Monday, June 18, 2012

Fundraising: The Art of The Ask

Over the last few months, my life has been overtaken by a little project here in Downtown Rochester called the Main Street Makeover.  No big thing, just a $7.6 million dollar public infrastructure project that includes a complete reconstruction of our Main Street, building face to building face.  While giving me more than one sleepless night, this project has provided me many new opportunities, not the least of which is rethinking how we, as a downtown organization, approach our fundraising.  So what do a reconstruction project and fundraising have in common?  Read on...

One of the most exciting aspects of the project for me was the potential for historic finds when we opened Main Street.  While we found vintage bottles, bullet casings, buttons, pottery and a host of other goodies, the most intriguing find came a few weeks ago from the corner of a coal bin.  I got the call one morning to come over to inspect a box of papers that was found on the site by the construction workers. As I carefully pulled the pages apart, I realized I was looking at sales sheets and order forms from The Kroger Grocery & Baking Company.  The documents dated back to 1933 and to the store at the corner of Fourth & Main.

While we thought it was an amazing find for our community, we wondered if Kroger might feel the same way.  Through a friend of a friend, I was able to get a meeting with the Communications Director for Kroger in Michigan.  When he came in to review the documents, he was blown away.  As he explained to us, in the grocery business, every week is a new day, so they don't really value keeping historic records because everything was always changing.  He inquired about our plans for the documents.  We told him our Historical Commission is planning on preserving and displaying them.  He said that is what he had hoped and offered to donate $2,500 toward the project.  Now it was our turn to be blown away.  Not the point of the meeting, and certainly not anything we expected.  But obviously we had provided an investment opportunity that inspired Kroger to step up.  Hmmm....

When we first started this project, there was a lot of talk about what to keep and what to buy new in terms of the streetscape.  Because of a 50/50 match enhancement grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), we were able to buy all new lightpoles, signs, traffic signals, etc.  The original plan was to let the contractor take all the items and do what they will with them. "Hey, wait!" I blurted out at that fateful MDOT meeting, "I think I could sell that stuff!".  So there I was with 35 benches, 80 cast iron lightpoles, assorted street signs, parking meters, sidewalk pavers and over 500,000 historic bricks that were excavated from beneath Main Street.  Sure, I thought it was a good idea, but would anyone really buy this stuff?

I got my answer this past weekend when we hosted the Downtown Yard Sale, with all of our items priced anywhere from $500 to just $1.  We hosted a pre-sale event on Friday from 6-8 pm, where people paid $10 to get first choice of the items, with the public sale on Saturday from 8 am - Noon.  Imagine my surprise when we realized that we had a 1/4 mile backup down the road for the sale at 5:30 pm.  When the gate opened at 6:00 pm, the next 45 minutes were an absolute blur.  People running everywhere, grabbing everything in sight.  Street signs were gone in 1 minute, lightpole disks in 5 minutes, and benches in 11 minutes flat.  We processed 65 sales in that first crazy 45 minutes.  By the end of the night, not only did we have a lot of happy customers, we raised some significant funds for our organization.  Based on the success, we are hosting a second yard sale in August! (They're giving me fire hydrants and traffic signals this time!)

So how did we do it?  We didn't market lightpoles and bricks for sale. We offered the opportunity to purchase a piece of Rochester's history.  We would have never sold these items if we just put them up on our web site or issued a press release.  We created a unique, exciting opportunity and our community responded. 

At the end of the day, our fundraising this year is already off to a rockin' start and it's only June.  So what is the invaluable lesson we've learned?  Fundraising is not about finding the right people to ask or crafting great sponsorship packages.  It's all about creating an environment that inspires investment.  If you work toward offering opportunities, you'd be surprised how people will respond.  You just have to give them a reason.

The Downtown Geek