Young Adult Engagement and Philanthropy: An Event Model that Works

by Ariel Zipkin

Those of us working with young adults know all too well the many challenges of attracting this demographic to fundraising events. We constantly look for new ideas, venues, speakers and incentives. Then we use facebook, twitter, email, websites and more to market the event, with the hope that people don’t ignore us. We check our registration lists incessantly and pray that people show up. We try to explain the cause in an effective way and hope people understand. We review each aspect of the event so it delivers in hopes that participants will enjoy and bring their friends in the future. Sound familiar?

If you’ve felt this way and are looking for a single event that can draw hundreds of young adults in support of the community then read on, because in Chicago, we’ve spent five years building an event that thousands of young Jews know about and attend each year.

In 2008, the Young Leadership Division’s (YLD) professional and volunteer leadership team dreamed of something BIG, something new that would attract hundreds of young adults to come together for a single evening in support the Jewish United Fund and the Chicago Jewish community. In its first year, the event attracted over 700 participants, including 250 new donors and 100 Ben Gurion Society members, donors who contribute a minimum of $1,000 to the Annual Campaign. In total, YLD attracted triple the number of people than at the two major fundraising events from the previous year. YLD’s first Big Event was the largest YLD Campaign event in its 60 year history.

This past December, and five years later, YLD held its 5th annual Big Event, which is now the premier fundraising event for the next generation of Chicago’s young Jewish community. The event, held in a ballroom the size of a football field, drew a crowd of more than 2,400, including hundreds of first time donors. The evening featured entertainment by Edon Pinchot, 14 year old semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent, and Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation star.

Elements of Success

There are three important elements of the Big Event that we have focused on each year:

  1. Entertainment: Having an A or B list celebrity provide the evening’s entertainment has generated enormous buzz over the years for this event. YLD has been entertained by Matisyahu, Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Fallon and Aziz Ansari.
  2. Making this event accessible to everyone: For the first time in YLD’s recent fundraising history, the Big Event had no minimum gift to attend. Rather, the requirement is for every new donor to give a gift that is meaningful to them (for some it is $18 and for others $1,800). For all previous donors, the “ask” is to match or increase their last gift.
  3. Recruitment: Our best recruitment strategy has been to leverage the relationships of community members to recruit their family and friends. We utilized a table host model to incentivize people to recruit their networks by securing preferred seating with friends at no additional charge. YLD has held 5 Big Events and with each year, we gain more momentum. In the first four years, attendance increased 50% or more from the prior year. The maximum attendance was in 2012 with over 2,600 (Jimmy Fallon was the entertainer).

Measures of Success

Attending the event is a commitment in and of itself. Each participant must purchase an $80 ticket, commit to give a gift to the Annual Campaign and spend an entire Saturday night with JUF. We are proud that thousands of young adults opt into this year after year. We know that the entertainment and open bar are great perks, but we also believe that people are coming out for something more – to show their support for the Jewish community.

At the event, participants demonstrate immense solidarity, strength, and collective responsibility. This past year, over 2,400 young adults of all backgrounds joined together to recite the Chanukah prayers, light up a room (with glow sticks) and commit a gift to this community.

Anecdotal comments have also been telling. People have expressed their appreciation of having a way to connect with hundreds of other young adults and reported feeling good about being a part of something larger then themselves. Table hosts have shared positive experiences about their leadership roles.

As for fundraising, in the first year of the Big Event over $250,000 were raised, which was 25% more than the two major fundraising events from the year before. By 2012 that number has doubled to close to $500,000.

Every participant is given an interest card at the Big Event, which offers a personal connection to YLD leadership. Hundreds of people have filled out this card and met with YLD Board members and professionals. Several Big Event attendees have taken on leadership roles in the community because of a connection made through the Big Event.

Communities across the country are inquiring about and replicating the Big Event model. In 2012, Michigan held their first Epic Event and is planning to host it again in the Spring of 2013.

In total, 5,763 unique participants have attended a Big Event. As the younger generation begins to step up, accept responsibility, understand what the community is about and come to an event because they want to, we know the future is in good hands.

What’s in Store for the Future?

One area that we are constantly re-evaluating is fundraising. At an event that keeps growing, it becomes more difficult to get the room’s attention and to explain why it is important to give through the Jewish United Fund. This past year, the pitch included several elements to make the message of JUF more relatable. For the coming year, we will re-evaluate the messaging and explore how to best capture the room’s attention.

We are constantly gathering feedback from community members as we look forward to the future in an effort to ensure that we plan an event people in this community want to attend. We strive to understand where we can improve. We are encouraging everyone to weigh in, because we want this event to remain relevant, even if it looks different than before. What worked 5 years ago may not continue to work and we are open to exploring new options.

Ariel Zipkin is Director, Young Leadership Division, of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.