A Creative Approach to a Traditional Fundraiser

I’m growing an evil beard for a good cause.

As I sit here, I feel like I’ve invited a badger to come live on my face for a few months. It’s a bit awkward, and I often suspect it has an agenda of its own. It’s itchy, hot and has turned blowing my nose into a three-minute ordeal full of insecurity. Most mornings I wake up, look in the mirror, and ask the young Gandalf staring back at me, “WHY?”

Let’s Tarantino this story and I’ll let you in on where this gnarly growth began.

I recently joined a fundraiser called Our Beards of Hope. I came onboard to give – as a beard grower – and am working to get sponsors for the beard I am growing. From this vantage point, I have been able to experience the fundraising process as both the fundraiser and the donor. So, my aim here is to share this creative fundraiser’s successes and its struggles, as well as what I have learned through this itchy experience about what it takes to raise the money to grow a cause.

A new take on successful fundraising

Dave Obwald, his wife Erin, and their three children – Cohl, Kirra and Jenna – have been working towards adopting a special-needs little girl from China named Aunna Hope. The cost involved has led them to several methods of fundraising which ranged in success from mild to medium (if I had to state it in terms of salsa).

When Our Beards of Hope began, the Obwalds still needed $15,000 (out of a total $30,000). This would help complete the adoption process, as well as cover the expenses needed to take their biological children to China so that they could see the place their sister’s life had begun with their own eyes.

While in search of a way to raise funds to bring their little girl home, a friend pointed them to a fundraiser he had recently heard about called a Beard for a Baby in which a group of guys gathered around a family, grew some beards, and got their growth sponsored – all to raise money for an adoption.

Great idea. Maybe you’ve found yourself in this boat. You have a need and the best way to raise funds is to look around at what others are doing and copy away. The good news is fundraising ideas aren’t copyrighted. So the best advice I can offer you for your nonprofit is this: Look around you and STEAL. Look at organizations like yours and see what they are doing to raise funds. Give them a call; you might be surprised at how willing they are to help with tips and examples. There’s not always a need to reinvent the wheel. There is an ocean of truly reliable formats for fundraising out there. But you can’t just pull any old animal out of the ocean, take it home, and expect success. Blue whales don’t like living in bathtubs. The key is to find the fundraiser that fits your goals and resources.

Fundraising to your strengths

But why did this specific fundraising idea work for the Obwalds?

Like most people, Dave doesn’t have an intense passion for asking for money. While Dave is a pastor of a church, he would also describe himself as an introvert, so just sauntering up to someone, dropping a killer pitch and scoring a donation isn’t his idea of an awesome afternoon.

The best way around this for anyone is to fundraise to your strengths and that is why Our Beards of Hope worked for Dave and his family. He found the right fundraising concept for his skills, his audience, and his resources.

He wanted to fundraise smarter, not harder. So Dave’s goal was not to recruit donors. He wanted beard growers. He was surrounded by a large community of people who already put in the work to shave regularly. He would simply ask them to stop doing the work. Specifically, he was going to grow a beard for five months and was looking for ten guys to grow with him.

Because awkward loves company.

A beard grower would be challenged to get five friends or family members to sponsor his beard at $10 a month for five months. Each beard grower would ideally bring in $250 each.

This traditional team sponsorship fundraising model meant Dave didn’t have to do much asking for money on his own. His passion and his story served to gather around him a group of people who would do the asking for him. His job was to make his crowd of aspiring lumberjacks excited to be involved: a process we’ll explore further in future posts.


Raising funds – and eyebrows

My goal here is not just to tell you about this fun and unique fundraising idea. It’s worthless to you unless there’s a way to use this example to help in your own fundraising brainstorm sessions.

Here’s my take.

The reason this fundraiser fit Dave’s cause so well and gained traction with followers is not just because team sponsorship is a tried and true method for people with his strengths. It was because it didn’t fit. It was the delightful disconnect between growing beards and adopting a little girl from China that made it unique and interesting. The concept hits us like a good joke.

Which is exactly where I believe its value lies.

What originally struck me about Our Beards of Hope and the fundraiser from which Dave got the idea, Beard for a Baby, was that it is a classic comedy construct.

Prior to Aplos, I worked professionally in improv and sketch comedy and something I’ve learned is that any comedy you’ve seen, movie or show, falls into one or more of four comedic constructs.

  • Fish out of water: A character is placed in a world where he doesn’t belong. If you’ve ever seen Elf, Mork and Mindy, or read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, you get the idea.
  • Clash of context: The union of two incompatible concepts, worlds, or ideas. Modern Family is a great example.
  • Inappropriate response: This one is pretty self-explanatory. An example would be laughing at a funeral, a la Mary Tyler Moore.
  • Simple, but impossible task: Any story with a character that has an all-consuming passion to accomplish something that ought to be simple, but constantly encounters obstacles that either keep him from ever completing the task or is accomplished at great personal loss to the character. Think Dumb and Dumber, any Mr. Bean sketch or Coyote vs. Roadrunner.

Originally I was struck with the humor of growing a beard on the behalf of a baby, which is a classic “clash of context.” Which got me thinking how much more singular and memorable a fundraiser can become if organizers take a traditional idea and put their own spin on it by applying comedic constructs.

A lot of nonprofits love throwing dinners – which is great. But there are a lot of fundraising dinners held every year. What unique twist on the traditional dinner would make it memorable and turn more heads? What can we do to raise funds and raise eyebrows? If we took an “inappropriate response” approach, we could throw dinner, followed by a sponsored food fight. You get sponsors for the specific food you can use as a weapon. I’d really feel for the clean-up crew, but I would be at this event in a heartbeat – and I’d ask you to sponsor me for a gallon of pudding and maybe tuna fish.

What if we applied the “simple but impossible task” construct to a golf tournament? This could be something as simple as a golf in the dark fundraiser, but you could kick it up a notch with a blindfolded golf tournament. For this one I’d ask you to sponsor me for a helmet.


Every time I turn around I see yet another color run or mud run or even a cut and dry 5K. We could do a run “fish out of water” style by having the runners ask for sponsored articles of clothing: this much for me to wear a tutu during the run; that much if I wear these socks, that hat, or run the entire race as a Viking, chicken, or armor clad knight. You get where I am going with this.

The idea is to take the norm and discover a way to change one vital element into something that makes it stand out. This gets your participants excited to join, and eager to tell any and everyone about it. The local media takes notice, and you have the potential to generate your own version of the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon.

Our Beards of Hope took the standard idea of team sponsorship for a cause and made it into a five month, furry-faced frenzy, packed with interactive, social media-based milestones, with beard-related contests and equally appropriate prizes. I’ll tell you all about those later.

Next time, I’ll let you in on my number one reason for joining in the beard-growing extravaganza. Originally, I only meant to write about Our Beards of Hope, but ended up joining because of the single most valuable thing I learned about fundraising-something you will want to keep in mind when reaching out to new donor.

With a background in theatre and video production, Brandon has an unnerving passion for telling stories and helping nonprofits to develop their own. He is the video producer, resident storyteller, and software designer for Aplos. Brandon is also an acting and improv teacher and has worked professionally in improv and sketch comedy writing. He loves volunteering these skills and passions at The Well Community Church in Fresno, CA. He also has an intense zeal for high-five contests and ice cold Dr. Pepper.

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