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Nonprofits turn challenge into combined success


On a stunning August weekend, two local nonprofit organizations held back-to-back events at the same location, each to raise awareness and funds for their organizations. With the growing number of public events, this was not so unusual. What was different about the weekend’s events is how the two nonprofits collaborated to turn what could have been a negative into a huge positive for both of their organizations, their donors, and the community.

When the Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality (MASH) and the New England Science & Sailing (NESS) event coordinators realized last spring that they were having two major “foodie” fundraising events, MASH’s seventh annual “Iron Chef” Competition & Auction for Action on Friday, Aug. 16, and NESS’s first Oysterfest on Saturday, Aug. 17, at the same location — Enders Island — trying to attract similar audiences, it was quickly decided to work together rather than try to compete. Through cost-saving sharing of expenses and resources, including cross promotion of events, MASH and NESS worked together to expand the potential reach of each event and host organization while maximizing every dollar spent. It is with great pride that MASH and NESS report that both events were successful, as evidenced by high attendance at each and net proceeds bolstered by the shared savings. It was an exciting model of local nonprofit collaboration.

The decision to collaborate was an easy and natural outcome considering that three of us heading up the events — Lisa Tepper Bates (former executive director of MASH), Spike Lobdell (president of NESS), and Wendy Bury (who chairs the MASH event and the Town of Stonington Nonprofit Roundtable) — were each part of the team responsible for the recently released nonprofit impact study for Stonington, which stressed the importance of collaboration between nonprofits. It was an opportunity to practice what the study preached and test some creative ideas.

The MASH event was an adult-only, evening gathering, while NESS hosted an afternoon, family-friendly affair. But both events were food-oriented and the organizations capitalized on both the similarities and the differences. In the end, the two organizations saved on overall expenses, dramatically increased awareness for both organizations, shared resources, and provided priceless volunteer support to each other. Splitting the rental costs of a tent, chairs, tables, and other expenses 50/50 reduced overall costs 15 percent for MASH and 30 percent for NESS, a significant amount for nonprofit fundraisers. And, with a single setup and breakdown, the venue was able to have two major events in less than 12 hours with less wear and tear, an important consideration since Enders Island is not often open to other organizations for such use. Through this combined scenario, however, the God-given beauty and peaceful nature of St. Edmund’s Retreat and Enders Island could be shared with more people, allowing the retreat to serve as a good community partner.

The symbiotic relationship allowed MASH to build on past successes of its major annual fundraising event while NESS gained critical support on a brand-new, signature event.

For marketing, each organization had an event insert in the other’s invitation thus increasing the mailing lists by more than 50 percent. For major sponsors, this was a huge benefit in that it allowed for increased recognition along with the added incentive of supporting two charities and two events for the cost of one. The collaboration continued in press releases, eblasts, and social media promotion from event partners of both events including Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, the Ocean House, and Oyster Club, along with many restaurants participating in Oysterfest that are located and have a following well outside the local area. There was a multiplier effect in terms of exposure. What would have been a couple thousand eyes on the events turned into the likelihood of tens of thousands of eyes on the promos. The collaboration allowed for a much bigger and broader reach through social media, which adds branding value to the organizations. And, a benefit to the community was that people who bought tickets to both events saved 10 percent off each ticket price.

Through the process of this partnership, a new outreach program called “Oceans for Everyone” was created and partially funded. Once fully funded, the program will provide twice monthly visits throughout the school year by the NESS marine biology staff to a local shelter for children who would not otherwise be able to attend NESS programs.

One of the guiding core values of NESS is inclusiveness, and this new opportunity to provide enrichment opportunities for children facing homelessness will truly demonstrate that “oceans are for everyone.” Additionally, this collaboration has raised awareness of MASH with a wider audience, a critical first step in communicating the MASH mission to end family homelessness in the region.

In the end, this collaboration provided a huge opportunity to demonstrate that changing our mindset from one of competition to one of collaboration has far more reward than risk. While challenging, this combined effort had many benefits and tangible positive outcomes for the two nonprofits, the for-profit businesses that partnered and sponsored the events, the venue, and the community. When we work together, we don’t split the pie, we grow the pie. It was a win-win-win for the host organizations, partners, and the community.

Submitted by Lisa Tepper Bates, former executive director, Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality; Denise Collins, executive director, Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality; Spike Lobdell, president, New England Science & Sailing; Wendy Bury, chairman, Town of Stonington Nonprofit Roundtable/MASH Event Chair; and Jeff Anderson, executive vice president for Operations, St. Edmund’s Retreat.



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