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3 Tips for Integrating Causes Into Events—Even at the Last Minute

After a tragedy like the Maui wildfires, many event hosts are eager to help. Experiential expert Kelly Markus shares how to do it effectively and authentically.

Tips for Integrating Causes Into Events
During her time at Refinery29, Markus worked on a number of cause-based events—including the popular 29Rooms concept. At the 2017 edition, for example, a room titled “Hear Our Voice” was inspired by the Women’s March; guests could use the space to write messages to their national representatives.
Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Refinery29

When a headline-grabbing tragedy like the Maui wildfires takes place, it's safe to assume it'll be top of mind for many of your consumers and event attendees. And for events that are already scheduled to take place, it can be a tricky balancing act to avoid appearing tone-deaf: Event organizers might truly want to give back and help, but it’s easy for well-intentioned fundraising efforts to devolve into mere afterthoughts, especially if visibility or clear communication is lacking.

Tips for Integrating Causes Into EventsPhoto: Courtesy of Kelly MarkusThe desire to help Hawaii may be the cause du jour, but this issue comes up frequently when tragedies strike all over the world. “There are a lot of recent surveys proving cause marketing really matters to today’s event audiences,” points out Kelly Markus, founder and chief visionary officer of experiential marketing agency Hunters Point. “When there’s a catastrophic event that has immediately happened and is on everyone’s mind, we have to think, ‘How are we, as event producers, being responsive to it?’”

Markus is no stranger to planning cause-driven events. In addition to her past role as vice president of experiential for Refinery29, where she led the brand’s wildly popular 29Rooms concept, she has been the brains behind events like the Mighty Dream Forum—an annual gathering of global business leaders advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations, previously presented by Pharrell Williams—along with Joy to the Polls, an entertainment pop-up to get out the vote in five different states across 15 cities.

In a recent conversation with BizBash, Markus shared some of her tips for integrating causes and fundraisers into events in meaningful, authentic, and effective ways.

1. Always be transparent about where the money is going. 
To Markus, transparency is key: Make it super clear to attendees how their donations will help. Take the time to fully vet the nonprofits and 501(c)(3) organizations you’re planning to partner with, leaning on services like GuideStar to get clear information about how money is used and the difference it makes.

“We have myriad conversations with the different nonprofits, asking if [these donations] are going to work for them, how they’re going to help, what areas the donations are going to,” explains Markus. “Most attendees want to know that their money is going to the people it will be most effective for, rather than an executive director’s annual bonus.” (Another tip? Markus notes that you can often restrict funds during donations, making it clear that they can only be used for one specific thing.)

If you’re raising money through ticket prices, meanwhile, it’s helpful to fully understand your event expenses so you can tell attendees exactly what percentage of their money is going toward the charity, rather than to the event itself. “When people can really see how their money can help, it creates a deeper sense of empathy and compassion, and can also create a bigger relationship with those organizations,” Markus says. Tips for Integrating Causes Into EventsHunters Point produces Mighty Dream Forum, an annual, multiday event launched by Pharrell Williams where corporate and NGO leaders who are prioritizing DEI in their organizations come to share their insights, set goals, make pledges, and inspire other leaders.Photo: Ken Pak

2. Keep it local when possible.
In 2018, Markus was pulling together the Los Angeles edition of 29Rooms when wildfires broke out across Southern California. While 29Rooms already raises money for a variety of national partners, Markus knew they needed to add a more immediate fundraising component—and that they had to think local. 

The team quickly identified two local nonprofits—one that directly helped firefighters and other first responders, and another that helped people affected or displaced by the fires. “We found the 501(c)(3)s, talked to them, and quickly aligned with what they were doing,” she remembers. “Then we started messaging the information about how to contribute out on our social media, on our website, in our press materials, and at an on-site station at 29Rooms.”

Markus acknowledges last-minute appeals like this can be tricky. “But we knew if we were going to come into an area, and this is what that area was going through, we had to be responsive. And for this, the key was keeping it local.” By aligning specifically with organizations in the Southern California area, the fundraiser could feel more authentic than raising money for, say, the Red Cross, she notes. As a bonus, thinking local means the cause is relevant to attendees, even if it’s not tied to the event’s overall theme. 

“There are wonderful, small charities that work on a local level. With a little bit of extra research, you can find them, and it can be so much more meaningful,” Markus says, adding that the local elements mean sometimes you can even bring in some of the beneficiaries to speak at your event. “Suddenly, attendees go, 'This isn’t some big, amorphous organization. These are our neighbors.'” Tips for Integrating Causes Into EventsIn 2012, Markus helped organize the NY Loves Emilia-Romagna benefit to help rebuild the Italian region after a devastating earthquake. By delaying the event a few weeks, the team was able to enlist star talent like chefs Anthony Bourdain (left) and Michael White, and ultimately raised $50,000 for the region.Photo: Chiara Carfi

3. Remember that fundraisers don’t always have to happen right away.
Back in 2012, Markus organized a fundraiser after the devastating earthquakes in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, inspired by some close friends who were born in Italy. She worked with them to create a ticketed event with a silent auction to raise funds for the region. The catch? The event took six to eight weeks to pull together. “We made a choice to say, ‘OK, for the people who are living in these areas, they don’t care that the money comes to them six to eight weeks later. If anything, they’re glad they haven’t been forgotten,” she explains.

Markus’ advice? Sometimes it’s the right idea to take a pause. “It can be OK to take a beat and say, we’re going to put this together, and let’s give ourselves this much lead time so we can maximize as many resources as possible.”

For this fundraiser, for example, the extra time allowed the team to secure an appearance by the late chef Anthony Bourdain, along with donated catering by chef Michael White. It ended up raising $50,000 for the cause. Markus sees a lot of echoes in the current tragedy in Lahaina. “It’s going to take years to rebuild. It’s more of a marathon relationship and not a sprint—and that community will not forget you, regardless of when the donations come.” 

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