Secrets from the highest-grossing Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale

On September 11, 2010, Richmond, Va., was host to the highest-grossing bake sale in the two-year history of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. I was proud to have had a hand in the event and recently was asked to write a recap of what made it so successful. Here’s what I sent the nonprofit:

The Japanese have a form of martial arts called “Aikido.” It focuses not on punching or kicking your opponents, but rather on using your opponents’ own energy to gain control of them or throw them away from you.

Our sale wasn't slick. We were all about hand-painted signs and banners.

Anyone who has ever faced pediatric cancer will tell you that – despite being an abhorrent coward – it’s a powerful opponent. Medical professionals use surgeries and toxic treatments to fight it. Friends and families use hope, love and prayer (among other things).

But imagine if we could redirect cancer’s own rage and power right back at it? This, I realized recently, is exactly what Cookies for Kids’ Cancer does.

On August 22, 2010, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Founder Gretchen Holt Witt posted this status update to her Facebook page:  “It wasn’t good news. It was awful news. We start high-dose chemo on Monday morning. My heart is literally shattering into a million pieces. But I’ll pick myself up and go at it again. Liam needs me. He needs all of us. Pray for him and hold a bake sale.

Those words were read 300 miles away in Richmond, Va. And just 20 days later – in direct response to cancer’s attack – a handful of bake sale coordinators, a dozen “team captains” and hundreds of moms, dads, caring souls, big-hearted businesses, kids, scouts and students raised more than $34,000 to fund pediatric cancer research. Every dollar earned was matched by a grant from “Glad to Give™.”

Our best bake sale tip: Tell a story
The single biggest takeaway from our successful Richmond bake sale is: Tell a story. Think of it as practicing Aikido. Speak and write powerful words about the sickening blows that pediatric cancer intends for the most vulnerable among us, and then just stand back and watch as the world rises up and redirects that force and fury right back at cancer.

Our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Here are some other things that contributed to our team’s success:

Act quickly. Gretchen’s heart-breaking plea gave us a sense of urgency, and our fresh emotions translated to dollars. If something compels you to raise money for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer (a diagnosis, a surgery, a relapse), act swiftly and you will be rewarded for it. Set your bake sale date just weeks, not months, away. Don’t give volunteers or donors much time to ponder their participation. Just share the story, then say, “I really need your help in two weeks.”

Ask and you shall receive. There is something about pediatric cancer that is so, so wrong. Speak the words “kids’ cancer,” and people will do almost anything you ask.

We asked for an anchor location and the Carytown Merchants Association gave us a mile-long shopping district and merchants that donated a percentage of their sales. We pleaded for bakers and Gretchen’s former employer – CRT/tanaka – volunteered its staff for a 12-hour baking blitz. We asked for industrial ovens and got the Mixing Bowl Pastry Shop. We asked for cookies and got 6,000 frozen cookie pucks from Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies.

We asked for anything and everything – public service announcements, cardboard boxes, big photos of affected families, gift bags, donation jars, rolls of kraft paper and mistint paint for banners. When it was apparent that our sale was going to be big, Amber van der Meer (mother of Richmond warrior Ber van der Meer) simply told her “Caring Bridge” subscribers that we needed another corporate sponsor. The next day, Qdoba Mexican Grill donated a thousand entrée coupons (a $6 value; we sold them for $3 a pop). If you have any need, simply tell your story, flash the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer logo, and ask

Use what you’ve got. We had a talented media relations professional, so news of our city-wide bake sale was on all three network news shows, local newspapers, blogs and a popular radio station. (See links below to listen/watch.)

WINN Transportation donated the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley

A family connection to WINN Transportation earned us the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley that conducted business-day visits to some of Richmond’s most generous companies as well as a popular, outdoor lunchtime plaza. A vacant restaurant turned into the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Drive Thru. Girl Scout volunteers helped us score two grocery store locations that otherwise wouldn’t have allowed solicitors! And our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Call on every kind-hearted, hard-working person you know!

Recruit what you need. Look holistically at all the skill sets you need. A major event needs: sales people (able to secure locations and make big asks), team captains (to recruit volunteers and staff a single bake sale location), a publicity person and/or spokesperson, people with corporate connections, a professional baker, a financial person (to tally dollars), and a local family or two willing to be the courageous face of pediatric cancer in photos at every sale location.

Use social media and technology. We used Facebook and e-mail to plead for team captains, volunteers and bakers. An online “First Giving” account made it easy for friends to contribute to our specific from afar. A Facebook post simply wishing for a single donation in the memory of a former classmate, Scott Newhouse (who died of cancer at age 12 back in the 1980s), generated hundreds of dollars in long-distance pledges from Scott’s former classmates, warming the hearts of his mother and brother. Facebook posts on the walls of contributors thanked them for being a “good cookie” and included a link to the First Giving page.

Got trolley?

A coordinator’s blog told the story behind the event and everybody involved found a way to link to it and to the blogs and journals of families fighting cancer. A Facebook event page was created and featured excitement-generating updates (new locations, new donations) and hundreds were invited to “attend.” A week before the event, a Flip camera was used to create a music video of several families painting dozens of banners and handheld signs in preparation for the big day. The closing message said simply, “September 11th for Gretchen and Liam the Brave.” The video captured the spirit of our sale and the event preview was watched by hundreds on Facebook and YouTube. Our media genius used Twitter to tweet about our latest news or needs.
 
Keep it simple. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer can be a lemonade stand, a bike-a-thon or a pub crawl. It can be whatever you have the passion to make it. The magic of our Richmond bake sale was its simplicity. We might have had a media machine behind us and a trolley with professional banners, but we were anything but slick. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer allows for local creativity and local customization. Our volunteers felt that. Our sale was about cardboard signs and hand-painted banners. It was about teams of moms running up to cars at stoplights with baskets of cookies, and about kids in smudged aprons spontaneously setting up new, little sales locations on their own and glowing at the results. After just a few hours, our bake sale tables had the look of a favorite stuffed animal.
 
A million amazing moments
The Richmond sale was unbelievably inspirational for everyone involved. (Watch the video of sales held in Carytown.) Several mothers approached our team captains asking, “How can my family get involved in something like this?” One woman bought a pile of cookies. After listening to our sales pitch on the need for better treatments she said, with tears in her eyes, “I know… I’m a nurse in a pediatric cancer ward.”

Two young harp players randomly set up across the street from this sale to busk for cash. Later a rainbow appeared despite a lack of rain. At the end of the heavenly day, we learned we'd surpassed our goal & sobbed with gratitude at the generosity we'd seen.

A young college student expressed her delight at our cause, explaining that she was a pediatric cancer survivor. A Hispanic man on a bicycle gazed at an image of Ber van der Meer in the hospital and handed over a crumpled bill. When a volunteer encouraged him to take a bag of cookies, he shook his head and said, in broken English, “I just want to help.” As he rode away, she unfolded the bill and discovered it was a twenty. Her Facebook status at the end of that day said what we all felt: “What I know for sure: more people are generous than not.”

 Relevant links: 

DAYS KAYAKED: 13
GUEST KAYAKERS: 4

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2 responses to “Secrets from the highest-grossing Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale

  1. Pingback: Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Bake Sale | My Year of Wellness

  2. Pingback: Cookies for Kid’s Cancer » Brokenhearted

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