The Great Ones: Secrets to highly successful events

JDRF’s Rachel Hopkins, YWCA’s Nancy Spivey, AHA’s Sia Ruppert, RMH’s Carrie Schroder, Dragonfly’s Ria Davidson and Christine Neitzke

JDRF’s Rachel Hopkins, YWCA’s Nancy Spivey, AHA’s Sia Ruppert, RMH’s Carrie Schroder, Dragonfly’s Ria Davidson and Christine Neitzke

By Kim Sullivan

Some say it’s all about that face – the honoree, the committee chair – all about those well-placed names other people will flock to see. A face everybody knows, the face everyone would like on their board. Oh, and a celebrity definitely helps.

Others say it’s all about the quality of the volunteers working on the event. The right volunteer in the right position can generate as much excitement and interest as the honoree or the event chair. Who do you know as a knock ’em dead worker – with a lot of high-energy friends? Who makes it happen?


One nonprofit renowned for doing it right is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

JDRF’s development manager Rachel Hopkins is a ball of fire. She’s outgoing, friendly, personable and a great communicator, say those around her.

Development manager since 2013, she has worked with the agency since 2010. During much of that time, JDRF’s gala has ranked at the top of the heap among the big moneymakers.

Hopkins says keeping the event tied to the mission is important. “We usually honor an individual or a couple; this year we are privileged to honor Kim and Dave Dougherty. Dave was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes two years ago at the age of 57.”

This year’s Cincinnatians of the Year Gala is Saturday, May 7, with a goal of $1.2 million.

“At JDRF our secret to success is the power of the volunteer. Our Cincinnatians of the Year Gala has a fantastic committee, some of whom have been involved for over 30 years, and that consistency and retention are keys to our success. We also strive to make the event as fun as possible, and our committee goes all out with the theme, so that our guests want to return year after year.

“Over the years at JDRF I’ve learned that having strong leadership from the volunteer committee, honorees and chairs is key. Without any of those factors, a gala can fail.

“Another pitfall is getting into a rut and doing the same thing year after year and failing to innovate. At JDRF we also spend a lot of time thinking about succession planning for volunteer leadership, since relying on the same people year after year leads to burnout, which can be a recipe for trouble. It’s important to evolve.”


So who really does it up for a big crowd? Many point to the YWCA and its Career Women of Achievement luncheon, which will take place May 11 this year.

Last year more than 2,100 attended the luncheon at Duke Energy Convention Center, raising $700,000 for the YWCA’s programs and making it the largest such event in the Midwest.

“It started in 1980,” said Nancy Spivey, vice president of development. “Now we’ve celebrated 290 Career Women of Achievement . . . Then these women will go back and honor women in their circle . . . It self-perpetuates.

“We also have inducted Rising Stars, for women 24-40. Many board members come out of this group. Then they come back as Career Women of Achievement,” said Spivey.

“We also come full circle and award two scholarships for high school girls who have come through poverty and hardship. They help us grow our mission. We recognize women of achievement wherever they are. For the high schools, our motto is ‘lift as you climb’.”

American Heart AssociationHighly-successful-9-Live-Auction

Following the template of strong and inspiring honorees and powerhouse volunteers, at the top of the “best of” list is the American Heart Association.

Last year’s Heart Ball raised more than $1.375 million and drew a record crowd of 1,000 attendees, said Sia Ruppert, the Heart Ball director. Proceeds from the event are used to fund the American Heart Association’s research and educational programs.

Ruppert says the key is passion for the cause, a common thread among nonprofits. The “secret to Heart Ball success is the dedication of our volunteers to finding a cure for cardiovascular disease and stroke,” she said. “Many of our volunteers are heart or stroke survivors themselves or they have been personally touched by heart disease and stroke through a family member or friends. This makes for a very passionate group of individuals who are committed to fighting these diseases. The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association is well known for the lifesaving work it does in our community, and this resonates with our volunteers.”

The Heart Ball is part of a powerful one-two punch for the Heart Association in late winter. Its Heart Mini, made up of a health expo and several walks/runs, is expected to draw as many as 25,000 participants March 12 and 13.

Walks and runs are a major draw for several other organizations, including JDRF and Cincinnati Children’s. But that’s another story!

Ronald McDonald House

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati is known for providing a “home away from home” for families with critically ill children while they receive medical treatment. “We surround families with hope and support and bring joy and a sense of normalcy to children as they heal,” said RMH event manager Carrie Schroder.

In 2015, RMH’s Red Tie Gala grossed more than $555,000; its golf outing grossed over $300,000. Why so popular?

“Hands down, the success of our events starts with our chairs. We have been very fortunate to have talented and dedicated supporters leading our events,” said Schroder. This year, the Red Tie Gala will be held Oct. 1, chaired by Peter Frey and Ashley and Tony Munafo. “Our chairs not only put on a fun and memorable event, but they also promote our mission by encouraging their friends, co-workers and families to get involved with our House.

“It’s also important to have hard-working committee chairs, from corporate sponsorships to décor to silent and live auctions. It takes a great team to pull off a seamless event,” said Schroder.

The golf outing chair and board have done “an amazing job of retaining our sponsors,” said Schroder. “We are also very fortunate to have our event this year (June 20) at Kenwood Country Club. We find that our golf outing draws a different audience than our gala, which tends to be a couples-night-out crowd.

“The golf event is a nice way for a group of friends to spend the afternoon together, and it’s also a great way for companies to cultivate clients in a relaxed setting and in support of an important cause.”

So how do you create an event? Schroder says it isn’t easy.

“We start planning for the next event before we even have the current one. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our events, whether it’s by adding mobile bidding or exploring new and exciting auction ideas. People might be surprised how many hundreds of details go into planning an event this size, and every decision we make is from the viewpoint of how it will affect the attendee’s experience.

“The most challenging part is anticipating every possible need and scenario for the evening to make sure it runs smoothly and that everyone has a great time. We want every donor to feel and believe that their investment in our charity was worth it and that we use their funding wisely.”


Dragonfly Foundation co-founders Ria Davidson and Christine Neitzke have both had cancer in their families.The foundation they created five years ago  is all about bringing comfort and joy to young cancer and bone marrow transplant patients.

Dragonfly was born about the same time Neitzke’s son, Matt, then 10, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Now, five years later, Matt is cancer-free and The Dragonfly Foundation has built a reputation for its dedication to young patients and their families.

One thing they’ve learned, says Davidson, is that attention to every facet of the guest experience is what makes a gala succeed.

“We are totally focused on comfort and joy. We want our guests to experience the attention and thoughtfulness we give to taking care of our Dragonfly patients/families,” says Davidson. “It starts from the moment they register for our events and doesn’t stop until they return to their car after the event is over.”

Compared to big events such as JDRF’s Cincinnatians of the Year gala or the Heart Ball, Dragonfly’s events are still small.

In 2015, the Dragonfly Gala netted $120,000. This year’s gala, held in mid-February, sold out weeks in advance. Attendance varies from 350 to 500, but truth be told, organizers do not want the event to be bigger; they want to keep it humble.

“We do not want to grow in size. We want to make the experience even more memorable.”

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