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St. Pete nonprofits explore unique fundraising initiatives

Ashley Morales

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This article reflects topics of interest of the Catalyst’s Impact Council. Each quarter, our council of local nonprofit thought leaders selects one topic to explore. We post the results of that exploration in pieces like this one.

As many nonprofits around the country report stagnant or declining donations, local charity organizations are turning to unique events and creative initiatives in a bid to drive support, keep donors engaged and capture a younger audience.

“When it comes to the notion of creative fundraising, we ask ourselves, how do you make sure that you’re not putting together events for the very same people every single time?” said Carl Goodman, President and CEO of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. “How do you grow your audience? How do you create events that have strong word-of-mouth to get coverage in the media?”

It was with these questions in mind that the Florida Holocaust Museum created a new initiative called the Rescuing Recipes Project, the brainchild of the museum’s Board Chairman, Mike Igel.

“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so I’m almost obsessed with figuring out ways to continue to make sure to pass along the lessons that I was raised on, the lessons of the Holocaust, in a meaningful way,” said Igel.

Igel brought together chef Elana Karp and winemaker Rachel Loew Lipman, both grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, to reimagine their family’s “rescued recipes” with a modern twist for a four-course, intimate, curated dinner and wine pairing. The event was a chance for attendees of all backgrounds to learn about the Holocaust by exploring the intersection of heritage and gastronomy. Although Igle, Goodman and the museum’s board of directors loved the spirit of the initiative, they were still pleasantly surprised when the event sold out.

Florida Holocaust Museum Board Chair Mike Igel said the success of the museum’s first “Rescuing Recipes Project” dinner already has other museum leaders reaching out to learn about hosting similar events in their cities. Photo provided.

“When you start something from scratch, you have no idea if it’s going to hit, whether people are going to connect with it the way we do, but you have to be willing to take risks and be willing to fail,” said Igele. “I think it’s really important that this event was mission-centric. We were teaching while we were doing this, and one of our philosophies is we want to teach people without them feeling like they’re being taught. There’s a community around food; it’s a human thing to sit around the table, and we wanted to tap that and use that as the lens by which we were teaching the lessons of the Holocaust without beating people over the head with them. We wanted people just to be able to enjoy themselves.”

Although many states, including Florida, mandate Holocaust education in schools, recent analyses throughout the country and a spike in antisemitic crimes have many Holocaust educators searching for new ways to connect with younger audiences. In recent years, the Florida Holocaust Museum has hosted a comedy show and a rock concert, and Igel said the board is exploring potential future events focused on music and movies as both fundraisers and ways to reach an untapped audience.

“A lot of survivors used humor to get themselves through what they were going through, and humor is used as a weapon to bring down bigotry,” he said. “If something’s in its infancy, people aren’t going to know what it is. They have to have a little trust.”

“You can’t be a successful not-for-profit working on a model based on unearned income and play that from that playbook anymore. It just won’t work,” said Goodman. “You can have an event that’s exciting and puts people in a mindset to give without feeling pressure every time you interact with somebody to ask them for a donation.”

Another local nonprofit embracing creative fundraising techniques is St. Pete Free Clinic, an organization with a mission of “providing health care, nutritious food, recovery housing and education for our neighbors in need.” Since 2002, St. Pete Free Clinic (SPFC) has been hosting its “Battle of the Minds” signature fundraising event where guests compete in a trivia game known as the Mastermind Cup Challenge. 

“Donors and supporters can connect for the evening with each other in a fun and competitive way, along with learning a bit about SPFC’s mission and impact,” said Jennifer Yeagley, Chief Executive Officer. ” The combination of the two draw guests to come back year after year.”

According to SPFC, Marylou Bourdow, former SPFC Board member and her husband Joe, founder of Radio St. Pete, have both participated in Battle of the Minds since 2006. Marylou has supported the event in a range of roles, from co-chairing to serving on sponsorship and auction committees. Joe Bourdow has hosted the trivia component for 15 years, and occasionally emceed the event. 

“At first, his involvement was just writing a few questions and collaborating with others,” said Yeagley. “That has grown and Joe has been the mastermind behind the questions, aside from SPFC staff that provide the questions focused on SPFC. He never shares the questions, holding them top secret until the event!”

“Battle of the Minds is what you expect from a fundraiser: Nice venue, themed décor, good food, entertainment, auctions and a mission moment,” said Marylou Bourdow. “SPFC makes it unique with a fun, challenging trivia game that engages the crowd as they compete against each other. That itself brings guests back year after year.”

Yaegley said SPFC has been working with outside vendors for years for help ensuring the event runs seamlessly and is financially viable, including event strategy, technology and auctioneering experts. Yaegley adds that the post-event follow-up is key to keeping donors engaged in the long run.

“Guests are guaranteed to have a fun time [at Battle of the Minds] and learn a bit about SPFC, which is the beginning step,” Yaegley said. “That engagement deepens as SPFC continues the relationship with digital and print communications about the latest developments and news or an invite to tour the facilities. As the community need becomes clear and guests begin to learn more about how responsive SPFC is to our neighbors in need, it inspires guests to become lifelong donors.”

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