How a small hospice boosted its fundraising

Raising $160,000 in one day

Fundraising is the lifeblood of Fox Valley Hospice in Geneva, IL, because the hospice is a free service hospice that does not contract with Medicare. However, it’s difficult to pay for the costs of providing hospice services when your one big fundraiser nets only $25,000 a year. That was the quandary Fox Valley faced five years ago, says Nancy Vance, development director for the hospice. Vance also is an alderman with the City of Batavia.

"We had a garden party luncheon fashion show that needed some work to make it our signature fundraiser," Vance says. "We did smaller fundraisers that netted smaller amounts of money, and I wanted to concentrate on one and make it as good as we could make it."

This past May, that revitalized garden party brought the hospice more than $160,000 in net proceeds, a sum that covers more than one-fifth of the hospice’s annual $750,000 budget, Vance says. "We raise the rest of the money through foundations and gifts and planned giving through endowments, bequests, wills, gifts, and trusts," she adds.

Fox Valley has a staff of 14, most of whom work part time, including a full-time nurse, three part-time nurses, three social workers, two administrators, and a bereavement coordinator, Vance says. In addition to direct contributions to the hospice, the organization receives about $300,000 in products and services that are donated to the annual garden party fundraiser, she says. These donations include thousands of items to fill 20 large baskets that are raffled off, as well as 100 themed packages featured in a silent auction.

Making the charity top-10 list

"We wanted to reach a large prospective donor base, and there are only so many dinners, luncheons, and golf tournaments that they’ll attend," Vance says. "The idea was to get this event on their top-10 list." The strategy has worked. Six thousand invitations are mailed, and only the first 850 to respond are sold $40 tickets to the luncheon. Even the hospice’s board members compete for the first-come, first-served seats.

If you want to spruce up your fundraiser the way Fox Valley did, follow these steps:

Put the event on everyone’s short list of must-do charity fundraisers. "We have gone the extra mile to make the event stand out above the rest of them," Vance says. "We took an ordinary luncheon and made it into a magical event." First, Fox Valley staff found an ideal luncheon location at the Q Center in St. Charles, IL. A former executive training facility, the Q Center is large enough to feature a luncheon and fashion show for 850 people, Vance says. The event easily could pull in twice as much money if it were held in a bigger location or put on twice a year, but doing so would make the event lose some of the ambience that has made it so successful, Vance notes. "I work with the volunteer steering committee, and they’d frown on having to do this twice a year," Vance says. "We thought about making it a nighttime event, but the people who come to this are usually moms who want to support our efforts."

Since the hospice serves many young women who are dying of breast cancer, the women who attend the garden party often are family members, neighbors, and friends of the attendees, Vance adds. And that’s part of the fundraiser’s mystique: It serves a cause that the garden party attendees can relate to on a personal level, Vance says. "We invite an individual who has benefited from the hospice to share their experience with the attendees," Vance says. Typically, a pianist and a local stringed instrument band perform during the luncheon, and these performances also are donations to the hospice.

The other factor that makes this an A-list fundraiser for the area is that its silent auction and raffle feature top-quality prizes, Vance says. "I wanted our theme baskets to be the most incredible they’ve ever seen," Vance says. "The baskets are so large now that people need a truck to get them home."

Get the right volunteers for the job

Find volunteers who are willing and able to put in the time that’s needed. For a fundraising event as big as the garden party, an organization needs a professional fundraiser who would create a theme, a time line, job descriptions, an event plan, and a budget, as well as recruit volunteers, Vance says. "You need to make sure all volunteers understand and agree with the game plan," Vance explains. "I recruited 40 steering committee volunteers, and it’s critical to make sure the volunteers you recruit are the right persons for the job."

Steering committee members report to Vance, who makes certain the fundraising activities do not take over her job. "The development director still has to solicit bequests and planned giving and write grants," Vance notes. Vance finds out what kind of work interests each volunteer the most and steers each person toward that type of work. "When recruiting volunteers, we take the ones who do the best," she says.

The volunteer committee is in charge of soliciting donations for the baskets, and there are a chairperson and five helpers for each of the theme baskets. The chairperson is responsible for recruiting friends to help him or her solicit donations, Vance says.

Picking a mission moment’

One way that Vance makes certain the volunteers are enthusiastic about the fundraiser is through regular meetings that begin with a "mission moment." "I connect volunteers with a story that happened recently," she explains. "For example, on Friday, we had a gentleman come into our office, and you could tell by his face that he was devastated. He said, My wife has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and I have three daughters — how do I tell them their mother is dying?’ Those are the kinds of things I need to tell volunteers to make sure they know why we’re doing this: It’s for this gentleman who needs hope and who is devastated and doesn’t know how he’s going to do it with his daughters," Vance says.

Vance typically recruits volunteers in September, after the event’s theme basket chair and co-chair have been recruited. The 2004 garden party featured Jean Hastert, wife of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, as the honorary chairwoman.

The next step is to recruit the event’s underwriters and sponsors and then begin meeting with volunteers in September, Vance says. "We get the volunteers revved up and fill in the spots they don’t have, and they have until March to get people they have recruited to help fill those baskets," Vance says. "Then we have a team of creative people who put the items in baskets and make them beautiful." Then there are volunteers to sell raffle tickets and assist with the many other details that go into putting on the event.

Increase fundraising potential without losing what makes the event special. The event typically sells out within 10 days and often has 200 people on a waiting list, Vance says. While the hospice and volunteers do not want to expand the event by selling more tickets, they have decided to increase the ticket price from $40 to $50 per person.

Another way to expand the event’s fundraising potential is through a silent auction. At present, the silent auction begins at 10 a.m. on the day of the event. The 850 attendees are permitted to enter and view the baskets, and the bidding starts at that time. The bidding period lasts until 12:30 p.m., when the lunch begins, Vance explains. "We are considering putting the silent auction on a web site, so people can bid on it on the web," Vance says. "We’d have to be hooked up live so we’d know what was going on."