As 2009 came to a close, Andrew Towne donned his tuxedo and welcomed hundreds of guests to the opulent Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington, DC. A crowd of nearly 400 turned out for the New Year’s Gala which benefited YFU USA. Along with his co-organizers Joehn Favors and Tony Cotto, Andrew arranged for an evening of dancing, party games, and music. Ticket sale proceeds were donated to YFU and will help support a high school outreach campaign. Interested in organizing an event such as this one?
Read Andrew’s responses to seven questions about how to best host an event of this caliber.
1) You ended up donating thousands of dollars that you could have kept as your own. Why was it so important that the NYE Gala help support a nonprofit organization such as YFU USA?
Knowing how much the recession was hurting non-profit organizations made me wonder what I might be able to do to help YFU weather the storm. I considered multiple fundraising options, and a New Year’s Eve Gala was the option that seemed most fun and practical.
2)What were the primary challenges in hosting the Gala? How did you overcome them?
Luckily, the Gala kind of threw itself. I mean, people are generally looking for something fun to do on New Year’s Eve, and when you offer them an option that is cheaper than most alternatives and benefits international academic youth exchange, how can they say no? The YFU staff also assisted, particularly on legal and insurance issues. And of course my two co-hosts, Joehn Favors and Tony Cotto made the event go well; what really inspired me about them was the way that they seemed to get more and more excited about the event and about YFU as time went on. We really did this as a team.
3) What were the unexpected hurdles on the night of the Gala?
The DJ’s system was much larger than we expected, so it took a bit longer to set up than we had budgeted. But everything worked out fine, because we were able to close off the dance floor for the first hour to allow people to mingle while he finished setting up. In the end, most people said they had no idea the delay was unplanned.
4) What was the most rewarding aspect of planning the Gala?
That’s easy! The most rewarding aspect was definitely the knowledge that we were helping YFU reach out to more schools and open more doors to more exchange students.
5) What advice would you share with the 1700+ YFU USA volunteers who wish to organize similar events?
Just do it! Find two to four people willing to go in with you, rent a venue that you think you can fill, and start looking for caterers, music, etc. If you build it, they will come! And it doesn’t have to be a gala-style event. It could be a 5K footrace, a team athletic event (like a mountain climb) that a group does to raise money, or any number of other things. I am happy to speak to anyone who is interested in raising money for YFU about possible ideas and first steps toward making them a reality. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
6) How did you utilize social media to generate such a strong turnout?
We didn’t want the party to be a “public” party, i.e. we felt it would be safer for us if every attendee were a friend or a friend of a friend, and so on. So our webpage was not discoverable via Google or any other search engines; you had to have been given the link to get there. And we didn’t advertise in the local papers. Instead, we cultivated the notion of “patrons” who brought ten of his/her friends (who had not been invited by us directly) and gave them VIP status for doing so. We ultimately had twelve patrons, so that concept alone resulted in approximately 120 guests. We also hit up our personal networks like crazy and asked many people if they would be willing to send our promotional email to their college’s local “DC-based-alumni” email list, if such a list existed. We figure we sent the invitation to over 10,000 people that way.
7) As an alumnus and active volunteer, what drives you to continue to give back to the organization?
My 1998-99 YFU exchange year in Germany changed my life, as I suspect YFU exchange experiences change the lives of many alumni. My year abroad made me confident, responsible, tolerant and independent, and it gave me friends and a language that I will never lose. How could I NOT give back to an organization that gave me so much? I volunteer now because I enjoy the regular interaction with an internationally-oriented community of students and volunteers, and I want YFU to succeed as an organization, because I believe that academic youth exchange is one of the most effective ways of breaking down the cultural misunderstandings that can be at the core of so many difficulties in international negotiations. A world in which more young people are able to benefit from an academic exchange experience is a bright world, indeed, in my opinion.