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First Year Experience Collecting for Charity

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This was the fourth year that we have done a large animated display, but the first year we collected for a charity. I was hesitant in previous years because of the personal "hassle" of having to manage the donations, but having done it, I can't imagine not doing it again. I figured I'd share my experience for those who might be on the fence themselves.

Many of the displays in our area that collect for charity do the canned food drives for the local food banks. There were a number of problems I saw with this type of donation -- storing and transporting potentially thousands of cans of food, keeping a large donation bin for the food, and hoping people would know to bring food. This works well for some -- I think it would work really well for those who are actively engaged with their visitors each night. We usually only go out on the very busy nights (maybe four or five nights in the season).

I posted on my display's web site that I would allow a charity to use our display for collections if they wanted to take care of of the collection bin and processing the collections. I received one interest, but then it fell through. So, it looked like I was going to be on my own.

I saw that Richard Holdman used his display for collecting for Make-A-Wish and was impressed with his $21k raised in four years. I was a bit hesitant about collecting money -- how do you keep it secure if you are not outside to watch it? But I liked the idea of collecting cash and sending the charity one big check at the end of the season. I also love Make-A-Wish (who can't?) so I decided that would be the charity we would help out.

I contacted our local Make-A-Wish chapter to let them know that I would like to collect donations for them. I wanted to find out if they had experience with collections like this and had any secure collection boxes I could use. All they had were the indoor plastic boxes that you see at the supermarkets and such, but they were eager to provide volunteers to talk to visitors. I let them know that our display wasn't that huge and didn't want to intimidate folks who might just want to see the lights without feeling badgered to donate. But I suggested that they could provide a sign for the display indicating we were collecting for them if they wanted to donate some man hours -- I would provide the supplies if needed. Maybe they got busy, because I didn't hear from them after that, so I ended up printing out a quick sign on the printer.

For the donation box, I ended up buying a locking money box and cut a slot for putting dollar bills in. I bolted this to a steel post and set it in a 5 gallon bucket filled with 60 pounds of concrete and another 30 pounds of rocks. The thing is a back breaker! I put a cross bar on the post and attached my sign. Finally, I decorated it with Christmas lights. It was a bit subdued, but I didn't want it to distract from the display. We also added a note in our voiceover that we were collecting for charity.

The first few nights were disappointing. We received money each night, but were average about $10. Each night after the show, my wife or I would go out and collect from the box, count the money, and update our web site with the running total. After a week, I made a facebook post on our display's fan page that we were barely at $50 after a week and that given the number of visitors, this was a bit disappointing. We got lots of comments back that people were planning to come back later in the season and would bring cash then.

I decided to bump it up a notch. We put a spotlight on the donation sign. The donation box would not be invisible now. I noticed many more people coming up to look at the sign (it was illuminated, but still small). Some people went back to their cars to get money. More money was coming in now -- maybe $30 a night.

A note on the visitor volume. On most nights we probably have 20 or so cars come through. During the peak times, we might have a dozen or more cars parked or waiting in line to get a good viewing spot.

We were up to about $750 on the 21st when we had some vandals mess with our display early on the 22nd. This actually turned out to be a mixed blessing.

Vandalism of a display isn't newsworthy. But when the vandals break open the Make-A-Wish box (which had already been emptied, but had some pocket change in it), people light their torches and get out their pitchforks. We had security video of the incident and so we contacted the local police to file a report. We also contacted two local news stations via their web submission forms. Within 30 minutes, two networks had called me to do on-site interviews. By 5PM that night, three news trucks (word of mouth got the third) from NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates were on site to broadcast live reports of the two grinches that vandalized a popular display and stole from Make-A-Wish. They showed our video on the news casts and ran clips of the interviews they had done with my wife and I they had done earlier that day. It was noted that we had collected $750 and were hoping to reach a thousand that year. NBC led their 5PM broadcast with our story. They ran stories at 5, 6, 10, and 11PM. We had the display back up to 100% by 5PM so we had to pretend to still be fixing it when they ran their live broadcasts at 5 :)

Well, we had collected $150 on a busy weekend night prior -- we thought this was our high water mark. On the few nights after the news coverage, we probably averaged $250 a night. And it wasn't that there were that many cars that showed up -- people were just more willing to support Make-A-Wish after hearing the story. I even received a call the next day from the CEO of the local Make-A-Wish chapter offering his condolences about the vandalism and thanking us for our work in supporting Make-A-Wish.

At the end of the season, we ended up with about $2000 in cash and checks. Far exceeding our expectations! We will be delivering Make-A-Wish their check soon. Maybe they'll help out with a snazzier sign next year :)

Here's a little trick. If you are out talking to people on busier nights, hand out candy canes. They cost about a nickle apiece. We would go through about 100 a night. But, when we did, we saw a direct increase in donations -- probably better than a 10x return. Gotta love reciprocity.

So, we're definitely going to do it again next year. I'll take the time this year to weld a better donation box that cannot be easily opened (and can hold more money since we had to empty out the other box multiple times some nights during the middle of the show) and is a little more weatherproof. We'll also build a better sign -- maybe contact a local sign shop to see if they'll do it for the charity.

If you're on the fence, I highly recommend giving it a try. A donation box can be built for really cheap ($15 in my case). You'll enjoy checking it each night to see how much you were able to collect. We even had friends provide some friendly criticism one day when we had updated the web site tally, but forgot to push the page to the web server -- so they didn't see an update.

We don't have any scrooge neighbors, but when I talked with the neighbors this year, in addition to their regular "love the show" comments they were really appreciative that we were doing the charity collections this year. So, if you live around some scrooges, you might find that there is some added pressure on them to at least be indifferent to your display once they see you are producing some tangible benefits with it. They may still hate your show, but if you have to go up in front of a HOA or the city to defend yourself, it certainly can't hurt to produce your charity statistics to counteract their petty annoyance arguments.

Well, that's about it! Would love to hear about other's experiences.

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Ive been on the fence for charity donation boxes because of that exact problem... I live on a corner, and from nearly all of my display, My neighbors houses are virtually invisible (tree lines on one side, and forests on the other two)... So there is virtually no turn-off for vandals that are looking for quick cash. Thought about putting one of those "premises are monitored by video surveillance" signs, but I think that would just encourage most of the potentials to wear ski masks or something...

I appreciate this post very much... I am certainly thinking more so about accepting charity donations next year with your ideas of mounting your box in a concrete bucket and such... I could also rig up my own box using some heavy duty steel and a Mig welder.

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I was like you and last year I started collecting for Make-A-Wish and was on the fence about it. I had $54 collected last year and to date we are at $80 for this year. I am on a local radio stations tour of lights they do and saw 3 limo's during the holiday weekend stop and watch, but still the best night we had was the 23rd and it was $30. I like some of your idea's. I actually have tried to get the news stations to do a story but no one is interested in it...

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