Despite 14 inches of snow, Rotarians in Ohio, USA, drew more than 3,000 people to a daylong “chili open” in February that raised nearly $160,000 to benefit children.
The Rotary Club of Westerville Sunrise has held the Wendy’s Chili Open every year since 1997, donating more than $1.5 million to children's charities including the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and The Children's Hunger Alliance. (click below to read more)
This year, 30 food vendors offered samples while attendees strolled through the main grounds of the Columbus Zoo. The event also featured a live band and silent auction. Media personalities including Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the zoo and star of the syndicated television series Jack Hanna's Into the Wild, greeted guests in a heated tent.
The chili open -- which gets its name from Wendy's chili, served since the beginning -- is now the club's signature event and has grown in scope each year. The first one drew only a handful of attendees to an unheated tent set up in the parking lot of a local factory.
Pat Kemmer, who chairs the event, explains that developing a signature project involves choosing a focus, then seeking out sponsors and picking the right venue.
“First, you need to find a project that works for your community,” Kemmer says. “We knew right away that focusing on children’s charities would be perceived well.”
After that, the club persistently looked for new sponsors. "We kept telling ourselves that we had to up the ante by adding on more,” he says.
“It was a no-brainer to be a part of this,” says Dan Johnson, director of Columbus operations for the Wendy’s fast food chain, one of the fundraiser’s first sponsors. “What better event to support than one that’s associated with good charities?”
Club president Pat Knott says sponsors have agreed to sign on because of the clear return on their investment. “It’s a win-win situation for them. It gives them the opportunity to give back to the community while building their brand."
Picking a venue
In 2010, the club found the perfect venue when the Columbus Zoo offered to host the event on its main grounds. According to Pete Fingerhut, vice president of marketing for the zoo, the club’s reputation made the partnership a good fit.
“There’s a connection between the zoo and what this club represents – promoting children’s services,” Fingerhut says. “You can’t help but succeed when you look for sponsors with similar interests.”
The move to the zoo made the event even more appealing to sponsors, and the club received free ads from a local TV station.
“One of our biggest drawbacks to getting sponsors was having the event in Westerville at first. It was too local,” says Rob Hunt, past chair of the chili open. “Some of the businesses we were talking to were in other Columbus suburbs. Moving it to the zoo made it a citywide event.”
The club has grown from 42 to 83 members since the first chili open. Club members plan to keep expanding their signature project.
“The key is taking risks and not being afraid to ask a sponsor or media outlet if they want to be involved,” says Kemmer. “Any club can do this.”