Charitable Deeds

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Horsepeople are a generous lot, and nothing proves this more than the number of horse shows and other equine-related events held each year to benefit charitable organizations. Horse shows and events have raised millions of dollars for scores of different worthwhile causes over the last decade alone.

Holding a charity horse show or other event to benefit a non-profit organization or cause can be both a challenging and rewarding experience, according to equine professionals who have put together such events. Securing volunteers, planning activities and obtaining sponsors are all important elements of every charity function.

Sponsors & Donations

With the right connections, a horse show can bring in a considerable amount of money for charity. Although having a celebrity associated with your event can do wonders for fundraising, even a small local show can raise a substantial sum, if you do a good job obtaining sponsors and donations.

Heidi Adams, executive director of Planet Cancer (www.planetcancer.org), an organization for young adults with cancer in Austin, Texas, held a benefit horse show at Stoneledge Equestrian Center in Bethlehem, Conn., called Planet Jump. A hunter and jumper event held in the fall of 2004, Planet Jump raised a total of $13,000 in one day for Planet Cancer.

“The source of our revenue for this show was primarily sponsors, entries and donations,” says Adams. “This was a big community effort. The horse world is small, and everyone knows each other. We put the word out that we were doing this show for a good cause and asked people to participate. Most people are really civic minded and willing to help, especially if they have a personal connection to a cause.” Adams also recommends putting the word out among clients, many of whom work for, or have parents who work for, companies that might be willing to pony up some sponsorship money.

Adams notes that when it comes to fundraising, it’s important to set up as many possibilities for income as you can. Planet Jump’s activities included a silent auction with donated items, with all proceeds going to the charity. A group of kids held a bake sale at the event, which also brought in money, and tables set up under a tent were sold to sponsors. They even charged $5 per car for parking, which also went to charity.

To maximize the take for Planet Cancer, many of the services used at the show were donated. “The judging, course design, and the site were all donated by professionals,” says Adams. “We tried to get everything we could donated or discounted. The goal is to minimize expenses so you have more money for the charity.”

Riverstone, a jumper training barn in Garrison, N.Y., holds a charity horse show each year to raise money for research in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Riverstone owner and trainer Ken Perlman became involved with this cause when his wife was diagnosed with the disease.

“I started holding fundraising events to raise money for my wife’s medical costs,” says Perlman. “After she passed away, I decided to do events to benefit Project ALS.”

Over the last two years, the four-day jumper show at Riverstone has raised $20,000 for the ALS cause. “We raise much of the money by charging a $100 nomination fee and having exhibitors write the check directly to Project ALS,” says Perlman. “We try to get the show prize money donated, and in the evening, we have an exhibitor’s party with a silent auction of items donated from friends and the community.”

Perlman reports that it takes nine months to plan his charity horse show each year. “I do it in between my work, and start planning for the next show three months after the event takes place,” he says. “As you do this every year, you learn something new. It’s important not to get in over your head right away. Start with a small successful event and build on that.”

A non-profit organization called Taking the Reins, which teaches western riding to at-risk teenage girls in the Los Angeles area, has held a fundraising barbecue each year for the past four years. Event manager Gene Snook notes that procuring sponsors is essential to the event’s success.

“The Taking the Reins barbecue committee has created an extensive database of companies to contact for donations and support for the event,” he says. “We start at least six months in advance, and begin contacting local merchants, entertainment venues and travel destinations to request specific raffle or silent auction items.” Snook says the organization continually updates the list with new contacts and suggestions for businesses to contact.

Making contact with potential sponsors entails sending out a request letter as well as information on the program, including a copy of the program from the previous year and a copy of the latest Taking the Reins newsletter. One to two months before the event, the committee makes follow-up calls to companies who have not responded to the letter. According to Snook, the second contact usually requires additional mailings or faxes.

“Through consistent marketing and communications, these supporters are very aware of our program and how we are helping underserved girls,” he says. “There are some businesses who have been supporters of the program for five to six years.”

After each event, the committee sends out thank-you letters. A color photograph signed by girls in the program also goes out to major sponsors.

To help encourage sponsorship, the Taking the Reins event committee has created four different levels of sponsorship opportunities, depending on how much is donated. Each sponsor receives mentions from the stage during the event, and a mention in the program booklet. Sponsors may also display banners at the site.

Securing Volunteers

Another important part of any equine-related fundraising event is volunteers. Without people to help out on the day of the event, most charity functions can’t take place.

“A core group of volunteers works with Taking the Reins each year to make sure the event is successful,” says Snook. “We have an active board of directors who have been instrumental in recruiting volunteers. We have also partnered with the Los Angeles Rodeo as a source of volunteers to help with parking and our refreshment table.” Snook notes that for the most recent fundraiser, parents of girls who participate in the program were encouraged to be more actively involved with the event through ticket sales and volunteering.

To be successful, Snook says, an event must have a core base of workers and attendees. “We are continually fine-tuning our program and asking for input from sponsors, attendees, volunteers and board members,” he says. “Our goal is for the volunteers and event guests to enjoy the experience. This year we are asking our volunteers to attend a short training session the day before the barbecue so they will be more comfortable and confident in their jobs.”

Making the event fun for the volunteers is also a component for Adams, who enlists kids who ride at the host barn on the day of the show. “Volunteering at this event is fun for the kids, “she says. “It’s a group project that they want to participate in. They see it as a big event they can pull off and show off to their friends at other barns.”

“Knowing people’s skills and talents and making requests of those skills and talents is important,” she says. “One client at the barn is a t-shirt designer, so we asked her to design shirts for the volunteers. She did so at cost.” Adams notes that people will do a lot if you ask them to.

To obtain volunteers for his Project ALS event, Perlman calls upon friends and family to give their time, as well as to help him recruit more volunteers. “We rope in our friends and family, and it just builds from there,” he says. “A family member will end up with a friend who has a singing group that is willing to volunteer. It’s simple grassroots recruiting.”

Once an event has been held for a couple of years, word gets out and strangers start volunteering as well, according to Perlman. “We now get people off the street who have heard about the event and want to volunteer,” he says. “Plus, I have volunteered for other charities, and there is a loop. People you have helped in the past find out you are having an event, and they want to help.”

Although volunteers are important, Perlman notes that it’s essential to hire professionals for certain jobs. “We use volunteers for secondary tasks that aren’t crucial to the image of the event or that could cause a problematic situation,” he says. “We hire for jobs like security, show announcing and judging. Our volunteers do things like hand out ribbons, make sandwiches to sell at the event, etc.”

With the right planning and dedication, a horse-related event can be a great way to bring in money for a good cause. “A charity event has to be for a cause you feel passionate about,” says Adams. “You aren’t going to reap any financial rewards for yourself, so you have to care a lot about the cause you are supporting to make all the hard work worthwhile.”