Featured Image Credit: Connie Lewis Dawson of Dawson Photography, LLC
Only a handful of times in my life have I voluntarily agreed to participate in an event, to risk embarrassing myself in front of an audience. Usually, those moments involved a youth’s attempt at impressing a girl. I am older now, supposed to be wiser, yet I’ve elected to once again step into the limelight. This time, however, it serves a far more noble purpose than teenage angst.
I’ve known Brandon Halleck since we were very young. From his time as Templeton the Rat in the 8th grade performance of Charlotte’s Web, to his role as Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz as a senior at Greencastle High School. Truthfully, I hated Brandon that year, because I was a freshman and auditioned for the same role. (The debate over why I lost that role remains, but I think it was only because Brandon was a senior.)
Fast forward a little over a decade, after both of us had moved on from our Greencastle roots and found ourselves living in Terre Haute. My fiancee at the time went to work for Chances and Services for Youth (CASY) as an advocate for tobacco cessation policy in 2013. It was great to find Brandon in charge of the organization and embedded so deeply in the non-profit community. That was also the year I learned about Dancing with the Terre Haute Stars (DWTHS).
A New Event
Brandon has a passion for ballroom dancing as a hobby. He’s traveled to competitions around the country and even won a few awards. In the summer of 2005, the hit TV show Dancing with the Stars arrived on television. Brandon is nothing if not an opportunist, with a keen ability to see possibility where others can’t. We’re all familiar with typical fundraisers. All of the “sale” varieties including, baking, rummage, yard, garage, etc. Auctions and events of every type have been tried and tested. For anyone who has ever organized an event, especially golf outings, you know how much time and effort it takes to put those occasions into motion. You also know how little profit can come out of so much work. In the end, most fundraisers are justified by the amount of awareness they incite for a cause as much as they are for the dollars they raise.
This year will be the thirteenth for DWTHS. Each year, the event has grown both in attendance and funding. Since 2007, it has raised over $1.6 million for youth service programs in the Wabash Valley. For west central Indiana, that’s nothing to scoff at.
I met Brandon for lunch to chat about this event, how he’s worked to build it, and where he sees it going in the future. We met at Crossroads Cafe downtown Terre Haute. I arrived first, and instantly found a few people I knew who congratulated me on joining the ranks of “stars” to participate in the event. It was no surprise to me when Brandon arrived a few minutes later, he knew those same people, but also nearly everyone else in the restaurant. It’s as much to do with his friendly demeanor as it is the way he has engaged the community through CASY.
The Event of the Year
After we ordered our food I asked Brandon to start at the beginning. “I started at CASY 22 years ago,” he said. “[DWTHS] has been going for 12 years and we’ve raised $1.6 million.”
“That impact,” I began, “are you aware of any other organization in the Wabash Valley that’s been able to match that? From fundraising or a programming standpoint?”
He thought for a moment before he answered. This is a pause I’ve come to know in conversation with Brandon on nearly any subject. And in my opinion, it’s what makes him so good at what he does. Because, while he has the answer in his head almost immediately, he chooses to take a few seconds to check all of the other options before speaking. My son attended the summer camp hosted by CASY for six years. Having been heavily involved in CASY as a volunteer, because of Brandon, it’s easy to see how “the pause” serves him not only in conversation, but in decisions he makes every day about the programs he oversees, and the hundreds of families they impact.
“I would say we have the most successful grassroots fundraiser in the Wabash Valley,” he said finally. “No other organization or single entity has engaged the community the same way, in that, when we raise $200,000 from DWTHS there’s no $25,000 sponsor. The bulk of that money comes from $50 donations, ticket sales, and modest sponsorships. It’s true dollars raised from families we’re engaging. The stars who participate are reaching out to family and friends raising $20 at a time.”
Even though I’ve personally been involved with CASY and DWTHS for several years, Brandon had just told me something I’d never really considered. While most other organizations go after corporate sponsors, expecting thousands of dollars in sponsorships, or calling the big box stores or Wal-Mart, Brandon found something hidden. Not to mention, something most people scoff at when they hear the plan is to raise lots of little dollars, instead of major ones.
“In terms of engagement, it’s taken a long time to grow the event.” Brandon nodded. “You do have the event of the year, you know that,” I told him.
He smiled. “Yep.”
“Your sponsorship levels aren’t astronomical,” I observed. The largest sponsorship level is $2,000 which gets the business or individual a place in the program, special seating, etc. The next tier down is $1,500 and then $1,000, which can also get you a special table. After that it’s $80 a ticket and individual donations. “Is that on purpose?” I asked.
“Yes, I wanted it to be an event where everyone could participate, no matter what.”
“Including stars, to an extent.”
“Yes, to an extent.” The format Brandon uses requires that people volunteering to dance also have to raise money. This is how they “win” the contest, not by their ability to cut a rug. Which, thankfully, might give me a better shot. “Each new star brings in a new set of people and donors. Every year, almost the entire audience is new.”
“Which is pretty surprising, given the size of Terre Haute.”
“So when you think about it, some of our stars reach out to folks all over. I’ve had donations come in from New York and California. People who’ve never heard of our organization or know what we do. So that’s been a blessing and a curse in terms of, how do you transition them to annual donors. In other words, how do we get them to go from saying ‘I’m donating to Christian Shuck’ to donating next year just to support CASY.”
“Which is interesting, because we’ve said before, one of these years will be the peak year and you’ll begin to see a decline in dollars raised.”
This is another side of Brandon I appreciate because while he has fantastic ideas and big plans, he’s also a realist. He knows that at some point the event will wear itself out. “I think we’re close to that point,” he said. “But at the same time, any time you’re putting on an event like this and raising over $200,000 you have to be happy. I’m not complaining.”
It’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t live in Terre Haute, what kind of impact DWTHS has had on the community over the last decade plus. It’s increased from an audience of thirty, in a rented out conference room, to filling half of Hulman Center. “You’ve set the bar for every other organization in Terre Haute.”
“Yes,” he laughed. “Thank you for reminding me.”
“How many people would you say come to you and ask how you do it?”
“Oh, at least once a week. I mean, you have to realize that it comes from a passion for working at CASY.”
A Drive to Succeed
I was glad that Brandon made that statement out loud. It’s something I’ve witnessed first hand, but find it hard to describe to others. I would argue that attitude is difficult to find anywhere, especially in the non-profit world. Don’t misunderstand, I believe the majority of people who manage or work for a non-profit organization are doing so because they believe in the mission. They want to do something that makes the world a little nicer to live in and that is more than can be said for the mindset often found in a corporate setting.
However, believing in a mission and being passionate about it are two very different things. Brandon is a special individual in that he has passion for what he does, believes in the mission and is not satisfied with the status quo. He’s taken steps to educate himself on how to build his organization and his top-tier fundraiser. He would never say these things about himself, which is one more attribute to add to the pile. I’ve never heard him whine about things being tough, he chooses to look for answers instead of focusing on the problem. It’s a unique set of qualities only few possess.
“DWTHS has been replicated in other communities,” Brandon said. “I’ve tried to help others, including Putnam County, get their events off the ground.”
“Does Putnam County still have their event?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve done it for a while.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“It takes time, you know? It’s all about relationship building. If it’s something you want to be involved with, you have to put in the work.”
Behind the Scenes
“You and I have talked about this a number of times. You can drag and drop the program, but if you’re not out building the foundational relationships you need to make it successful, it won’t be. You’re out building relationships a year before your event even takes place.”
“Yes, and that’s the part that no one sees.”
“CASY has how many programs now?”
“I think fourteen.”
“The car seat program, a food program, child care, camp RAVE…it’s a lot.”
“Is there any other organization in the Wabash Valley that houses that many programs?”
“I would wager most people don’t understand the umbrella that CASY is for other programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
“No, most people don’t realize that.”
“Have you run into kids, now grown, after all this time, that you recognize and can see how CASY’s programming has benefited them?”
“I saw a kid, about three years ago, who actually came up to me. He told me how being in a mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, changed his life. He said it was his Big that picked him up from school sometimes. His Big helped him fill out his college applications, maybe even paid for it. He said he’d never made it to college with out BBBS. That’s the benefit. When you hear United Way taking on the challenge of moving families out of poverty, that’s it, right there.”
“Do you think the centralization of those programs in CASY is what helps them be successful? It’s not just BBBS, all of those programs benefit.”
“Absolutely, the cost sharing makes up an enormous difference. Because, you can allocate resources to staff and programming, rather than having your dollars go to pay for an audit, or insurance, or whatever.”
“Have you seen any other organizations in other cities that operate that way?”
“Yes, out of a need for survival.”
“Absolutely. I cringe whenever I see a new non-profit emerge. I mean, have they done their research? Are they sure there isn’t another group, doing something similar, they can support or partner with, instead of competing.”
“Richard Payonk and I talked about that after they announced United Way’s new initiatives. He mentioned there are three groups in Terre Haute that want to provide diapers to families for infants. One of them will only give diapers if the parent signs a pledge to quit smoking. One doesn’t care if you smoke or not. Richard’s point was, why can’t we all just get in a circle, and agree that babies need diapers.”
“There is a lot of truth to that.”
“What other characteristics, besides centralization, do you think contribute to CASY’s success?”
“We have to be good stewards of our donor’s dollars. We won’t start new initiatives if someone in the community is already working on it. There’s no point in wasting the resources when we can use that money to continue to bolster our own. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel.”
“Do you think duplicate programs get started because people don’t know they exist?”
“Yes, that’s part of it. But I also think you shouldn’t underestimate people’s want to make a difference. So they get excited about an idea and run with it, with every intention of doing something good. But, it’s really about collaboration.”
“What would you say, then, is the biggest hurdle for a non-profit?”
“That’s a tough one.” He took another “Halleck pause” before he answered. “Leadership and funding. It’s easy for leaders to be focused on their own work, instead of taking a step back and asking what’s best for the community we’re serving as a whole. If they aren’t willing to acknowledge they don’t know how to collaborate, or see themselves as a part of a greater whole, they’re going to struggle.”
“Sure, I agree. You can throw money at a problem all day long. If the right leadership isn’t there in an Executive Director or board, with the competency to delegate how those dollars are spent, you’ll never solve the problem.”
“Exactly, and to expect to get high quality leadership for $35,000 to $45,000 per year, and ask them to manage a staff, and raise money, and probably raise a family, you’ll have a tough time finding that person. Or, that person’s tenure is going to be short, and you’ll find yourself in a constant state of turnover. Because it takes an individual’s want to do the work, to be passionate and put in the time. Otherwise the responsibility falls to the board, who probably are volunteers. Now you have a volunteer asked to spend additional time without pay, and raise a family, and work a full time job. So you end up with a group of people grossly underpaid or not paid at all, trying to keep an organization afloat and there’s no quality to the work because no one has the time to do it properly.”
What Comes Next
“But is wanting to make a difference, to have an impact, worth taking a lower salary?” I asked. “The issue is so complex. If the quality of the organization itself is diminished, donors get frustrated. So the opposite end of the spectrum is donors get really sensitive about the salaries of executive directors, and worry they’re making too much and are a drain on the resources for the organization.”
“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about any executive director in Terre Haute making one million dollars,” Brandon chuckled. “But if you’re an executive director making $80,000 for a large agency, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I think, to an extent, that’s a stereotype society places on national organizations. This fear of misused dollars. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be wary of it, but it’s the responsibility of the executive director to build those relationships so that fear goes away.”
“Which brings us back to DWTHS. How does a community find, or go about trying to create the next you?”
The question put Branon back a little bit. I’d pushed him out of his humble comfort zone, but I meant the question sincerely. Because, it’s a question we should all be asking, regardless of the size of the community or organization we’re trying to run.
“I mean that seriously,” I followed up. “Because, if you leave CASY, one could argue that DWTHS leaves too.”
“I don’t know, I really don’t.”
“If the problem is cyclical, in that you have to have a successful fundraiser, but you also have to have the right staff -”
“That’s the key, right there,” he cut me off. “My staff are amazing. They work really hard.”
“So you believe the combined effort of a dedicated staff, the centralization of programs and a strong director are what makes CASY successful?”
“Absolutely, it’s as much a community effort within our organization as it is a community effort in the civil sense.”
Our waitress arrived back at the table and handed us our check. As we scooted out of our tiny booth Brandon stopped. “I have a question for you.”
“Can you moonwalk?”
Dancing with the Terre Haute Stars will take place this year on October 11th at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Please consider purchasing a ticket, sponsoring the event or donating in support of Chances and Services for Youth. To find more information, visit casyonline.org/stars.