Insights
6 min Read
February 10, 2010

A Tale of Two Fundraisers

Over a recent weekend, my wife and I attended two grassroots fundraisers for two very different causes.

It was the best of times.

Four words can sum up why the first fundraiser was awesome: Peruvian chicken house party.

Even though we live in the most diverse borough (sorry, Brooklynites: that’s Queens) in the most diverse city in the world (sorry, Boise: that’s New York City), my wife and I have a relatively homogeneous life. So when we had the chance to attend a party thrown by Peruvians, we were all for it. The host was trying to raise money to bring her daughter here from Peru. So she made a traditional Peruvian chicken dinner, which she sold for $10 a plate.

The food was outstanding. The woman had bought 100 whole chickens from some place in Queens (her apartment is in Westchester county), quartered them, and marinated them in a giant tub in her fridge. Then, as people arrived, she deep-fried the chicken, and served it with delicious potatoes and salad.

But the whole event was more than just the sum of its food. The music was blasting. The apartment was small, but she’d put chairs around the perimeter and left some room for dancing. Which people did. A young Peruvian dude hit on my wife. And the hosts and other Peruvian guests really did everything they could to make us confused gringos feel welcome in what can only be described as quite a foreign environment for us. It was a party.
As an attendee, I can only describe the fundraiser as an enormous success. It was certainly memorable.

It was the worst of times.

The second fundraiser was a charity concert, and it included a presentation from a titan in this particular field. He is not only renowned for his work, but he’s also highly touted as an inspirational speaker, even at his advanced age. He’s never lost touch with his passion for the work he revolutionized.

People love music and people love this man, so what went so wrong?

I had my first serious concerns as soon as we walked in the door. A half dozen or so panicked volunteers were working the sign-in/sign-up table, and yet it took us about ten minutes to get through the line. The whole operation was eventually taken over by an attendee-turned-volunteer who couldn’t believe how inefficient the whole thing was. That improved things slightly. Just slightly.

The venue itself was a disaster. It was a large, gorgeous church, and I can see why it seemed like a good idea. It was apparently free. And music in churches can be lovely. But the acoustics were no good for the presentation. The titan did all he could under the circumstances, but I could only hear about 50% of what he said. His work is life-changing for his clients and deeply moving, and it was heartbreaking to think that people unfamiliar with his work still wouldn’t understand its power. And I can’t say I was surprised to see people dozing off.

This titan’s work is focused primarily on children, so it’s certainly no surprise that there were lots of children there. In fact, it was probably appropriate. But in the echo chamber that was the venue, every time a child or children screamed, you couldn’t hear anything else.

The concert itself was desperately long. My wife and I actually ended up slinking out. The thought of sitting in those hard pews for three-plus hours was too much to take. They just shouldn’t have asked so much from an audience.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part was the attendance. It obviously hadn’t been promoted well. My wife works in this particular field, and she caught wind about the event from one of her colleagues. I’ve gotten to know a bunch of my wife’s professional friends over the years, and yet very few of them were there. They are part of quite a large community that had to be unaware that the event was happening. Otherwise I’m sure they’d have been there. Their admiration for this particular titan and his work knows no bounds.

My guess is that the event planners spent so much time organizing the event itself that they forgot to reach out to the many potential attendees. The crowd was a tiny subsection of the community, and no one ever thought to ask, “So, who else can we invite?” With a simple listserv posting, they could have easily doubled (if not tripled) the attendance.

The organization benefiting from this event is sinking, and it’s going to take a miracle to keep it afloat. It makes me sad to say that this event was not the miracle they needed.

If I’d Ever Actually Read Tale of Two Cities I’d Have a Clever Dickensian Conclusion Heading Here.

Events are a challenge, no doubt. But if you do them right, they can pay off. One was good for me; one was bad for me. But how did they work out for the organizations?

The concert event raised just over $2,100 after expenses. Considering the logistics of the concert, the many stressed-out volunteers running around during the event to help it run smoothly, and the obvious time put in by the number of parties involved to make it possible, it felt like it could have–and should have–raised a lot more. And the funds raised–which must go to provide direct service to the clients (i.e. can’t be used for general operating support, where the organization needs the most help)–won’t go far in saving the sinking organization.

Technically, the concert event did better than the chicken party, which netted our host $900 after expenses. Her upfront cost consisted primarily of the 100 chickens.

But the chicken party succeeded in other important ways. It was festive. The host, the Queen of the Peruvian chicken house party, was having a great time along with her guests. Yes, she was busy cooking and serving food, and she and a friend pretty much took care of everything, but they also seemed happy to be doing so (in marked contrast to the volunteers at the concert event, who seemed stressed out of their minds). She kept it simple and manageable.

Finally, it comes down to attendance. The concert event had noticeable absences, especially in a venue that was a bit big. The chicken party was well attended. It had been going on for much of the day already when we got there, and people were steadily streaming in and out. The hostess told everyone she knew about it, and then they told everyone they knew. Some of the people we met had also not met the hostess before that evening. Word got around. And it got around well ahead of time. It had been on our calendars for at least two months. We could plan ahead for it.

The best news of all, of course, is that the chicken party accomplished the stated goal. The $900 the host raised is almost exactly what she needs for airfare and various immigration fees. She’ll be reunited with her daughter in February. That, my friends, is a successful fundraiser.

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