Who'll Give Me Fifty?

In a town of 12,000 people, this story's author raises over $45,000 every year through a dinner and auction. Here, he provides advice on starting any type of fund-raising project.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway is the Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School and a member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame. He has successfully raised money for both school and community sports programs through many different projects.

Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/fifty.htm

In high school athletics today, fund-raising has become part of the domain. But success in fund-raising isn't guaranteed simply because you have a good team and some desire. It requires as much planning, commitment, and sweat as coaching any athletic team.

Based on my many efforts over the years, I have found there are four essential elements to successful fund-raising. First, a central focus must be established, which answers the questions: Why are we raising money? Who will it help? What is our plan of attack? Determining this focus makes the selling easier and gives everyone a road map for where they are going.

Second, organization must be very thorough. You must formulate a course of action that covers both short- and long-range planning. This includes target dates for completion, troubleshooting plans, and a system for communications. Then, when minor mishaps occur, you are prepared to overcome them and move on.

A third element to successful fund-raising is an unwavering commitment by those involved in the project, especially your volunteers. These projects take a lot of time and work, and when the chores get tedious, volunteers may need to dig down deep to keep going. Having a central focus and a well organized plan helps keep the commitment level high.

The final point to get headed in the right direction: ensure success. The absolute worst thing that can happen for the future of your fund-raising programs is to begin a project that cannot succeed. Therefore, it's critical to determine effort and time available before making any decisions on projects.

Volunteers Are Key
Just as coaches can't win games without good players, a fund-raiser will not be successful without a solid base of volunteers. Unless you are one of those rare athletic directors who has ample time to fund-raise, it will be necessary to find a responsible, competent, trustworthy, and enthusiastic volunteer to head each fund-raising project. You still need to oversee this person's work and provide a lot of direction, but hopefully he or she can do the majority of the tasks associated with the initiative.

Finding volunteers doesn't stop with choosing a leader. It is just as critical to round up volunteers for all the legwork and event-day help that go into a fund-raising project. These people must possess the skills necessary to meet the needs and objectives of the fund-raising project in a positive way. The two most important qualities are usually listening skills and people skills--they must know how to listen and be sensitive to others. Ideally, your volunteers will come to you with these skills, but if not, you can provide training.

Tasks should be assigned to specific volunteers with great care. It's important that their responsibility sets them up for success, so you need to assess what you think certain people can handle. In other words, try to assign work based on strengths, abilities, and personality.

Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when assigning tasks to your volunteers:

Keep tasks short and simple until volunteers have proven themselves.

Tasks for volunteers must have deadlines, as opposed to being open-ended.

Pick volunteers from people who will have children in the program in the future.

Get rid of talkers, because you need doers--people who are action oriented.

Make sure volunteers have a positive attitude about the project.

Athletic directors are fortunate to have a ready-made pool of volunteer help in student-athletes, but what are the pros and cons of using student-athletes in fund-raising? On the plus side, athletes are a good source of labor and energy. But they do need more direction and leadership than adult volunteers. Another drawback is that they can typically handle only those tasks with short time frames. As with adult volunteers, there are some good workers and bad workers, and you need to make sure student-athletes are all put in situations that fit their abilities and personalities.

From student-athletes to parents to the project chair, everyone needs to feel ownership of the project. Let volunteers know the big picture, and ask for their opinions and ideas. Praise even the smallest achievements and remind volunteers of how the small steps fit into the larger goal.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of your current and future fund-raising projects. Therefore, it's critical that they have a positive experience. Plan for any potential problems with volunteers and, if they occur, rectify them as soon as possible. It is extremely hard to keep the momentum moving forward if people have a bad experience.

Big & Small
There are two types of projects--those that require little planning, organization, and manpower but yield small amounts of money, and those requiring continuing labor, detailed planning, and large-scale coordination, but with larger potential financial gains. Knowing your objectives and level of commitment available will help determine which type of project you should attempt.

There are countless examples of little fund-raising projects. Don't limit your choices to selling candy and programs, but think outside the box and about the needs of your specific community. Keep in mind that anytime you can give something back or provide a needed service for people you create a win/win situation. (See Sidebar, "Small Ideas" at the end of this article for examples of easy-to-implement projects.)

Large-scale projects should take into account what your fund-raising team is prepared to handle. Below, I'll provide examples of four larger projects that have worked for me.

Recipe Book: The big job with this project is getting public figures in the community (such as school personnel, police officers, the mayor) to give you their favorite recipes and explain something about themselves. In addition to the recipe and "fun fact" about the person, their photo should appear on the same page.

The idea is to cross occupational, social, and political groups and create something people will want to have and use. The book should be both fun and useful. It should create excitement: "Did you read our principal's recipe for fried catfish? Did you know he worked as a chef while in college?"

This project's success is based on obtaining advertising and selling the book. Marketing is important, as is figuring out the best time of year to publish the book. With enough creativity, this project can often exceed initial expectations for success.

The book requires set-up and coordination time to make things happen in a timely manner. It also requires a thorough exploration of costs vs. income, as printing can be very expensive. Getting a local printer to give you a discount can bolster profits.

Guinness Record Car Wash: The idea here is trying to break the record for the most vehicles washed in a certain period of time. Drivers are not charged for getting their cars washed since this would slow down the process, but they are asked for donations.

It's best to conduct this event in a big parking lot downtown at a highly visible location. One area should be sectioned off for washing the cars, while another area should be reserved for patrons to watch the event, enjoy refreshments, and offer donations.

Businesses in the community should be asked to bring their vehicles to be washed as part of the effort. They can also be asked to provide supplies (spread this out over as many as you can) such as soap, towels, balloons, and refreshments.

This project requires large amounts of labor, organization, and great advertising, but it can be a big money maker. Make sure the community calendar is clear that day and do everything you can think of to make this a special happening. Everyone loves to be part of a fun community effort to help kids. If promoted properly, it can even become an annual event that will generate a lot of enthusiasm year after year.

CD of School Events: Although it may be a wonderful American tradition, the annual school yearbook is slowly pricing itself out of existence. In its place, consider producing an annual computer CD or home DVD that covers special events of the world, country, and town, and extracurricular events in the school--the modern version of a yearbook.

This is a fund-raiser that will allow you to make $20,000 to $50,000 depending on your school size, if you use your creativity and energy in the right way. Along with selling the actual discs, you can also sell advertising. Businesses could buy time for a pictorial or verbal message while families could use that time to wish their child "good luck after graduation" or whatever they would like. The amount of time allowed and price charged would be determined by your market. But, remember, this would be a "time capsule" and everyone would want one, if marketed correctly.

In order to put all this information together, look for a computer student or someone interested in this new technology. Video can be obtained from coaches, the school video department, and local TV stations. With this project, the first year will be labor intensive, but future projects will be easier because the groundwork has already been laid.

Auction: This fund-raiser can produce big money, but also requires a lot of people, top-notch organization, and a clear plan of attack. The idea is to obtain free (or at-cost) items and services from people and businesses in the community and auction them off at a fun-filled evening event. Money is made both by selling tickets to the event (insist that everyone buy a ticket to the auction, even those involved in its administration) and through auctioned items bought by participants.

Auctioned items can run the gamut from an hour of sailing lessons to 20 pounds of apples from a local orchard to dinner with the football coach. Big-ticket items can be auctioned off in front of the audience, with a silent auction for smaller items. You may also chose to raffle off one large item. It's important that people of all levels of economic means have something to bid for.

Because this is such a big project, a long-range timeline must be developed. Set the date for the auction at least six to eight months in advance so everyone knows when it will happen and can put it on their calendars. Send a personal invitation to the big donors in the community and follow up to make sure they can attend.

The first phase of this project is the two-part challenge of finding out what kinds of things people would be most interested in buying, and then securing donations. This is probably the most critical stage and should occur six months in advance. Make a list of potential donated items, divide the list up among your volunteers, and remind them to not be bashful in asking for items (the worst thing that can happen is someone says "no"). Try to match volunteers with potential donors that they know or will feel comfortable approaching.

The second stage is putting on the show. The atmosphere at the auction must be one that projects fun and good feeling. This can take many different avenues and usually consists of having entertainment, drinks, and a meal or hors d'oeuvres.

In addition, the night's activities and sequence of auction items must move rapidly so that participants don't become bored. Organizers (and other key people in the athletic department and school) should walk around during the event to make sure everyone is having fun and to handle any problems that arise. The auctioneer is also a key element for success--it's imperative you get one who can really work the crowd and get maximum dollar for each item. If you have a raffle, the winning ticket should not be chosen until the very end to ensure people stay the whole night.

There are two other areas that need to function smoothly. First, the items for auction must be arranged around the room in a manner that lets everyone see them at their leisure. Second, accounting procedures for payment must be streamlined, easily understood by the patrons, and flawless in accountability.

The auction project can take on a life of its own because of its magnitude. The key is to treat each component as an individual project until the time they come together. This is why organization and coordination needs to be a high priority.

Ending by Evaluating
Whether you go big or small with your fund-raising effort, the final stage is to evaluate the project. This must take place soon after the event while everything is still fresh in everyone's minds. It should be a creative session, in which volunteers analyze all areas of the project so that next year's plan can be even better. However, if volunteers are not enthusiastic enough to even discuss the project, it may mean you should not repeat it.

Although some people trivialize this stage, it is really important for having closure, identifying areas that need attention, and recognizing strong points of the project. It also allows a true sense of success to be conveyed to everyone.

Remember, fund-raising is like building a team. It starts with preparation, then you have the action, and the last stage is the follow-through. And throughout every stage, make sure all those involved focus on the main point: this activity is being done for the benefit of kids.

Small Ideas

The following are ideas for small-scale fund-raising projects:
An antique bazaar
Sports camps directed by high school athletes
Game programs with advertising
Local businesses that could use your labor (clean up a facility, tree planting, etc.)
Telephone book handout to houses
Golf tournaments
Babysitting service for shoppers
Window painting in businesses
Sale of local farm products
Indoor soccer or baseball league for elementary age kids in winter months

A Positive Process
You probably get the major point by now: planning, planning, and more planning. Here are some tips to ensure the planning process goes smoothly:

Create a vision. Formulate in one sentence why you are doing this, what you are doing, and how you will measure success. Make sure your key volunteers know this vision sentence like the back of their hands.

Think big. Results usually follow expectations, as long as the energy level and organization are good. Even if your resources lead you to implement a small project, you must "think big" about your project--you must approach it with high expectations and enthusiasm.

Be creative. In choosing what fund-raising activity to implement, think creatively about your community's needs. The best fund-raising project is not necessarily one that has worked well somewhere else. It is one that provides a service needed in your particular community. This could come in the form of cleaning a public facility after an event, handing out phone books, planting trees on a tree farm, or even digging ditches for a community sewer project. People need to be open minded and creative when analyzing community needs.

Be thorough. Check the cash figures given to you by Volunteer A. Remind Volunteer B where he needs to be and when. Dot the I's and cross the T's whenever you write them.

Have a timetable. Deadlines need to be on paper so everyone can see and read them. And those deadlines need to be met even if that means doing some overtime in the early stages. Otherwise, you'll be doing double overtime at the last minute.

Avoid panic. Try not to fund-raise in a crisis situation. It's critical to keep the experience a positive one, and that is difficult to do during any type of crisis.

Keep enthusiasm high. Enthusiasm needs to come from supervisors. This is done by keeping workers abreast of the progress of the project, communicating any and all successes, and keeping your chin up. It also entails being gentle and constructive in criticism and making deadlines short so individuals are set up for success.

Publicize it. If you are planning an event that needs to generate a crowd, you'll want to heavily advertise the happening. The apex of excitement should happen about two days before the event. Publicity should occur through all media: newspapers, radio stations, signs, Chamber of Commerce, and service groups. Use all means available and have a directed plan of attack. --L.E.