Going from Grass Roots to a Model Charity Event

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Building a Fundraising Event On Passion
June 24, 2014

Today, Pacific Pride Foundation’s Royal Ball has become a model for fundraising events; an example of how to create and foster strong community ties that radiate across geographic and social borders to attract a larger audience. In three short years, Merryl Brown of Merryl Brown Events has elevated the profile, cache and fundraising capacity of this Santa Barbara-based non-profit organization that provides services to the LGBT community in that city.

Her method is multi-tiered and extensive, yet she has the event planner’s gift for making it all sound so simple. “Our mandate has always been to make this event a friend-raiser,” Brown says. In its first year, the Royal Ball brought in $100,000; last year it made $175,000. “This year, like year’s past, they gave us no mandate except how much money they want to make,” Brown says. “They set the goal of $200,000 for this year and we brought in $250,000.”

In addition to raising the level of funds generated, Brown has extended the reach of the Royal Ball from beyond just the LGBT community and beyond Santa Barbara. With the addition of a Sunday gospel brunch this year, and with her sights set on adding more events next year, Brown would like this to become a weekend-long, TED-style event drawing attendees from across the country.

Brown is definitely the driving force behind this event, yet even she admits that at first she might seem an odd choice. “When they first approached me, I thought, do you really want a straight woman producing it?” she asked. “As I thought about it more, it made sense. I’m not from one group or another, so my attention to all the groups is fair. Plus, they needed the affluent, straight population to make this really grow. I have the trust of people in Montecito, a community I’ve been in for years, and knew I could include this group in a way that would be feasible. Our draw of attendees now is one-third gay, one-third lesbian and one-third straight.”

The event sells out fast every year thanks to her ability to create power house committees with individuals from the film industry and local area. “We had Neil Patrick Harris and his husband on committee for the first few years. One of this year’s event chairs was headed by Gary Newman, co-chair of 20th Century Fox.” Brown ensures that everyone plays a role and everyone is represented on the committees.

Brown is just as generous with her creative partner team. “They are the main ingredient; they are part of the magic,” she says. “For instance, Rrivre [Davies, of Rrivre Works, who donated his time as Event Designer and his extensive furniture and prop collection] is from Santa Barbara. This was about him coming home with his success,” Brown says.

This year the theme was “Gay Paree” and Davies went all out beginning by installing a 30-foot Eiffel Tower complete with chandelier, with Brown adding GoGo boys and can-can girls at the entrance. “Inside the ballroom, my vision was a grand hotel with a lot of mahogany, gold and burgundy,” Davies says.

“Our lighting designers, Images by Lighting from Los Angeles, put their spin on it with a decadent cluster of disco balls in the middle of the dance floor. The ballroom is massive, so it needed something large and dramatic in the middle like this. Around the perimeter there were seating booths for groups of people. Each one of these was individually decorated and lighted.” (For more on the lighting, click here.)

Then floral firm of S.R. Hogue and Co. in Montecito brought in the piece de resistance – giant white and black floral poodles who reigned quietly and supremely over the proceedings. “Those were out of this world,” Brown says. “I had no idea they were going to do this until they did — a perfect example of how I tell my creative team the story of where I want this to go, but I don’t micro-manage them. I want them to come with their best work. I call them my league of vendors.”

As for how she managed to raise passion and enlist a sense of ownership from not just vendors, but attendees, Brown says: “I never miss an opportunity to tell the story. We cheerlead for the committees. We tell them were we are and where we need to be. There is no guess work. I tell them point blank — this is what we need in terms of auction items, selling tables, and who would be best at doing what.”

Brown even runs the Pacific Pride Royal Ball Facebook page herself, crafting the story from all the angles and communities she wants to reach. She admits she is tireless in her work and knows why. “I see a lot of burnout in the events industry – people are over-committed and taking on projects just because it’s work. I don’t do day-to-day project management. I work at creating an experience with a team in which everyone is in their right place. There should be no weak link. The ultimate secret sauce is passion and everyone on the team is just as passionate as I am.”

Merryl Brown’s 10 Ways to Brand a Nonprofit Event

  1. Design a unique and recognizable logo then place it thoughtfully and effectively.
  2. Choose a color palette for the event that is either already associated with the organization or with its larger mission. If there isn’t one, choose one that will really make a statement and work within the context of what you are proposing to create.
  3. Create a memorable event name that you can use annually. Be sure to attach the organization’s name to the event name in some way so that there is a clear connection between the two. Make sure that the name that you choose is not already being used and that it’s not trademarked.
  4. Design an event environment that tells your story effectively through décor, lighting, sound, projections, entertainment, etc.
  5. Invite top-notch working and honorary committees and pack those committees with as many influencers as you can. It will be their guest lists that help to fill the room, lend support at higher levels, bring in major auction items and more.
  6. Use your committees’ connections to get celebrities on your invitation as honorary chairs. Even if they can’t attend, their endorsement will go a long way towards ensuring the success of your event.
  7. Make your event one that is a “must-attend” event. Create an air of exclusivity. Social media and pre-event press will be a big help in this arena.
  8. The event’s brand should be easy to articulate. Your army of “word-of-mouth-warriors” (the committees) should be able to speak easily and fluently about the event objectives with their friends.Committee evangelism is key.
  9. Make sure that the information is uniform across all social media pages and widely shared among its supporters. The event’s social media pages should be on fire as the event draws near.
  10. Keep the story going after the event. Publish photos and press to all of your social media pages. Encourage people to remain involved with the organization, to join the event committee and to attend the event the following year.

eNews June 2014

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