Jim Leighton, VP of Events and Partnerships, and HaiVy Thompson, Director of Marketing and Community Engagement from Children’s Cancer Research Fund, join us today to share how they are changing the game of fundraising! In this episode you will learn what makes an event an experience, how to tell a story, and a special premier of CCRF’s big announcement!
HOW ARE YOU KEEPING THE DRIVE TO ALWAYS PUSH THE NEEDLE? HOW DO YOU GUYS KEEP IN THE MINDSET OF TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
One of the key things is that we put it into our value statement. One of our values as an organization is innovation. Our team and all of our partners, they know that. We are not afraid to innovate. Personally, I get bored. I don’t want to do the same thing every year. We have the great opportunity to create and play a little bit. Because we are in the non-profit space, we know we have to be cost-effective and money does matter. But you never know where the best next thing is going to come from! We have to diversify. Our event can’t just stay in the ballroom, so we play in the digital and virtual space. Innovation is at our core.
Also, we get so energized by our donors, our fundraisers, the kids, and the families we work with. We get so much inspiration from them to keep pushing ourselves year after year.
WHEN YOU START CRAFTING NEXT YEAR’S EVENT, HOW DO YOU WEAVE IN THE CAUSE INTO THE AUDIENCE’S EXPERIENCE?
We start by thinking about what are some compelling stories that are happening with our families right now. We get so much inspiration from the things they are dealing with in their cancer journey. Even when the journey is complete and they are living post-cancer, there are a lot of challenges that come with that. We stay close with our families and we learn a lot from them. Then, we talk to our researchers and ask them what they are doing, what they are excited about, and what is new and different that donors might really enjoy hearing about. We take that and start there. Then, with all the event components, we ask how can we weave that into each and every moment whether that be a gala or a walk/run.
Impact in our world is challenging to show. Impact takes a long time. Research takes a long time. One of the things at CCRF we pride ourselves on is the time from bench to bedside. Because we focus on certain research we have had some situations where that has been greatly shortened and then we can tell that great story! In research it can be decades before we get to clinical trials. So instead of asking people to give money now and see their result in 30 years, we focus on those things that have had a greater impact in a shorter amount of time. We build those relationships with the researchers to share those stories.
ONE THING YOU ARE VERY WELL KNOWN FOR IS CREATING AN AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE LIKE NOTHING ELSE. SO COULD YOU TALK US THROUGH YOUR MENTALITY. HOW DO YOU MAKE THE EVENT SO SPECIAL FOR THE AUDIENCE?
Thank you so much. We think about all of the ways people are engaging. All of the senses. The one we haven’t figured out is smell, but we will get it.
In 2007 we had a mom share her story and it was so impactful (tune in to hear the story!). That was the moment in my career that I said, “Authentic storytelling. How can we continue to tell these stories?” And then we started assembling a team. So now with HaiVy and her marketing team, our partners (who are so important because we need people to amplify that story and craft it) we really put stories and mission at the forefront of every event.
A few years ago, we took the guests on an experience that the children go through. So going back to the five senses, we wanted people to experience an MRI, because that is something a lot of the kids have to go through and it is really scary for them. You have to lay really still and go through this dark tunnel. So we worked with you guys, EideCom, to really build the sound for that and we dimmed the lights and we got people to experience what an MRI feels like to signify how challenging the journey is for families, and kids especially, and that their support makes it possible so that this doesn’t have to happen in the future. That was really cool because it involved all the senses. We want to give the guests something truly memorable that they can share with their families and friends tomorrow.
We can’t do any of this without our partners. You need to have partners you can trust. Like you guys, EideCom, were so onboard with our MRI idea and you made it possible. There was a lot of things that could have gone wrong!
THERE IS SOMETHING REALLY POWERFUL ABOUT KEEPING UP WITH EVENTS, LIKE WHAT YOU DID WITH THAT MOTHER SHARING HER STORY. HOW DO YOU GUYS STAY UP WITH ALL THE STUFF THAT’S GOING ON AND FIGURE OUT WHAT IS RELEVANT TO YOUR CAUSE?
It’s about relationships. Great relationships with the researchers. Then, collaborations. We have a great collaboration with a group of moms called Momcology. This group is made up of 6,000 women across the country that have the unfortunate common ground of having a child with cancer. We have people on our team involved with that, listening to what is going on. The first thing in sharing a great story is that you have to listen. Then, we think how can we effectively share that story. One thing we are being more cognizant of is utilizing digital and social media, figuring out how we can tell these stories before we get into the ballroom and how do we continue the conversation after they leave the ballroom?
The other thing to add is that we have invested resources into relationships and listening. You can’t just go out and find a great story. You have to have relationships with families, researchers, caretakers, and then those stories bubble up over time. So that is the number one thing I recommend a lot of marketing teams to do, invest in an outreach person.
HAVE YOU GUYS EVER GONE BACK AND RETOLD A STORY, LIKE WITH AN UPDATE?
Definitely! One that we have retold and has new chapters to expound on is Mindy. Her son, Connor, has a brain tumor and she now works for us, but in the mid 2000s we featured her story at Dawn of a Dream and a few other marketing places. Connor was a baby at that point and had a few treatments for his cancer already. Then, a decade later things started to change. The after effects of all the treatments cause him to start having seizures. And for the past ten years his family was thinking they had conquered the cancer and they would be fine, and all of sudden the reality hits again. We shared that story.
WHEN YOU SAY FOCUS ON THE THINGS YOU NEED TO CHANGE, BUT DON’T CHANGE EVERYTHING, WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
This is about guest experience, not necessarily story telling. We look at everything about the event afterwards and we see what worked, what should be tweaked, and what didn’t go well. So for us, we will always have a live auction because it works. We really want to focus on the things that will have to most impact because again we don’t have a lot of money. Some organizations like to do things new every year and go to a new venue every year. And for us, well next year we are going to a new venue, but it has been 15 years at the same place! To us it is important to have consistency with our partners so you can make those impactful changes. One thing we try to change-up is how we tell the story. So not just through video, but through live interviews, live talent, etc. We try to switch it up so you have a variable of experiences throughout the night. We have found that in person story telling is something magical. The thing about focusing on the things that work, know who your audience is. It doesn’t matter if we are bored. Just because we might be bored with it, doesn’t mean our audience is!
We also think about the morning after. I call it “the Caribou experience.” I want someone who has attend our gala for the first time to talk about the event they were at last night when they go to the coffee shop the next morning. If they say, “I was at a great event last night,” that’s good but I’m sure they say that about a lot of events. I want them to explode with passion. So we really think about what we want that Caribou conversation to be when we are crafting the message and planning the event. If all they can recall is the dinner and drinks and not the actual message, we had them there as a guest, not a donor.
Awareness and story telling is all a way to get funds raised. Raising as much money as we can is the key to all of this. Experience matters to fundraising, so when we have a new team member or partner I talk about the guest walking into the room. Say that guest has $500 in their pocket. Every time they have a bad experience, like valet takes too long, there goes a $100. So we don’t play games like that. It takes the whole team to be involved in making every experience matter. Registration has everything to do with revenue. All the little things combine to make a major difference.
LET’S TALK ABOUT DOING YOUR HOMEWORK ON WHO IS IN THE ROOM.
In gala situations, talk to your table hosts. Who is it they are bringing? We are working on personas of our gala guests. There are a few assumptions we make, like they are from the Twin Cities or the west metro and they probably go to a gala a month. So we need to step up our game. But what excites them? What are the types of things that they want to do? This is a group of people who, for the most part, can buy what they want. But maybe they weren’t thinking of going on a trip to Australia, but trips sell! There is a lot of talk about balance, like there has to be something for the sports person or this or that, but for us we know trips are going to do well. So I’m not going to put in a Nascar experience, because there might only be one or two people in the room that care about that.
TELL US MORE ABOUT TRIPS.
We know about our demographic. They like first class. If you don’t include it, they will probably upgrade anyways but be crabby about it. So it’s all about knowing your audience. If we were doing an event at a school or a smaller event, we wouldn’t do luxury trips. Also, it’s about collaboration like we said. We have an amazing partnership with a luxury travel company, Travel Beyond. Since 2010 we’ve been working with them to curate these trips. We trust them and they are excited about what we are doing. We sit down with them and they tell us what is hot and trending. They also do such a great job at selling the trip that night. They come up with the description, they will speak about it, they truly work with us in our event.
A LOT OF NEW PLANNERS ASK, “HOW MUCH DO WE NEED TO RAISE THE NIGHT OF AND HOW MUCH SHOULD WE RAISE BEFORE THE EVENT?” CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
This is something I’ve grown on. Raise the money before you get in the room. You don’t know what is going to happen that night. We raise the most money through our Fund a Need, a direct ask. So as a fundraiser and human, that makes me feel really good, because the donors are not getting anything out of it. These people are giving purely philanthropical. But that doesn’t happen without us doing our homework and building relationships and asking for that money. We can try to control the experience and event, but we can’t control the weather. So what if we had an event on a snow storm and people didn’t show up? You have to build your relationships and get as much money raised as possible beforehand.
I would say we raise more than half of our goal beforehand. Our live auction does do really well but we know some people like to donate privately. We are very conscientious about that. We have a rule with our auctioneer, never call out a person’s name. We want to give recognition, but not too much.
TELL ME ABOUT THE NEED TO VARY YOUR OVERALL FUNDRAISING PORTFOLIO?
So this is more than just what’s happening with the gala. As an organization, we are getting about 50% of our revenue from partnerships and events. So it can’t just be the gala. One of the biggest things we did is we invested in this peer-to-peer fundraising. That is a whole different fundraising conversation. It is not about logistics or people in the room, it is about where we are with fundraising. We created an opportunity for people to not have to be in the ballroom. It is the Great Cycle Challenge. They ride their bike anytime in the month of June and they set their mileage and fundraising goal. We engage volunteers to fundraise for us all over the country. This started in 2015, and in the first year we raised 1.7 million dollars. It is extremely effective and it allows us to play and be a little more creative on the other events. It is all possible because of digital! We leverage Facebook and social media. 10 years ago this would not have been possible. It is really cool to be able to take advantage of the new audiences. We get to expose ourselves and give other people the chance to know us all over the country, which is really cool.
The funds are raised all digitally. For scope, the first year we raised that 1.7M and this last year we were at 6.8M. We had 50,000 people participating and of that 15,000 fundraised. We couldn’t employ 15,000 people across the country, so we are now engaging volunteer fundraisers to do the work we couldn’t do. As an organization we pay attention the trends. Our legacy is the gala, we started as a gala, and could easily be a nice organization that does really great events here in the Twin Cities, but the trends led us to opportunities else where. We are now a national event organization. That was four years ago and now we are asking, “Now what? What’s next?”
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE OVERALL EVENT EXPERIENCE, GALA OR NOT. HOW ARE YOU TAKING THE GUESTS ON A JOURNEY?
From the moment they get invited to the event, we want the experience to start there. For us it is a lot of careful planning and making sure it is authentic to our brand. So before the invitation even arrives, they are hearing from us via email or social media or whatever. We want to make sure that when that invite arrives it is consistent to what they have been hearing from us throughout the year. So that to us is the most important thing. We want to set the tone for what they will be experiencing. That is something we want to build on for our next gala. How can we get people really excited? We want to set the theme. Right away there needs to be a key message. When they walk into the room that night or pull up to the valet, we don’t want them to be surprised. We want them to be delighted, not shocked that they walked into this thing they weren’t expecting. So it starts long before they purchase a ticket.
Once they are in the room, it is utilizing decor in different ways to lead them on that journey. We have been partners with BeEvents for years and they know how to create a space authentic to what we are looking for. They create focal points, not just little things all over. Sometimes it is using the stories to fill the room with decor. Some years we’ve had like an art gallery of children’s faces. We’ve turned technical problems into an art installation. It is really important we have great partners out there doing amazing things because they bring back new ideas to us! We do a good job of asking our partners to do that. We don’t have a laundry list of what we need. We like to empower them and give them creative freedom, because they are the experts, not us.
WHERE ARE YOU HEADED?
This all started a little while ago, and it started as a resource conversation. We ask a lot of our marketing team and donor services, so we were looking at our calendars to see what we could move around so they weren’t feeling such a crunch. We want to allow the marketing team to have the time to do everything well. So I was trying to figure out what we completely control, because we do a lot of partnership events that we don’t have full control over, like golf tournaments, radio shows, etc. And the thing that came to mind was the gala. We decided to move the gala from November, which it has been for 15-20 years, to the spring. This can be a bit risky, because it is a more competitive season, but makes more sense for us and our resources. Then, we though about our venue. We have been at The Depot for a long time, it’s great and we love it! But we heard of this great new venue that people are really excited about and we wanted to be part of it, so we started the conversation with The Armory. So I went to the space and I realized it might not really work for all the things we usually do, because it is more of a concert space. So I thought maybe it’s time for some national entertainment. I went to The Armory with the idea of doing dinner and then a concert, and they weren’t really onboard. A few weeks later we were talking and they brought up the idea! It was great. We started talking about it and I realized I had no idea how we were going to do it, because we are bringing in now two different groups of people. We have our core audience that will attend the dinner, but then we want to bring in up to 5,000 other people for the concert! We now have the former producers of Macy’s Glamorama that are working with us to produce this! We feel comfortable with them and their experience.
We are so excited, because our audience for the gala is getting younger. We see younger people in the room and in the analytics. We wanted to be able to build a new experience to match the new generation of donors and attract new people. I believe this plan that we have is going to help us achieve those goals.
The last part of our transformation was the name. Does Dawn of a Dream still make sense? So the team got together and brainstormed. We realized there are a lot of hurdles and sensitivities we have to be aware of with changing the name, but at the end of the day we are producing a new event. So on Saturday, April 27th, at The Armory you will see the debut of Dream.
HOW DO PEOPLE FIND OUT MORE ABOUT IT?
We still have the website, dawnofadream.com, which would be the place to go. We will be announcing talent around December or January. It’s challenging because we are a non-profit producing this concert so we have to get the right price. Cost per dollar raised is the key we go by. We do have a dream team put together that have good connections though! So be on the lookout for that.
This is an event you will not want to miss! Check out dawnofadream.com for more info and childrenscancer.org for more about Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
Meeting Minds by EideCom