Charity Begins At Scones

I’ve been raising money intermittently for large and small causes — ranging from the Red Cross’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts all the way down to a relative’s swim team — for about ten years now and it seems like a good time to share what I do over the holiday season and why.

All of us probably know someone who needs a little — or a lot of — extra help this holiday season, but whose needs can’t be met by a relief fund. A few years ago a colleague of mine — I’ll call him Joe — had lost a bunch of his family in a natural disaster. The others were scrambling to recover and rebuild. Joe has a non-union factory job and he was already sending a large percentage of his paycheck to his family. 

Unlike a lot of us who are very well connected in social media, Joe didn’t have a Facebook page, a Paypal account, or a team of enthusiastic local friends and relatives to throw a “time” or run a benefit concert for him.

I ‘ve done two kinds of baked-goods fundraisers which seem to raise way more money for causes than the traditional bake sale, and I think it has something to do with marketing.

The first kind of fundraiser I call “Scone Day.” The first one was in 2001 right after the World Trade Center bombing. I leafletted my neighbors and asked them to pre-order scones and pay for them with a check made out to the Red Cross. The scones were priced at $1.25 per scone, and on “Scone Day,” the next Saturday, I would deliver the scones “fresh out of the oven” to their door. The fundraiser and its successors were enormously successful. After Hurricane Katrina, I was able to raise $1200 for the Red Cross in one night. O.K., I did bake 800 scones in one night, and didn’t sleep. Here’s a few reasons why I think they worked:

  • Relationship — Many of my neighbors know and trust me; to the ones that didn’t know me, I lived right down the street from them and they could see my house.
  • Timely event — The fundraiser occurred right when people badly wanted to do something to help.
  • Urgent call to action — If they didn’t order the scones by Thursday, they wouldn’t get them on Saturday.
  • Product price point — My scones were less expensive than Starbucks’ scones, but a lot more expensive than comparable “bake sale” items. I remember thinking that bake sales are similar to what many refer to as a professional “pink ghetto,” meaning that the person is devalued because their activities are traditionally associated with female. By pricing my scones higher, I actually created higher demand for them.
  • The scones are really good — People look forward to my scones because they’re way better than most other scones they’ve ever eaten. It’s worth noting, however, that the scones were not so good on the first Scone Day. At that time, my oven was as old as I am (I’ve since replaced it) and the scones were quite frankly iffy. Tip: If you ever bake scones or cookies and the bottom is burned, a cheese grater comes in handy. To my neighbors who have missed Scone Day the last few years, I swear I’ll do another one soon. 

The second kind of fundraiser involves selling cookies at work. It’s a no-pressure deal — I put out a plate of cookies in the company kitchen, with a sign that says: “Help yourself to a cookie. Please put as much money as you like in the jar, for (Charity X).” This works well because people (myself included) often bring in home-baked treats to work anyway. It leverages an effort that is already being made and raises a little bit of extra cash for a cause.

Both types of fundraisers have the limitation that you have to figure out how to get the money to the people or persons affected. That’s why charities like the Red Cross and United Way are so important. But how to help a guy like Joe?

I asked at work if we could start a relief fund for Joe and was told, very reasonably, that if people wrote out checks to the company and the company issued a check to Joe, the company could get in legal trouble and Joe could even be liable for income taxes on our donations.

Then I called Joe’s church. Their answer was similar. They could funnel money to one of the international relief efforts that was directing aid to victims of the disaster, but they couldn’t give money to an individual parishioner.

I was completely stuck. I wasn’t comfortable asking people at work to write out a check to ME. I ended up doing a Scone Day in my neighborhood for Joe. On the leaflet I asked for donations in cash or by check, figuring that the trust I’d already gained through nine years of Scone Days would work in Joe’s favor. It did, and I was able to present Joe and another guy in a similar situation each with checks for $200.

We have a new Joe in our office — a heartbreaking situation — and I know people are going to want to do something to help. This year, I’ve come up with an approach to the holiday cookie fundraiser that I think will work. “One of us and his family are facing extreme hardship this holiday season. I’ve brought these cookies in to share, hoping that you will make a donation to help this person. You may put cash in the jar. If you want to write a check out or would like any more information, please ask me privately. P.S. If you don’t want to donate, please help yourself to a cookie anyway.”

The first recipe I created for the fundraiser — which starts tomorrow — is mocha strawberry scone spirals. See next post for instructions!



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