More Muscle

Give special events some extra pizazz with a partnership

By Kristina Nemetz
Photos courtesy of Wheaton Park District

In the last six years, the Wheaton Park District in Illinois has given more than $700,000 in special-event proceeds to local nonprofits and organizations. While the park district maintains a portion of the proceeds from some of the events to help cover administrative costs (and not all of the special events finish in the black), the district does its best to host events to raise money for charitable organizations. As the economy and times change, it is imperative for park districts to recognize their reliance on tax dollars and do their part to give back to the communities they serve. For the Wheaton Park District, there was no better way to do this than to find a good partner.

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The district’s Executive Director, Michael Benard, has worked to create partnerships to fund approximately 60 percent of the district’s large annual events. The partnerships are not always perfect—they come with their own sets of struggles—but in the right hands, they are extremely successful in providing high-level special events and raising a lot of money.

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Ready. Set. Glow.
One of the district’s most successful partnerships is the Light the Torch Night Run. While it is not the most lucrative event, nor the most attended, the partnership is priceless. The FT Cares Foundation is the charitable arm of a local financial company that requested expertise and logistical assistance in planning and coordinating a 5K race after work for its employees. What came of the first meeting was a powerful partnership that has now transformed lives locally, nationally, and globally.

So what does it take to find a partner that is willing to shoulder the load of a top-notch event? Take a look:

Step 1: Establish need and mutual respect. FT Cares was looking to create an event to promote awareness of its foundation, raise additional money for the nonprofit, and create a special event in downtown Wheaton. From the district’s perspective, it was seen as a growth opportunity for the already-established connection with First Trust Portfolios, the financial company in which FT Cares Foundation was formed.

Step 2: Transform the partnership into a real relationship. In the initial meetings, the park district and the foundation’s Development Director talked through what needed to be accomplished for a successful event and to determine which entity would fulfill each responsibility. While not every partnership is 100-percent equal in responsibilities, the value of a partner’s duties can save a large amount of time for a district. For the Light the Torch Night Run, for example, FT Cares Foundation takes the lead on recruiting sponsors for the race. The foundation has great contacts in the financial sector, so while the district does assist with some recruitment, FT Cares Foundation does 90 percent, which was projected at more than $56,000 in sponsorship for the race in 2018.

Who Does What?

Here’s a look at the breakdown of responsibilities between the park district and FT Cares Foundation for the Night Run:

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Step 3: Seek good communication and accountability. This is crucial for a successful partnership. After the race, there is a wrap-up meeting to take notes for the next year. Approximately nine to 10 months before the next event, a kick-off meeting is held to set pricing and sponsorship levels and to discuss any major changes. A partnership committee then meets about once a month beginning six months before the race. But above all, there is trust that each side is handling its responsibilities because there is real accountability at the time of the race. On average, the FT Cares Development Director and Superintendent of Marketing and Special Events exchange an email a week in the off-season and multiple emails a day beginning about 60 days prior to the event.

Step 4: Set boundaries. A partner is not an employee and vice versa. This relationship can sometimes become blurry. In the eyes of some nonprofits, the park district has a large workforce. It is important to set boundaries of what the district is willing to do and not do in the established roles set forth when the partnership is formed. There are certain partners who have less access to sponsors, technology, or manpower, but ultimately each side must perform equally to make it work. Although districts could likely handle special events on their own with their own team of marketing, recreational, administrative, financial, and park-services professionals, the amount of time staff members must dedicate could force them to abandon other responsibilities.

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Step 5: Grow slow to forecast struggles. The Wheaton Park District has been utilizing the partnership model for nearly 10 years. Newer partners have seen the model and its successes and may expect that type of revenue and growth immediately. It is important when working with partnerships and special events in general that a steady growth pace is established. This keeps the partnership honest and revenue in the black. Each year, the Light the Torch Night Run has grown by approximately 10 percent in registration. Over the years, amenities have been added and new features have been tested. For example, last year a laser light show at the finish line of the race was implemented. This was a huge expense so adding it in year one would have sent the event into the red, but forecasting properly for growth is important in establishing a strong and long-lasting, special-event partnership.

Step 6: Stay focused on the impact. Planning and executing a special event is hard work, but if both sides are focused on the result, it will be a success. In 2017, the Light the Torch Night Run raised more than $47,000. Half of the proceeds went to the park district, of which 75 percent (approximately $6,000 each) was donated to the three internal foundations: DuPage County Historical Museum Foundation, Cosley Zoo Foundation, Inc., and the Play For All Playground and Garden Foundation. The FT Cares Foundation’s proceeds were distributed to four other nonprofit organizations: CASA of Kane County, Hundred Club of Dupage, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, and VOICES of September 11. It is rewarding to know that our special events are changing lives across the community, county, state, and nation. The Wheaton Park District already does great things within the town we serve, and special-event partnerships take the events to a higher level of impact.

Kristina Nemetz is the Superintendent of Marketing & Special Events for the Wheaton Park District in Illinois. Reach her at knemetz@wheatonparks.org.