Chasing Old (dollar) Bill’s: Big fundraising in a small town

By on September 3, 2013

904513coverleadJACKSON HOLE, WYO – Jackson Hole’s magnanimous nature has always been its calling card. When blizzards hit the valley’s early pioneers they dug out together. Orphaned children were simply adopted by a neighbor, and barn building was a community event. When called upon, residents of Jackson’s Hole have exhibited an enviable spirit of giving.

Whether it’s an Elks Lodge spaghetti supper cancer benefit for a friend, or a high-dollar auction fundraiser, or an annual run/walk event called Old Bill’s, locals answer the call again and again. On Saturday, Community Foundation of Jackson Hole will host its annual Old Bill’s Fun Run with a chance to surpass $100,000,000 in charitable giving over the 17-year history of the event.

Community Foundation Special Events and Marketing officer Nicki McDermott said, “This is my seventh Old Bill’s and as long as I’ve been here we’ve had fantastic participation from people across the spectrum. I think that’s one of the unique things about Jackson and about this event. I feel like it’s something that “Old Bill” has spurred in our community: The importance of your, say, $3 contribution and how it’s as impactful as the $100,000 given by one of our diamond co-challengers. I think people here really feel like as long as you are giving to your ability, and as much as you can for your means, then you are making a difference.”

 Bill’s magic imitated, never duplicated

The numbers generated by Old Bill’s are mind-boggling. Outsiders are astounded by what Jackson raises in one Saturday afternoon in September, including more than $8 million in 2012. McDermott said her office fields a few calls every year from various communities asking how they can fashion their own event to tap the success of the Foundation’s Fun Run. Similar fundraising events modeled after Old Bill’s are now taking place in Paducah, Kentucky; Gastonia, North Carolina; Chico, California; and Red Lodge, Montana.

While other communities may not be able to equal Jackson’s money moxie, they are finding philanthropy to suddenly be sexy. Maybe it’s the example set by Warren Buffett, the world’s most generous humanitarian, but philanthropic giving in the United States was trending in the oughts until the recession hit. Now it’s back on the rise, according to the Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Americans gave $316.23 billion to charities in 2012, up 3.5 percent from the previous year. While still below the prerecession high of $344.48 billion set in 2007, generosity is fashionable once again.

“One of the goals of Mr. and Mrs. Old Bill is to kind of bring philanthropy to the forefront of people’s minds. To show why it’s maybe important to be philanthropic even when it’s really hard,” McDermott said. “It’s undeniable that we live in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. That certainly plays a role [in the large dollar amounts]. But I also think that the sheer number of donors – nearly 3,000 in a county of 20,000 are participating – is impressive. The number of donations we get under $100 is something like 34 percent. Half of all our donations come from people who gave less than $250. People are giving what they can. It’s something you would not look at and think, ‘I can give $50 a year and that could have a huge impact,’ but it does and people are on board to do that.”

Nicki McDermott

Nicki McDermott

Steve Clark chairs the Community Foundation of Ogden Valley, Utah. Its event is a 5k run/walk called Amazing Raise, and will take place this Saturday in Liberty. They have 15 registered nonprofits in the program.

“We find the amount of philanthropy in Jackson to be incredible. Participation levels are outstanding and they enjoy exceptional leadership,” Clark said. “The Community Foundation of Jackson Hole has been a wonderful mentor for our fledgling foundation. While we are tiny compared to Jackson’s foundation, our valley shares many of the same attributes and demographics as the Jackson area. We adopted the Jackson foundation as a model and they have been very helpful.”

The Lander Community Foundation kicked off its Challenge for Charities in 2011. Board member Michelle Escudero called it Old Bill’s with a Lander twist. Escudero said she knew all about Jackson Hole’s Old Bill’s event from college. Her graduate school thesis was on community foundations, specifically the study of regional and rural community foundations. “Old Bill’s Fun Run was part of that analysis,” she said.

In the three years Lander has been running its annual fundraiser, culminating on July 4, the foundation has pumped more than $600,000 into local nonprofits (22 participated in 2012, 35 this year). Escudero said she is indebted to CFJH for its support in getting them launched. She said participation, donations, and dollar amounts have been up every year.

“In 2013, we had over 650 people participate in the race – a 25 percent increase from 2012. There were 1,069 designated donations made. In a community of about 7,500, that’s not bad,” Escudero said.

 Who is Old Bill? The backstory

Ask any CFJH board member or staffer about Old Bill and they’ll respond with something esoteric like, “He’s the spirit of community philanthropy, so in a way, every participant in the event is Old Bill.”

Truth be told there really is an Old Bill and he prefers he and his wife remain anonymous. It’s the best-kept secret in Jackson Hole. Yes, we know who he is but we aren’t telling. So that’s saying something. The story goes like this … well, let McDermott tell it.

“We like to tell the story of how it all started. That’s what keeps it personal,” McDermott said. “It really was the story of this anonymous guy who was out for his daily run. He was approaching this big birthday and thinking, ‘How do I get out of this party that my wife is going to want to throw for me?’ So he came up with this ingenious idea. We continue to tell that story because as long as we do it won’t get lost.”

Old Bill approached the Foundation about hosting a run/walk fundraising event where donors could target their giving, paired with matching money from the valley’s uber-rich, and get excited about being generous. The Foundation, established in 1989, took hold of the very first event in 1997 and will continue to run Old Bill’s whether Old Bill is around or not, McDermott said.

90413cover2 It takes a village

Old Bill’s thrives on two things: Its unique “targeted giving” structure and matching funds provided by co-sponsors. Match giving has become vogue. Local philanthropist Foster Friess almost always donates money to a cause in this manner, hoping to inspire others to join him. He might pledge, say, a million bucks to a Santorum super PAC – promising to match every dollar donated with a dollar of his own up to $1 million. If no one contributes a cent, neither does the philanthropist.

It’s a model that works.

“I’m going to make a statement and not have a source to back it up,” McDermott said. “But the piece of information I’ve heard over and over is donors don’t care what the percentage match is, they just care that there is a match. They want their $5 to go further than what they can do. So it’s a really good motivator for getting people to donate.”

What also motivates Jackson Holers to give at Old Bill’s is the idea that contributions aren’t just dumped into a pile of money and distributed as the Foundation sees fit. Donors line item every cent and where they want it to go.

McDermott said, “Old Bill’s is a really unique concept. I’m not sure there are too many other events where you can say, ‘I want $10 to go here, $20 to go there, and $30 for this.’ It’s completely customizable.”

CFJH does not collect a fee of any kind, 100 percent of the money pledged to a nonprofit gets there.

 Too many nonprofits vying for a cut?

Lots of people say this valley has way too many nonprofits. Enterprising opportunists can easily obtain 501c3 status, make themselves an executive director of some obscure cause like Save the Left-Footed Red Fox of Hog Island and watch the funds come pouring in.

“We say a couple of things to that,” McDermott said of the allegations Old Bill’s has become a chic teat to suckle. “Only about 50 percent of Jackson’s nonprofits have paid staffs. The other half are things like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and ones not paying any administrative costs or staff. It’s all volunteer-based. The other thing we say is, ‘When you look at other resort communities similar to ours, we are about on-track with the amount of charitable organizations.”

And in the “dollar vote” scheme of Old Bill’s, charities that no one likes or needs, won’t get funding.

“That’s one of the things about Old Bill’s is we all get to vote with our dollars,” McDermott said. “We all get to determine what we think is important in this community and what we want to see here and what we want to support. So if the community doesn’t think something is a good fit they are going to let that be known by not giving their dollars.”

 High-marking in 2013?

If Teton Valley’s Tin Cup Challenge can be used as an indicator, Old Bill’s has a shot at cracking the $100 million barrier. The Community Foundation of Teton Valley just announced numbers for its annual fundraiser and it was another record-breaking year, for the third straight time.

CFTV Executive Director Kim Trotter said 833 donors contributed more than $1,106,000 this year with 49 nonprofits participating. Total Tin Cup money raised in six years is nearly $6 million. CFTV operates its fundraiser in affiliation with CFJH, with the Jackson foundation performing back office work to reduce overhead.

“Old Bill’s Fun Run brings out the best in everyone. These events unify and strengthen our nonprofit organizations and our communities as a whole,” Trotter said.

Will Jackson Hole givers dig deep enough this year to nine figures? McDermott said it would be a stretch but not impossible. “It would have to be a big year,” she said. We are just under 91 million now, we did 8.3 last year. So … that’s going to be some quick math in my head. We had a $600,000 increase last year from 2011. We will need to do that same increase to get to the 100 million mark. It’s a big increase but we are hoping for a big year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

 By the numbers

Last year, donors gave $2,056 on average to charities through Old Bill’s. Total donations received were the highest on record (narrowly beating out 2007’s tally), and with matching funds also the most ever brought in, it was easy to see how Old Bill’s lit up the tote board for an all-time high of $8,352,953 dispensed to 205 local nonprofits. If the pie were split evenly, each of the 205 charitable organizations registered with the Community Foundation would have taken home $40,746.

McDermott said Old Bill’s has never failed to better the previous year’s take. That’s not exactly true. The numbers were down once in the 16-year history of the event: 2008. Donations also fell slightly from 1998 to 1999, though increased matching funds kept the total take on the rise.

McDermott acknowledged donation dollars were down in 2008, noting the departure of 35 or so Teton Valley, Idaho, nonprofits that left to launch their own event over the hill. It still doesn’t explain why locals gave less to those organizations that remained.

Perhaps the down tally in 08 was owed to bad publicity for the Community Foundation. Planet JH called the off year in advance with a story that ran on Sept. 9, 2008, headlined: “Is this the year Old Bill’s falls flat?” Hot off the controversial ousting of Elaine Kuhr’s Right to Life chapter in 2007, the Foundation decided to boot Save Historic Jackson Hole the following year after its newspaper ad caused hurt feelings amongst certain board members. “It was mean,” Foundation head Katherine Conover told SHJH president Louis Wang.

Jackson Hole isn’t exactly impervious to recession, either. Giving is down when the economy lags. Heavy hitters help buoy the numbers by ponying up for matching and co-challenge grants at a steady rate, even through a down economy, though they gripped their wallets a little tighter in 2009 and 2010.

Optimism has been the general rule since 2009. Old Bill’s set records in each of the past four years, jumping $300k from 09 to 10, $450k headed into 2011, and last year’s total was up $600k over the previous year. Another $600,000 increase would push Old Bill’s all-time total over the $100 million mark. The total currently stands at $90,899,372.

 New this year

A date change is the biggest news for Old Bill’s Fun Run for Charity. The event has always taken place on the second Saturday of September. This year a scheduling conflict with the Fall Arts Festival’s QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction was noticed back in January. Both parties met with the Chamber of Commerce and CFJH agreed to move its event up a week. Next year’s fundraiser will also be the first week in September. After that, the Foundation plans to go back to the second Saturday of the month.

Commemorative T-shirts are given out to participants every year. The T-shirt color changes from year to year so they have become a collector’s item. Last year’s was red. This Saturday expect a sea of teal on the town square. Recycled teal, that is.

“[The shirts] are 100 percent recycled material this year,” McDermott said. “It’s an improvement over last year when we were 50 percent recycled.”

CFJH made a commitment a few years ago to be more sustainable. Race bibs are reused, Styrofoam and plastic bottles are banned, and mass transit is stressed with START Bus shuttles running frequently to the event. Last year, Old Bill’s received silver certification from Council for Responsible Sports, the first such distinction for any Wyoming sporting event.

About Jake Nichols

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