Twenty years ago, “giving back” meant simply writing out a check to a charitable cause. But thanks to a rising number of fundraising events hosted by Twin Cities nonprofits and cultural institutions, donating money has become a social act.
These events give their organizations an opportunity to showcase the work they do while engaging their audience, and offer donors a chance to participate in local culture, mixing fundraising with fun.
Events provide a major source of funding for Twin Cities nonprofits. In 2013, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reported that Minnesota’s top 25 fundraising events grossed $37.6 million that year, an 18 percent increase from five years earlier. The Starkey Hearing Foundation’s annual gala is the biggest in the state, boasting celebrity guests and live performances from big names such as Katy Perry and Elton John. Its 2016 event, So the World May Hear, raised a record-breaking $9.5 million.
State of the art
Perhaps the most stylish fundraising soiree is Walker Art Center’s annual Avant Garden. The event provides guests with a unique opportunity to dress to the nines and party at one of the Twin Cities’ most celebrated cultural institutions. While typically held on the grounds of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is under construction, the upcoming Nov. 19 event moves inside the art museum, with the grand opening of its new main entrance and the exhibition “Question the Wall Itself.” In addition to an art auction, food and cocktails, and a set by a Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the event will also debut new commissions by artists Frank Big Bear, Philippe Parreno and Aaron Spangler.
“It’s a quintessential Minneapolis art event,” said Anne Labovitz, a professional artist who is co-chair of this year’s event. “It’s a great way to support the Walker and come together as a community around contemporary art.”
Avant Garden is integral to the Walker’s bottom line. The 2015 event netted more than $625,000, its most successful to date. Tickets to this year’s event range from $125 for a single “Silver Key” ticket to a $10,000 package price that includes entry for 10 guests, a reserved table and a VIP reception with the Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso.
Though it was founded in 2010, the Newborn Foundation has produced its annual fundraising event, Babies & Badasses, only for the past three years. Until then, the organization, which is dedicated to combating newborn mortality and connecting fragile infants with medical care, had done little to no fundraising because it had been built on corporate contributions and grants.
“We used to joke that we have the smallest footprint for an organization in the public health world,” said the Newborn Foundation’s Annamarie Saarinen. “People in the public health ecosystem knew about us, but people on the street had no idea who we were.”
Saarinen co-founded the organization after her daughter, Eve, was diagnosed with critical congenital heart defects at only two days old. Eve survived thanks to early detection and access to life-saving treatment.
For Babies & Badasses, which was held in October at International Market Square in Minneapolis, Saarinen — who has served on steering committees for the American Heart Association and Children’s HeartLink galas — decided to do things a little differently. “I wanted it to be a mashup of a TED Talk and a gala,” she explained. “I wanted people to come in and really learn something, so when you walk into work on Monday, you can share what you learned with others.”
The event also honored the work of clinicians and public health and policy officials for their efforts to improve maternal, newborn and child health in the U.S. and globally. Among the honorees were Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was recognized for supporting both technological innovation and maternal and child policy in Congress. Babies & Badasses balanced out the seriousness of the topic with a healthy dose of irreverence, from casino games to an after-party featuring a 1980s-heavy DJ set.
Similarly, Smile Network International’s annual Be the Change gala, which took place in September at the Radisson Blu Mall of America, is a vehicle for the organization to share its mission in a tangible, visual way. Since 2003, the nonprofit has provided free cleft-lip and cleft-palate reconstructive surgeries to impoverished children in developing countries. The event featured a dinner, silent and live auction and a pop-up shop with handmade goods imported from the countries that the Smile Network serves. Tickets ranged from $175 for an individual ticket to $2,500 for corporate tables.
“There’s a direct cause and effect — you make a donation and a life is changed, and we wanted to bring that home to our donors,” said Smile Network founder Kim Valentini. “We can show people the actual child whose life was changed by a $500 donation.”
Valentini correlates the rise of fundraising events to changing attitudes toward philanthropy, particularly among millennials. “What people want now is a more hands-on, tangible experience,” she said. “When they write out a check, they want to know what that check is going to do. They want to experience the process firsthand, and I think that’s why they engage.”
Labovitz shared a similar sentiment when talking about Avant Garden.
“It’s great to give back through participating,” she said. “Showing up is everything.”