How Volunteers Help Break Records at This Benefit

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Washington chapter employs a unique strategy at its annual gala to raise more money each year.

By D. Channing Muller November 28, 2016, 7:30 AM EST

Photo: Tony Brown/Imijination Photography

Every year, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s National Capital Area Chapter in Washington raises millions of dollars in a single night at its annual spring ball. Despite increasing its fund-raising goal each year, the event continually surpasses its target. And this March was no exception, with the 29th annual black-tie gala raising $3.25 million—the most money raised at an event by any chapter of the organization.

“The ball has stood the test of time in D.C., and each year we couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” says Kelly Kent, senior director at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “That’s the secret for how we raise money.”

The all-volunteer executive committee’s structure starts at the top, with event co-chair positions held by C.E.O.s and top executives in recognizable companies, such as Baker Tilly and BDO. Every summer the organization’s staff works to expand the 55-person committee and fill any openings left by outgoing members. The team has already started to recruit 15 new people—five more than usual—for next year’s 30th anniversary event, which has a $3.5 million fund-raising goal and is set to take place on March 11.

Each member of the committee is expected to raise $30,000 and sell 50 raffle tickets at $100 each as part of their involvement. The money raised by each member can come from sponsorships, raffle sales, or auction item donations. There are nine sponsorship levels ranging from a $1,000 individual ticket to the $125,000 presenting sponsor ticket.

“It’s a really tried-and-true approach,” says Ed Offterdinger, senior ball co-chairman and executive managing partner at Baker Tilly. “The executive committee approach is to bring in your own company as well as at least a few other contributors to buy tables.”

The committee is responsible for all sponsorship procurement and had a goal of four to five major sponsors for 2015, which resulted in a 6.3 percent revenue increase for this year’s event. “Our mission is very compelling, and with so much going on in cancer research, those sponsoring at high levels want to see that R.O.I.,” Kent says. “It’s important that we can showcase where their money is going.”

The sponsorship packages include benefits such as media opportunities prior to the event, plus on-stage speaker slots, reserved table seating, tickets to the chairman’s reception, and logo recognition and advertising on all marketing materials and promotional websites.

But Offterdinger notes that it goes beyond what’s in the package, crediting the event experience for helping to bring back sponsors year after year.

“To raise over $3.2 million in one night you have to have a special party to go with our special mission, and we have the right balance between mission moments, honoring sponsors, and entertainment,” he says.

The chairs work with event designers at Hargrove Inc. to transform the Walter E. Washington Convention Center ballroom. No decor element is overlooked, from extensive pipe and drape to hide the convention center walls to decorative table linens, more than 2,000 Chiavari chairs, and floral arrangements—plus, the event’s signature chandelier over center stage.

“We want [the guests] to walk in and feel it’s top notch from the minute they enter the ballroom with the decor, then sitting down to enjoy the food, and to the entertainment they see at the end of the night,” Kent says.

Even with the success, organizers recognize that it can’t go on forever without nurturing the next generation of donors. Like many other nonprofits, the committee has started to offer a special ticket for young professionals that provides them access to the dessert and entertainment portion of the evening for a reduced rate.

Jaclyn Toll, executive director of the L.L.S. chapter, appointed two co-chairs to the new Future Leaders committee in early October of last year. The chairs spent the next six weeks recruiting members, each of whom had to sell 10 event tickets and 10 raffle tickets. The resulting effort brought in 250 tickets, surpassing the committee’s goal of 200.

“We want to raise money, for sure, but the truth is that we want someone else sitting here [as the ball chair] in 15 years referencing that they got involved because of that [ticket],” says Offterdinger.

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