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How Central School raised a bundle, how your charity can do it too

All it takes is one volunteer with a good idea and a terrific cause to support. In the case of the most successful fundraiser in Central School history, that idea came from my co-chair, Linda Steen. She blurted it out over her shoulder, daughter tugging her in the opposite direction amid a sea of 100 1st-graders clamoring in the hallway: “How about Rock ’n’ Roll Grade SchooI?”

Hmm. Central School does have its share of rock-star parents and supporters, from Smashing Pumpkins drummer Matt Walker (rock star of the music world) to Mark Giangreco (rock star of the sports broadcasting world) to Mike McAuley (OK, so he’s a labor attorney, but the decades-old ponytail he donated made him look like a rock star). But the real rock stars are our Central School parents, teachers and community.

I slept on it, then turned to Linda the next day (my daughter tugging in the opposite direction): “Can it be Rock ’n’ Roll Central instead?” And so it was decided. “Rock ’n’ Roll Central” would be the theme of our Wilmette grade school’s February 2004 fundraiser. Now all we needed were a cadre of volunteers, a couple hundred hours and a little luck.

Lisa Carlton — graphic artist and mother of three — created the perfect logo (which, when affixed to T-shirts and sold early, earned an incidental $600). Then came the team of artists, writers and others equipped with the limitless energy needed to design invitations, write PR and fill up an ad book. And where would we have been without Sharon Grover, local jeweler and parent extraordinaire, who, with the help of her vast social contacts, spearheaded auction item solicitations with an ingenious “pyramid scheme” (give a donation, get a donation, find more friends to help).

Of course it didn’t hurt to have celebrities in our midst. Walker, with his multiple piercings and alternative rocker status, got busy securing “rock stuff” for the auction. Giangreco came through with a “broadcaster for a day” item. But it was McAuley who took the notion that he should “give of himself” literally, offering up the chance to lop off his famous ponytail (to be donated to Locks for Love).

And this is how it all came together:

When it came time for decorations, of course we tapped none other than Jerri Traub (a Wilmette resident who decorates her home for Halloween and Christmas with such abandon, people drive from distant towns to gaze awestruck at it). While Traub got busy hanging vinyl records from the ceiling and hand-painting 7-foot-tall placards reminiscent of Elvis, Prince and Jimmy Buffet, retired attorney Debora Choate Rissman worked on creating vibrant auction-item displays that belonged in a folk-art museum.

In fact, Rissman was so busy attaching a cornucopia of visual aids — including dolls, toe shoes, a toy birch-bark canoe and a camera — to her rainbow assortment of foam boards, she had to ban her family from the dining room, aka her temporary studio. Her husband even began to question her sanity, claiming,“You won’t make any more money because of all this.”

But as you’re about to find out, the naysayer was wrong.

By 7:30 p.m., the party rocked. And so did some of the attire. One father (allegedly shy by day) came dressed as Gene Simmons, the outrageous, black-and-white face-painted, loose-tongued lead singer of Kiss. Grover and her solicitations committee sidekicks, Marianne Marquardt and Kate Malony, wore psychedelic bell-bottom pants, coordinating vinyl tunics and Carnaby Street caps (a la Laugh In). Guests did a double-take when they saw the biker dude, a real tough guy in black, fingerless gloves — a guy everyone immediately ID’d as none other than Wilmette School Superintendent Max McGee.

Rissman’s fabulous displays focused attention on the fruits of Grover’s labor. Guests elbowed each other to bid on items they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Passed hors d’oeuvres complemented buffets with rock ’n’ roll themes like “Our Italian Restaurant” and “The Diner,” which were nestled next to auction tables. The “Super Silent Auction” table (with the most valuable silent-auction items) strategically adjoined the bar, so patrons couldn’t help but bid while they waited for drinks. Mingling, noshing and silent auction bidding lasted two hours. The party then migrated to another room for dessert and the live auction.

One of the highlights of both auctions was the ceremonious cutting of McAuley’s ponytail. The Central School community rallied around McAuley’s family as his first wife, and the mother of his four young children, fought an unsuccessful battle against cancer a few years ago. So it didn’t take long for 100 people giving $5 each to accumulate the $500 required for the shearing. The opportunity to physically cut off the ponytail would later be “won” in the live auction. The hair itself would go to Locks For Love, an organization that donates wigs to needy cancer patients.

With 10 items up for grabs and a professional magician/comedian/ auctioneer officiating, the audience laughed and bid its way to the most successful fundraiser in Central School history.

McAuley’s friends pooled their bids to “win” cutting rights with a four-figure donation, then graciously offered the official scissors to his new wife, Brenda. Most live items were personalized opportunities, things like a progressive neighborhood dinner or a recorded jam session with Walker in his home studio — the kind of things that cost donors little but build great community spirit. At 1:30 a.m., committee chairs regaled each other with celebratory party stories, and anecdotes flowed about rocking parents and teachers. But what rocked the most was the fact that our incredibly fun party produced even more astounding funds — the $115,000 earned exceeded Central’s past fundraisers by 250 percent. It felt like magic, but in truth, it wasn’t. Our success was the result of enthusiastic volunteers, careful planning and adherence to the No. 1 rule of fundraising: Make every volunteer feel special and continually celebrate your school or charitable cause. Great events emphasize “fun” over “fund.” When guests enjoy themselves, money flows as an aside.

Fundraising Do’s and Don’t’s

 

Do

1. Accept your volunteer job with the right attitude. Share your enthusiasm for an organization or cause dear to you; don’t take the job because your ego needs attention.

2. Welcome every volunteer. More people working on an event will generate greater buzz.

3. Encourage personalized auction items. Everyone has one skill or hobby they enjoy sharing, like cooking, gardening, photography or party planning. Patrons bid enthusiastically on “special” one-of-a-kind items and experiences they might not otherwise have access to (the chance to run the zamboni at the local ice rink or sit on the bench with local high school teams, for example).

4. Say “thank you.” Say it often and at the end of every conversation about the event. Send thank-you notes. Patronize retail donors and thank them. Acknowledge even the smallest contributions of time or other resources by anyone. If people feel appreciated, they will continue to work toward the event’s success.

5. Attract attention to the live auction with an entertaining (hopefully professional) auctioneer and good sound system. Focus attention on silent auction items with great displays.

Don’t

1. Do all the work yourself. An inverse ratio governs fundraisers; the more tasks the chairperson does, the less money the event earns. Delegate, share the opportunity to get involved, compliment your volunteer’s efforts, and your profits will blossom.

2. Ask just your friends to help. Reach out to and learn about volunteers from other social circles. The more community you build, the more money you’ll earn.

3. Use multiple venues or labor-intensive setups. That means skip the needlessly complicated (and expensive) invitations that attempt to accommodate every guest’s dinner preference. Don’t start the party in one location and require guests to drive to a new venue.

4. Make your event difficult to attend. Patrons don’t want to travel far or work hard to come to a party. Hold your event at a location close to home, with plenty of parking, restroom facilities and easy access to food and drink. Avoid formal attire and sit-down dinners that require people to organize a group.

5. Forget to have fun. Your attitude fuels your event. If you enjoy yourself during the planning and party, so will those around you. When volunteers, donors and guests have fun, money flows.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in NorthShore Magazine, March 2005