now occurs in both Hill and McLennan counties. Not only does bingo night sell out quickly, but three full-time staff members — Shanta Williams, Laura Downing and Heydi McKinney — recently served as chairs for the
Waco event.

“They love the event so much they told our executive director, ‘We really want to chair this.’ So when you have your staff volunteering for the organization that they work with, that shows the value that it provides to the agency,” Rhea said.

One unique part of Designer Purse Bingo is the key partnership with various Central Texas police departments, with whom the Advocacy Center works closely.

“We have police officers who model the purses for us. They love the event. They are so excited to model,” Rhea said. “In our new location we are housing with Waco Police Department. We ask all of our local law enforcement in Waco, Hewitt, Woodway, Bellmead — we work with all the departments, even the sheriff’s office. It’s a natural thing for us to ask, and they love it.”

Quality Over Quantity

Poverty knows no season, so Caritas raises funds throughout the year to serve the more than 46,000 Central Texans who do not know where they will find their next meal. In honor of them, Caritas holds its Feast of Caring in April.

“It originally started as Poor Man’s Supper, in the early ’70s. Back then it was just soup and bread, to let people experience what our clients
might experience with only having soup and bread to eat on a daily basis. Then it evolved to the soup cook-off,” said Ann Owen, assistant executive director for finance.

The event changed to this new format in 2013. Executive Director Buddy Edwards said, “We wanted a new, fresh, innovative way to attract guests to a fundraiser.”

Now a variety of local restaurants and caterers bring a soup, and attendees vote with their dollars. Each table has a carafe, and the Audience Favorite Award is given to the carafe with the most money at the end of the evening. A panel of secret judges also gives a Judges’ Award. Three years ago Caritas added desserts, and they are judged the same way.

“It can be any kind of dessert, ranging from sopapillas to last year we actually had flaming bananas Foster,” Owen said.

Another addition to the evening is the Souper Spoons Game, in which guests pay $10 for a numbered spoon that corresponds to an envelope containing a gift card valued at a minimum of $10. This year’s most valuable card was worth $180.

“We sell out all of those spoons. This year we had almost 150, and they sold out within 45 minutes of the event starting,” Owen said.

After the spoons game and the audible auction, which has been conducted by Clayton Hall for years, one of Caritas’ case management clients shares their story.

“Our case-management program helps people go to MCC or TSTC,” Owen explained. “That’s another thing that’s been very fulfilling for me to see, for people on the brink of homelessness or who already are homeless, and to see them want to change and to see the evolution of where they were to where they are now.”

Owen says when it comes to choosing items for a silent auction, “quality over quantity is better. I’ve been to auctions where we have 100 items, and not that they’re not all great, but there can be too many. Especially when you have maybe a smaller audience and there aren’t as many people bidding, that can water down the funds that you raise.”

One of the more popular items this year was gift certificates to Full Moon Float Co.

“Not only was that popular because it was unique, but that helped promote his business,” Owen said. “We’ve also learned that any kind of handbags and jewelry go well.”

For the live auction, Owen has found that experiences or bundled items garner the most interest.

“We have football tickets in the President’s Suite in McLane Stadium. That’s always very popular,” she said. “This year we had someone who donated benches from the renovation at the Texas Rangers stadium, so we paired those benches with tickets to a Rangers game and a swag bag.”

Because Feast of Caring is a midweek event, usually held on a Tuesday, it’s kept short — 2 1/2 hours maximum. It’s a casual event with a low ticket price of $35, and that’s intentional.

“We’ve heard from a lot of our guests that they love that it starts at 6 [p.m.]” Owen said. “People can come right after work, and they can enjoy soups, fellowship with friends, bid on some items, hear the speaker. We announce winners at the end of the night, and they’re home before 9 o’clock. Everything moves quickly, and the evening doesn’t drag out.”

Owen likes holding Caritas’ major fundraiser in the spring, primarily because it comes in between other seasons when they are reaching out to donors.

“That’s a good time frame after our year-end push, which is very successful, when everyone’s making year-end gifts. It’s a great time to have an event because you’re past the holidays but not into summer vacations yet,” she said.

Although summer is typically a time when donations drop off, it’s a time when Caritas has some of its biggest needs — for clients who lack air conditioning.

“We do a Fan Club drive, and we ask the community for funding to help us with purchasing box fans to give to our clients. We also have a lot of clients who come in, in the summer, who need help with higher utility bills,” Owen said. “The drive also helps purchase extra food because kids are out of school and not getting the free lunches and breakfasts they get in school.”

Caritas communicates with its supporters about the Fan Club drive through a mass mailing, an email blast and promotion on social media. The drive usually starts June 1 and runs through mid-August.

“A lot of people know that’s coming up every year,” Owen said. “We’ve already started getting a few checks, just to say, ‘I wanted to go ahead and send this in so you can start purchasing fans.’”

Then in the fall, when it’s less hot, Caritas holds the Greg May Caritas Golf Classic at Cottonwood Creek Golf Course. The Florida scramble-style event draws around 100 golfers. For many years Eddie Sherman directed the event, but he recently retired from Caritas, making Owen and her team appreciate the logistics involved.

“Eddie’s promised to help us and be our consultant and our guide,” she said. “People just love being able to take a Friday off and play golf with their friends and make a difference.”

The tournament includes various prizes at the holes, including a trip for a hole-in-one.

“We’ve never been able to award that,” Owen said.

She looks at all their events not only as opportunities to raise money for Caritas’ mission but also to get new people involved.

“They are friend-raisers as well as fundraisers,” Owen said. “Of course, you’re always going to have people coming who are already supporters
of your organization, but you also attract people coming to check out the event, and they can be turned into donors and supporters of your organization.”

With 30% of Wacoans living below the poverty line, Owen understands the importance of raising friends all year long.

“We hear a lot about how wonderful Waco’s doing — and it is — but there’s still people in our community who are suffering and struggling every single day, and we need to remember them too,” she said.

Risk Taking
Jesus Said Love

Thirteen days after Jesus Said Love held its fifth annual Wild Torch fundraiser, it recorded a podcast episode titled “Facing Failure.” In an effort to revamp the event, founders Brett and Emily Mills say they took a lot of risks, perhaps too many.

“I wouldn’t shy away from the risks, but I might take less of them. That’s my takeaway,” Brett said.

“We are risk-takers by nature,” Emily said. “[The first] Wild Torch in 2015 was a massive risk. We were trying to create a fundraiser unlike anything on the landscape in Waco.”

Jesus Said Love advocates for and supports women in the commercial sex industry as well as those who choose to leave it. Both Brett and Emily are musicians, and they wanted Wild Torch to incorporate music and visual and performing arts to tell stories about the people they serve. One of the original goals was to educate the community.

“There wasn’t a large understanding five years ago, so we took Wild Torch as a great opportunity to educate our city and policy-makers, to educate law enforcement. Our community, as Wacoans, our awareness has changed,” Emily said.