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All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Raising Funds and Adopting Animals in Style

Some come dressed to the nines, others show up in pajamas. Still others pay the price of admission and don't bother to show up at all.

It all depends on the event. In Appleton, Wisconsin, the "Mystery Made to Order" dinner called for elegant attire. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, attendees of the Pet Pajama Party came in their robes and slippers. And in Bakersfield, California, donors paid money just to stay home during the "No Show" Fourth of July picnic.

These shelter-sponsored functions might be vastly different in their design, but they all have one thing in common: Each dares to be different. "Everybody's always looking for the hook—something new, something different, something fresh," says Debby Lewis, executive director of the Fox Valley Humane Association, which sponsored the mystery dinner event. "The nonprofit dollar is shrinking, and we need to find new and exciting ways to interest people. If you vary what you're doing, you reach many more people than if you just stick with something like a dog walk."

It's not that dog walks don't have their place in a shelter's fund-raising mix; in some communities, these traditional events raise tens of thousands of dollars. But for Fox Valley, which holds a walk and a holiday fundraiser each year, the goal of an event such as "Mystery Made to Order" is to reach the wealthier segment of the community that remains largely untapped by humane organizations.

The strategy has worked in more ways than one. Last October's mystery dinner, which invited guests to help solve the kidnapping of an opera-singing golden retriever named Basso Profundo Pooch, not only brought more than $25,000 to the shelter but also gleaned a priceless contact: One of the attendees happened to be the executive director of the Wisconsin Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, who was so impressed with the event that she agreed to combine efforts for next year's fundraiser and launch a joint educational campaign focusing on the link between animal abuse and child abuse.

While the Fox Valley shelter's innovative methods helped expand its fund-raising and outreach efforts, the Animal Humane Society used its creativity to gain media attention and attract adopters. For more than two decades, the Minneapolis organization has held a mobile adoption event every February in the auditorium of a downtown department store, where about 300 animals are placed in good homes in a matter of hours. Because the event has been so successful, the humane society decided to start holding a second adoption promotion during the busy fall season.

"We thought that if we wanted to get the media to cover it, there would have to be an unusual twist, so we decided to add the pet pajama component," says Mike Petersdorf, assistant to the executive director. Staff members (dressed in pajamas, of course) opened the shelter at 11 a.m. one Friday in September and didn't close shop until Saturday at 5 p.m. Search lights lit up the sky over the shelter, free refreshments were served, and local radio celebrities came out to show their support. At least a third of those attending arrived in their pajamas, lured by an offer of $15 off the adoption fee if they showed up in sleepwear between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Of the 212 animals on the adoption floor, 197 found new owners during that period. And of course, the shelter maintained its usual high placement standards for adoptions. "It was a big success for us," says Petersdorf. "We got good media exposure simply because of the craziness of the pajama aspect. I think every major TV station in town picked it up."

Successful outreach doesn't always have to be outrageous, however. In the age of constant media fanfare and solicitation overload, at least one organization has found that grabbing the attention of its target audience involves little more than asking people to give money for the chance to stay home. The Bakersfield SPCA sent out an invitation last July that asked donors to pay $100 not to cook hot dogs, $75 to avoid the softball game, $50 to stay out of traffic, $25 to avoid the mosquitoes, or a self-designated amount to avoid "your choice of irritant." "The Bakersfield SPCA invites you NOT to come out this holiday!" read the mailing. "Enjoy the greatest party you've NEVER attended!"

Of course, when Public Relations Coordinator Lana Fain introduced the idea to fellow staffers, she was met with skepticism. "I remember the first year that we did this, I was still rather new here, and the staff was looking at me [as if to say], ‘What is this woman thinking?' I kept saying, ‘This will work, this will work.' And it did, and they were just stunned at the money that came pouring back in. It's a fun way to give, and there's no output on our end at all."

The annual fundraiser is so successful that this year it yielded a profit 30 times greater than its cost. Sent to about 1,000 people for a price of $200, the mailing raised $980 the first day and has brought more than $6,000 into the shelter since July. By omitting the year on the invitations, the shelter can even reuse its leftovers. "And each year that cuts down a little bit on costs," says Fain. "You really can't lose."


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