Brenda Blisk has always believed in the importance of giving back. But 10 years ago, the McClean, Virginia-based financial advisor was ready to support her community in a more focused way, creating a fundraising event that would also help with building her small business.
She thought carefully about the type of fundraiser she should host. As a financial advisor to a predominately female clientele, Brenda wanted to appeal to women, especially working women. It didn’t take long for her to narrow in on a theme: handbags.
“Every woman needs a handbag,” said Brenda, the 2018 Invest in Others Community Service Award winner. “I called up some people I knew, small business owners, and told them that I wanted to create a handbag auction for charity. They offered to come along and help.”
She named her fundraiser IN THE BAG and chose the American Red Cross of the National Capital Region as her charity because she wanted the funds to support a cause that has a broad mission and serves a wide swath of the community.
The first year, Brenda got the event up and running in just 90 days, selling out all 100 tickets and raising a total of $22,000. Nine years later, she more than tripled the attendance, selling 320 tickets and netting $179,000. Since starting the fundraiser in 2010, Brenda has raised a total of $1.4 million for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Region.
Thinking about hosting a fundraiser? Here’s Brenda’s best advice for putting on a successful event:
Know your Audience
Successful salespeople know their customers. That’s true in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. Over the past 10 years, Brenda has learned more about handbags than she ever thought possible.
“You need to know what kind of handbags are popular,” she said. “Today, you have young women in the workforce, executives, middle-aged and older women, 60s and up. You have to think about what’s going to appeal to them.”
Brenda quickly learned what sells and what doesn’t. The women that come to her event are looking for bags they can get a lot of use out of—instantly recognizable brands like Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, as well as mass luxury retailers like Coach, Kate Spade and Michael Kors. Every year, Brenda and the women on the steering committee carefully vet donations to make sure they’re a good fit for their audience.
Keep the “Fun” in Fundraiser
Philanthropy is about rallying others to support a cause. For Brenda, her annual IN THE BAG fundraiser relies not just on women to attend the event and bid on the bags, but the roughly 20 to 25 volunteers who serve on the steering committee and are responsible for procuring donations. Over the years, even as the event has grown, Brenda has intentionally kept it to a reasonable size in order to preserve the sense of intimacy that has made IN THE BAG a highly anticipated women’s networking event.
“People want to have fun in a meaningful way,” Brenda said. “Many women have developed a close circle of friends outside of their offices, and we want to make sure that it continues to be a valuable event.”
Make it Manageable
From the beginning, Brenda has worked hard to make IN THE BAG convenient for attendees and volunteers alike. As the owner of a small business herself, Brenda needed to be able to plan the event around her busy schedule. Between March and November, she schedules one meeting a month, between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. Likewise, she always hosts the luncheon on a Friday afternoon because it’s the best time to squeeze in an activity between work and family obligations.
“You have to carve out part of your day or stuff like this doesn’t happen,” Brenda said. “An hour or two a month isn’t a lot. It’s a minimal time commitment with maximum impact.”