Four hundred and fifty people cheered as Seattle businessman Steven Goldfarb, president of Alvin Goldfarb Jeweler, swiveled, spun and salsa-ed across the floor at Fremont Studios. Dressed in a form-fitting, sequined costume, Goldfarb was competing in Seattle Dances!, Plymouth Housing Group’s March 2010 fundraiser patterned after television’s popular Dancing with the Stars. More rock concert than traditional charity auction, the event had family and friends waving Go, Steve! signs and women tossing onto the stage lace panties distributed for the occasion.
Seattle Dances! is one of several local fundraising events demonstrating how the charity-auction format is undergoing a metamorphosis that has audiences getting out of their chairs, shedding formal attire and re-envisioning tradition. And in a city often credited with having the highest number of charity auctions per capita in the country, that’s welcome news. “PONCHO [Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations] started everything,” says Sharon Friel who, along with her late husband, Dick, helped organize more than 3,000 auctions spanning four decades. PONCHO’s 1963 charity auction established a successful fundraising model—formal dinner, staged entertainment, silent and live auctions—that endured for decades. But now, with more than 400 Puget Sound–area charity auctions on the social calendar each year, organizations are looking for ways to stand out and combat “auction fatigue.”
Weathering the slow economy has also become a concern. The Nonprofit Research Collaborative’s 2010 national study found that 37 percent of charities reported a decline in contributions, including personal donations. “We’ve all felt it,” says Friel, acknowledging that some auctions have even been canceled in recent years because of poor ticket sales. “Luxury dollars are the first ones to go.”
Plymouth Housing Group, a 31-year-old Seattle nonprofit that provides housing for the homeless, is one of many groups hosting imaginative and interactive events like Seattle Dances! “We felt that we couldn’t have an evening event unless we really had a ‘wow!’ idea,” says Marianne Painter, Plymouth’s resource development director. Seattle Dances! combines traditional elements, such as a sit-down dinner, a live auction and a raise-the-paddle event (an auction standard—also often credited as established in Seattle by the Friels—during which patrons make donations at set dollar amounts), with a toe-tapping, money-raising dance competition. For last year’s event, seven community “celebrities” such as Goldfarb, trained for months with professional dancers from Capitol Hill’s Century Ballroom. “My friends were laughing and harassed me every time they saw me,” says Goldfarb. The end result, however, brought down the house and filled the coffers. Audience members voted for their favorite dancers by pledging money. The dancer who raised the most won the People’s Choice Trophy. “The audience went crazy!” says Painter. “We raised $75,000 just on that.” (The evening’s total take was $415,000.) The second Seattle Dances takes place on March 12.
“I think people are seeing the need to incorporate more fun into events,” says Suzanne Hight, whose Mercer Island–based company, Z Special Events, plans about 10 fundraisers a year. Hight handles some of the biggest, poshest events in the area, including the Seattle Hotel Association’s Evening of Hope. In 2009, Hight turned the gala into an upscale pajama party. Even television personality and master of ceremonies John Curley donned green polka-dot sleepwear, and the event was so successful that it was repeated in 2010. Guests had the option to dress formally, but Hight estimates that half the guests wore pajamas “because it was so much fun.”
As one who serves on the board for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Holiday Gala and attends 10 to 15 functions a year, Goldfarb believes the future success of charities partially depends on their ability to evolve. “The best charity events are interactive enough that it gets the audience involved, more than just saying, ‘Give us your money,’” says Goldfarb.
The uncertain economy only magnifies the need to adapt. “You have to be thinking smart all the time, but especially in a bad economy,” says Friel. “What is your audience telling you that they want?” For some, it means broadening the audience base. “Part of the idea is to reach a different group of people who normally aren’t interested in a sit-down fundraiser,” says Kara O’Toole, former executive director at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill. In September 2009, Velocity partnered with Century Ballroom and hosted the Single Ladies Dance-Off. Contestants re-created the elaborate choreography from Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video. Some, including male dancers, replicated the original costumes—full-body leotards and heels. “It was exhilarating,” says O’Toole. “I was actually screaming during the dancing, but didn’t realize it because everyone was!”
From the $20 admission price, the event raised $2,000 for each organization. “Maybe a lower ticket price,” says O’Toole, “can appeal to a new group.” Velocity has since hosted two more dance-offs (with Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga themes) in addition to its annual, traditional auction. However, according to Shannon Stewart, Velocity’s development director, “We’re not going to give up our annual auction. Nothing raises as much money as that.” Still, the dance-offs provide welcome supplementary income and community outreach.
Laura Michalek, a local auctioneer who specializes in more intimate events, says that creative fundraisers like those of Plymouth Housing Group and Velocity are also opportunities for better branding. “It’s an opportunity to thread your mission more clearly,” she says. “But people need to be compelled: Tell me what it is you do and tell me beautifully. Move me. You have five hours to brand yourself, for Pete’s sake!”
For some organizations, creating a new format—and reminding patrons of their mission—has yielded some of the best results to date. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2010 annual gala, “A Night at The 5th,” raised $478,000 last year, the most since the theater began hosting a fundraiser in 2002. “The 5th Avenue really stepped it up this year,” says Seattle-based lyricist and composer Richard Gray, a frequent contributor to the 5th Avenue’s productions and fundraisers. The format was designed to reinforce the mission of musical theater. “We take pride in having it held in our own house,” says Christine Aguon, 5th Avenue’s special projects manager. The auction itself is a theatrical extravaganza. A musical presentation introduces and describes each item, and sometimes the items themselves reflect a musical theater theme. In the past, Gray has donated an original song that he writes and performs. Two were sold in one night for $8,500 each. “The performance aspect is what is really different about it,” says Gray. Last year, a special effort was made to streamline technical aspects, such as registration and bidding, so guests could focus on the entertainment. “You want people to leave saying, ‘I went to a great party,’” says Gray. “You don’t want people feeling like you put them to work. Their show was great, the items were different, and that showed in the numbers. People love anything that is a unique experience.”
Adds Michalek: “Who are we not to embrace different ways of raising money? It’s also about embracing generations moving forward and teaching people how to give.”