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Out of fundraising ideas? Try walking off a building

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks blogger | 6/17/2016 3:45:18 PM

As federal sources of funds become scarcer and less reliable, innovation in fundraising is increasingly important. When it comes to events, this means activities unique enough to both grab attention and engage participants. So what did NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania do? Invited supporters to rappel down a 14-story building of course!

Yes, you read that right. NeighborWorks NEPA raised $66,500, and believes it can generate a lot more in future years, through “Over the Edge Scranton 2016.”

President and CEO Jesse Ergott first discovered the idea when he attended a conference and met the Over the Edge team at an exhibit booth. Over the Edge is a special events company that helps nonprofit organizations throughout the United States and Canada, with emerging markets in Central and South America, raise donations in exchange for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rappel down a local high-rise building.” Founded in 2003, its 10-year-goal is to help raise $50 million for participating nonprofits, and today says it has hit the $33 million mark. To date, seven nonprofits have raised at least $100,000 with one of these events in 2016, including Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Nashville; Friends of Children’s Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; and Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona. A few have even raised more than $1 million.

So how does it work? A nonprofit finds a suitable building, then invites supporters to rappel down it in return for pledges they collect from others. (A minimum of $1,000 must be donated by each participant.) Using “Crowdrise” as its fundraising platform, NeighborWorks NEPA attracted 33 individual supporters—ranging from a lawyer, to a cardiovascular surgeon, to a priest, to a high school principal who brought the cheerleading team—as well as seven event sponsors and one major “presenting sponsor” (the local Ford dealership). It also generated coverage in both local TV stations, all three local newspapers and a regional magazine.

“It sounds crazy, I know,” laughs Sandra Snyder, the organization’s development and events coordinator. “It also sounds easier than it is; this event requires quite a bit of work and has a bit of a learning curve. Two weeks ago, I was saying ‘never again.’ But now I’m looking forward to capitalizing on all of the lessons we’ve learned and having an even more successful event next year.”
In return for a licensing fee, which was $29,500 for NWNEPA, the sponsoring organization is given exclusivity in its area and first-refusal rights for future years. (You can check your city to determine if a license is available on the Over the Edge website.) In addition, the corporate Over the Edge team offers a lot of support—ranging from liability insurance (although NWNEPA’s carrier required an additional rider regardless), to building inspections, to the rappelling equipment, to promotion advice.  
Snyder says Over the Edge recommends starting the planning process about a year out, but NWNEPA didn’t get started until February for its June 11 event, due to an earlier fire in its headquarters building. One of the first challenges is to find the right building with a willing owner. Ideally, the building is between 14 and 17 floors tall—high enough to provide an exciting experience for both participants and spectators and not so tall that rappellers get tired. In addition, there must be a sufficient “anchor point” on the roof to secure the ropes, the site must not be too close to power lines, etc.

Surprisingly enough, no formal training is required other than a short orientation on the roof. “The hardest part,” says Snyder, “is the ‘idea’ of letting go and leaning back over the edge of the building. But everyone did it. No one had second thoughts.” (I can attest to this being the hardest part; I rappelled in college and I found it exhilarating and safe—after the weirdness of stepping backwards into an “abyss.”) 

An unanticipated benefit of the event, says Snyder, was the development of relationships with people and businesses nonprofit housing groups don’t normally interact with. “We aren’t a cancer society, which people immediately ‘get.’ You need good messaging that simply explains what you do and why you deserve support just like the boys and girls clubs, etc.”

And then there is the word-of-mouth factor. How many events do you have that attract comments like these on your Facebook page? “What a wacky, wild and wonderful weekend!” “This was so much fun to watch! Next year I have to do it myself!” “Our attorneys are willing to go above and beyond for our clients and community! This past weekend Tim Maloney took that quite literally when he rappelled down the Bank Towers Building in Downtown Scranton to benefit NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania! He can’t wait to do it again next year, and we’ll join him.”

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