Mannix is among the new, younger breed of volunteer.
Mannix is among the new, younger breed of volunteer.
Daniel Kramer

Charity Cases

The hors d'oeuvre -- a history lesson on sushi -- came first. Then the crowd of 35 people drained their Asahis and dunked their hands into water bowls. Rickshaw's master chef Mike Potowski guided them through the basics of bamboo mats and seaweed, and slicing and dicing seafood.

Occasionally, he substituted his own handcrafted sushi for that of a student's mangled attempt, enabling students to eat the offerings with chopsticks instead of spoons. The roll-your-own gathering at Miyako's hibachi bar downtown may have looked like Japanese Cooking 101; it was actually another example of the newest push by nonprofits: to appeal to the often-overlooked younger set.

Rather than continuing to rely on the traditional tactics of silent auctions and staid banquets or receptions, more Houston nonprofits are targeting younger audiences with novel attractions and relevant themes. Twentysomething venues and trendy offerings -- date trips or discounts for in-style shops -- are staples in this search for new blood for nonprofits.

"It's not the same ol', same ol,'" says Sharron Mannix, a volunteer organizer for the American Red Cross. "It involves something different, and can be an educational opportunity or just something interesting where you can meet people. It can be whatever you want it to be."

Dress for Success, which provides clothing for disadvantaged women, created its own Women of Wardrobe group to promote the nonprofit to young professionals.

"Texas is not allocating as much funds to nonprofits as they did in the past, due to debt," says Lauren Levicki, WOW steering committee member. "In this situation, we are looking for a new resource of fund-raising; we've begun to put a lot of effort into reaching the younger population."

Government budget cutbacks for nonprofits and the sluggish economy have hammered many traditional funding sources for even the most established charities. For example, the Houston-area chapter of the Red Cross had a deficit of $1.6 million last year, despite staff furloughs, wage freezes and other cost- cutting measures.

"We were stressed about how we were going to meet our goals," says Diana Espita Collymore, the agency's director of financial development. "We were in a much-needed search of energy."

About a year ago, Collymore got a call from Mannix, who was an event planner, wondering if the Red Cross would be the beneficiary of a function at the Seven Lounge. The nonprofit raked in $1,200 that night. Equally important, it spawned plans for a transitional steering group, the Modern Leadership Committee, to develop ways to attract young patrons.

"When I thought of charity events, I thought they were upper-crust and high-society," she says. "That the events were over $100 a plate and the evening was black-tie. It wasn't something that Joe Schmoe would be interested in," says Mannix, the committee's director.

She cites the problems of attracting people in their twenties and thirties. "We need young, vibrant people for leverage. We don't want a bunch of stuffed shirts sitting at the meetings," she says. "We want people who can bring artistic talent to the table as well."

The Modern Leadership Committee's inaugural event was on September 11 -- a standing-room-only party featuring the music of the John Sparrow. They've organized dance classes, yoga lessons, Football 101 (presided over by "professor" Cris Dishman, a former Oiler) and computer seminars.

"The Red Cross created this group to close the gap between youth services and the board of directors," says Collymore. "We have to be proactive. In this bad economy, people make more educated choices about where their money goes."

Of course, soon after that, Hurricane Isabel slammed into the coast, on the heels of the devastation of Hurricane Claudette -- wiping out the $1.5 million relief fund balance for the Red Cross.

A national survey released earlier this year confirmed what most fund-raisers already knew: Seniors find it more important to donate money to charities, while those 34 and younger place a higher priority on volunteering time.

The study, commissioned by the non-for-profit Lutheran Thrivent Financial for Lutherans of Minneapolis, sampled the opinions of 1,000 Americans. Authorities on philanthropy point out that older people have more money to contribute, while time is the chief commodity for the younger crowd. They also note that it is doubly important to appeal to younger volunteers, because they form the vital base of financial giving for the future of charities.

The lesson has already been learned by the Ronald McDonald House, which has seen fund-raising improvements since its Young Friends was organized a few years ago. The group, made up of volunteers in their thirties or younger, raised $75,000 last year with their annual Oscar Night America viewing party for the Academy Awards, according to Allie Wendler, development assistant at the Ronald McDonald House.

"This event interests the younger crowds not only because of the items auctioned but also the entertainment interest," says Wendler. This year's event was held at Hotel Inter-Continental and featured a silent auction of goods geared to the young, such as a date-trip package stuffed with theater tickets, dinner coupons and -- for those who get lucky -- hotel vouchers.

Dress for Success has been outfitting women in the Houston area for five years and recently developed its Women of Wardrobe for the young by scaling down venues and taking advantage of fun the old-fashioned way: by shopping.

Instead of holding an event at the Four Seasons, for example, WOW members convened at Slainte, a trendy downtown Irish pub. Other events are tied to the young couture lover's dream boutiques.

"We hold events at places that younger people would shop," says Levicki, the WOW committee member. Rather than trying to fill Lilly Pulitzer with young people, a fund-raising soiree was hosted at Club Monaco, an international retail store in the Galleria. A small donation at the glass doors entitled participants to a goodie bag and a discount on all purchases that night.

Club Monaco and such places as Paula Fridkin Designs (an accessories boutique in the Rice Village) are the fresh ideas being sought by WOW. Like other nonprofits expanding their horizons, they're "looking for hip and trendy places," Levicki says, "something to draw the young professionals to come and see what we're all about."


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