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Unique, Award-Winning Event Supports Numerous Charities, Engages Entire Community

A special event that supports more than 100 charities, is open to all organizations, uses a collaborative model and includes sponsorships from across the corporate community? With all the competition for the charitable dollar, there’s no way such an event could work, is there?

But it can, which is precisely why Cincinnati’s Rusty Ball event, and its associated charity The Spirit of Cincinnatus, received AFP’s Award for Excellence in Fundraising.

In 2012, The Rusty Ball is expected to draw approximately 4000 people to the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati for a night of music, food, auctions and raffles—all to support 159 different charities.

The event was the brainchild of a popular local Cincinnati 80s cover band, the Rusty Griswolds, and its leader, Steve Frisch. The band was asked to play at many charitable events, but couldn’t always say yes, which was bothersome to the group’s members. So the band came up with the idea of an event to help raise funds for all sorts of charities.

“We found that each charity was seeking the same resources to hold their individual events,” says Frisch. “The simple idea was to maximize the benefit of the requested resources and sponsorships to as many organizations as possible in a single night.  The concept was simple, set the band up, play music, give money to charity.  We quickly learned it was not that easy.” 

Frisch pitched the idea to band mates and friends in June 2008, and the group quickly put together the first Rusty Ball in November of that year. There were about 40 groups that the band had not been able to play for—Frisch had kept track of all of them over the years—and they were invited to participate.

Ultimately, 52 charities participated in the first Rusty Ball with more than 1000 people attending. The event generated $85,000 in revenue for the charities, including $8,000 in corporate sponsorships.

“It was difficult at first to convey to sponsors and others what the event was all about and what we were trying to accomplish,” says Joseph Jones, co-chair and director of corporate outreach for the Rusty Ball. “There hadn’t been anything at all like this sort of event before, and it wasn’t natural for businesses to support a whole variety of charities as opposed to focusing on one or two main causes.”

But the education efforts have paid, with corporate sponsorships now equaling $150,000, and overall revenue from the 2011 event well over $400,000.

“People now understand what we’re doing with The Rusty Ball and have seen the tremendous impact it can have,” says Jones. “I’m really proud that we have a lot of corporate sponsors from the same industry—for example, a number of different banks are sponsors—supporting the event. That doesn’t happen very often, and it really shows the wide swath of support the ball has in our community.”

How It Works

The Spirit of Cincinnatus, the charity founded by the band to support the Rusty Ball and accept and distribute contributions, does everything to host the event, including putting together marketing materials, hosting the website and working with local vendors.

There isn’t a formal screening process for charities to participate in the ball either, and the event features a very diverse range of charities. About 100 of this year’s 150 charity participants are small, local charities. “Smaller don’t have the staff, infrastructure and revenue to hold an event like ours’,” Frisch said. “The Rusty Ball allows them to get in the room and be seen by many people, including major donors, corporate sponsors and others. Plus, our media sponsor does stories on some of the groups as well.

Charities simply sign up to participate, but it is their responsibility to promote the event to their donors and supporters. Attendees to the event go to the Rusty Ball website to choose from a drop-down menu which charity they want the proceeds from their ticket to support. In addition, for every ten tickets sold by a particular charity, that nonprofit can include one item in the auction during the event. All of the money raised from the auction will go to that charity.

“We really put the onus on the charity to drive their supporters to the event, while we take care of the logistics,” says Frisch. “It’s worked out extremely well, and we have a lot of charities who return to the event every year.”

In addition to the traditional corporate sponsorships, the Rusty Ball also features opportunities for some of the charities involved to win $5,000 through a drawing. “Our sponsors loved supporting the event and the community, but also wanted to look for ways to support one of their key charities that might be participating,” says Jones.

The event came up with the idea to allow businesses to nominate a charity to be in the $5,000 drawing. For every corporate sponsorship received, $500 goes to support the drawing, allowing sponsors to support the entire event while singling out certain charities to receive even more funding.

Community Impact

“The Rusty Ball is one of the biggest charity events in the city, and it was a no-brainer that we nominate them for the Award for Excellence in Fundraising,” says Danielle Gentry-Barth, president of the AFP Greater Cincinnati Chapter. “The model they’ve created is so innovative and inclusive, allowing smaller organizations the chance to be at the table and gain important awareness and recognition. We’re so pleased that the Rusty Ball and the Spirit of Cincinnatus received this honor because the event has such an impact on our community.”

Gentry-Barth notes that the event has many things going for it, including the time of the year (around the beginning of the giving season) and the popularity of the Rusty Griswolds. “But what makes it work is the dedication and generosity of the band and everyone involved,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it, but I think it’s the sort of event that could work anywhere, provided you have some great leaders like the Spirit.”

Jones adds that they’ve talked with the convention center and charity staff and have found very few events that are similar to the Rusty Ball. The band and other organizations were surprised when they first started thinking about the event and learned that there really wasn’t a model to work from. “In the end, it may have helped that we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he says with a chuckle.

Current plans are to continue the growth of the event, especially as the economy continues to slowly improve. The goal is to reach 6,000 participants in the future, and if necessary, move the event to two nights. “We believe in a model where the philanthropic pie is not fixed,” says Jones. “We’re just going to continue creating more pie.”

Frisch echoes this comment and is excited about the future of the event, as well as the impact it’s already on the Cincinnati area. ”The Spirit of Cincinnatus and our volunteer base are glad that together we are able to do something positive for our community,” he says. “It’s been very exciting to watch this event grow.  We are extremely appreciative of the collaboration among our participating beneficiaries, advisors and corporate partners which have made The Rusty Ball successful.  In every crowd we see a community!”

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