This fundraiser sends donors rappelling down a skyscraper. Is it worth it? - Generocity Philly


Oct. 31, 2016 12:51 pm

This fundraiser sends donors rappelling down a skyscraper. Is it worth it?

Last week, Philadelphia Outward Bound School sent dozens of people — including this editor — 29 stories down Two Commerce Square in the hopes of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what’s the actual return on such a large-scale event?

A previous year's Building Adventure.

(Photo courtesy of Devine + Partners)

When people donate to a nonprofit, many of their dollars go to keeping the lights on, paying staff and other overhead expenses. Something like 37 percent of the average nonprofit’s budget goes to this organizational maintenance — and that’s OK. Those things are needed for the nonprofit to do its work efficiently.

But events used as fundraisers — when money raised from ticket prices or sponsorship packages is going to the logistics of the event rather than the organization itself — raise other questions of efficiency.

Philadelphia Outward Bound School (POBS), the nonprofit that sends city dwellers into the wilderness for the sake of leadership development, has been running its Building Adventure fundraising event for the past four years. In its fifth iteration, held last week, 150 people — POBS’s existing supporters and volunteers, employees of event sponsors, eccentrics in love with that altitudinal rush — who each raised at least $2,000 for the organization’s scholarship fund were strapped into harnesses and rappelled 29 stories down the side of Two Commerce Square. In total, these participants have contributed $203,565 to POBS.

Of those 150 daredevils, a handful of media folks — including me — also suited up and made that 300-foot descent. Was it a waste of donors’ dollars to send a bunch of journalists down the building? What’s the real return here?

POBS’s stunt screams the question: Does this make any financial and ethical sense?

According to Executive Director Katie Newsom Pastuszek, absolutely.

This mission of the international Outward Bound organization, formed in the U.K. in 1941, is “to change lives through challenge and discovery,” she said. POBS calls itself a “school” because the leadership and service education offered through its programs — ranging from half-day professional development courses to 28-day expeditions — are “what we consider to be education for life.”

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Scholarships for this girls leadership trip from this summer were raised during last year’s Building Adventure.

Scholarships for this girls leadership trip were raised during last year’s Building Adventure. 

Therefore, such an event is entirely on-brand. POBS is all about adventure. The reasoning follows: Give the people a taste of that adventure by dangling them from the side of a building.

“‘Everybody does a dinner’,” Newsom Pastuszek recalled a board member saying five years ago when brainstorming for its new, big fundraiser. “‘This is Outward Bound. We need to think outside the box.’”

POBS aims to raise $300,000 per Building Adventure, which would serve about 300 students through scholarships. Its highest-earning year so far garnered $260,000. Wait, the group has never hit its goal? Newsom Pastusek says it’s by design.

“Philadelphia Outward Bound School is never afraid to set ambitious goals and reach for them, even if we don’t always reach our goals,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “It’s the same thing we teach our students.”

And then, of course, there’s the media attention. That’s where I come in.

The company that facilitates the rappelling events, Over the Edge USA (OTE), claims it has raised “millions” for nonprofits and touts its signature rappelling event as a “headline-grabbing fundraiser.” Headline-grabbing, indeed: See these first-person articles by reporters from Philadelphia magazine, Philly Voice, Billy Penn and Philadelphia Weekly from last year alone.

“Outward Bound Philadelphia is the best-kept secret,” Newsom Pastuszek said. Besides the obvious fundraising benefit, “we did this event also to get the word out that we’re here, this is the work we’re doing and this is how you can make a difference.”

A rep for OTE told me the events cost nonprofits $27,500 as a base, and POBS staff said they paid OTE a total of $59,000 for the inclusion of building rental, market exclusivity, site visits and additional ropes this year.

POBS spent an additional $30,000 or so on signage, scaffolding, parking, marketing fees to agency Devine + Partners (though some services are provided pro bono) and other day-of expenses, according to Newsom Pastuszek. POBS is accepting donations via this fundraiser through the end of the year, and Newsom Pastuszek expects to raise a gross total of $210,000.

Here’s the math in aggregate:

  • Revenue: $210,000
  • Expenses:  $89,000
  • Profit: $121,000
  • Margin: 58 percent

Building Adventure is more in line with the Dan Pallotta brand of nonprofit spending — you need to spend money to make money, even when it’s for charity. Simply put, the nonprofit now has $120,000 it didn’t before. And there’s a difference between spending donations on an on-mission fundraiser and, say, the “excessive” spending on internal parties that brought Wounded Warrior Project to its knees earlier this year.

And now, 150 people can say they’ve rappelled 29 stories because of POBS. Including me.

As Newsom Pastuszek said: “This is going to be a wild ride for you.”



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