NEW YORK — Jon and Karen Tilli were taught to be good citizens at an early age. When the young brother and sister begged their parents for a dog, the elder Tillis saw it as a perfect opportunity for a lesson in giving. Instead of heading for the local pound, they arranged with their local 4-H Club for their children to go to work training puppies to become seeing-eye dogs.
That philanthropic foundation came in handy in May 2007, when Karen, 22, was about to leave on a trip to help a poor community in Rwanda and a co-worker of Jon’s was raising money for The Leukemia/Lymphoma Society’s Hike For Discovery. Both turned to Jon, 25, to help raise cash because of his business know-how.
As he thought about ways he might get his fellow 20-somethings involved in charitable causes, he had an inspiration: Why not use activities that their targets already were likely engaging in – drinking and socializing – to tap into their benevolent spirits? Their first event attracted more than 100 people and brought in over $2,000. And Drink For Charity was born.
The 501c(3) nonprofit hosts open bar events in New York City every month to raise money and awareness for various charities. “It is a way to bring people together for a good cause,” Jon said.
While hoisting a few has long been a way for charities to fuel good feelings at their fundraising events, the connection between revelry and philanthropy has grown stronger in recent years. DFC’s organizers are volunteers so virtually 100 percent of the money goes directly to the cause du jour. The community has grown rapidly over the past year, mostly through social networking Facebook site. Although many of the attendees are in their 20s, as Jon and Karen envisioned, people of all ages frequent the gatherings.
The all-you-can-drink events usually run from 7-9 p.m. and guests are charged a $20 entrance fee. Half the money goes to the bar; the other half goes to the selected cause, and flyers describing the beneficiary’s mission also are passed out.
So far, DFC has held 13 events and raised more than $15,000 for a variety of causes, mostly smaller charities where the money will have the greatest impact.
Jon doesn’t apologize for his organization’s use of alcohol consumption as a means to a worthy end — attracting young urban professionals who might not otherwise write a check or volunteer their time in a more traditional way of giving.
‘It is ... responsible drinking’
“We promote drinking, but it is still responsible drinking,” he said. “Obviously you have to be 21 to come and we don’t assume any of the liability because the bar (staff) … are the ones actually serving the liquor.”
Karen points out that every nonprofit holds benefits that revolve around “good eating and good drinking. … Some people do it in their black ties and we do it in our jeans.”
Stephanie Sulfaro, a former philanthropy chair for her sorority who recently attended first DFC night, said she didn’t see anything wrong with the idea.
“People are going to go out and drink anyway (and) you probably are going to end up spending $20,” she said. “You might as well put it towards a good cause.”
But Dr. John Tantillo, a psychologist and president of the Marketing Department of America, a marketing services company, said the campaign violates the first rule of “Marketing 101” – “What you don’t want to do is get even one person upset at you or upset about the brand.”
He said that building events around drinking encourages excessive consumption. “If you want to do good work you shouldn’t be enforcing it with bad behavior,” he said. “… The whole idea of giving is to sacrifice, isn’t it?”
Drink For Charity isn’t the only nonprofit using parties to prime the philanthropic pump for young professionals. In the past year, the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City has had 20-somethings organize social events to benefit their organization. The bar nights are not hosted by the coalition itself, but by young supporters who want to raise money and awareness for the group and find hosting a bar night a practical and fun way of doing it.
Reaching a young audience
"The events have been a good way for us to reach out to a young audience that wouldn't otherwise know about the coalition, or the work that we're doing,” said Rachel Edelman, the coalition’s manager of special events. “Guests attend to have a fun evening, and we are able to use that opportunity to engage a younger crowd."
Pat Walsh helped start the nonprofit Stay Classy three years ago. The group began from a “pub crawl” in which a few dozen friends went from bar to bar and raised money for good causes through donations and drink specials. The event was a smash and raised several thousand dollars for the American Cancer Society.
The Pub Crawl is now a yearly fixture of the organization, however, the crawl has become more of a “shuffle” due to the large number of participants which forces the evening’s festivities to be confined to one venue. Walsh proudly explains that Stay Classy has evolved greatly since the Pub Crawl and they now arrange music, art and sports fundraisers as well as other social networking events for charity. Alcohol remains a fixture at almost all of their events and many of their corporate partners are companies that sell alcoholic beverages.
Asked if the organization would be as successful if alcohol was not available at the events, Walsh said, “Our first two events were marketed as pub crawls, so people tended to dwell on the misconception that the fundraising was a direct result of alcohol consumption. Our events are the catalyst for engaging young professionals to get involved in their community; drinking is not the focus. … The important thing is that we always encourage our members to drink responsibly. We've thrown dozens of events in the past three years and have never had a single problem due to alcohol.”
The Tillis said that DFC has not received any negative feedback about its practices and indicated that they hope to expand to other cities across the country.
MADD OK with events, with caveats
Misty Moyse, Mothers Against Drunk Driving national spokesperson says, “Of course as a nonprofit charity, we think raising money for a worthy cause is very important. Any organizations serving alcohol should have trained servers, serve responsibly as to not encourage binge drinking or over serve guests, never serve those under the age of 21, and ensure that sober designated drivers are provided and/or encouraged. We encourage everyone to plan ahead for safe ride home and to never drive drunk.”
Alcoholics Anonymous and Students Against Drunk Driving declined to comment on the organization’s practices.
DFC understands Moyse’s concerns and addresses them by partnering with reputable venues and relying on DFC board members to help police events and promote responsible drinking.
Addy Bonet, president and CEO of the Plainfield Area YMCA, said her organization has received money from the DFC and said she is “very confident about the organization because of the people who are running it.”
The accomplishment DFC is most proud of since its inception is the purchase of a thriving farm for HIV-positive orphans in Rwanda. DFC has raised a total of $2,000 for theNsanginara AIDS Orphans Association – enough to purchase the farm, buy supplies and help pay the full-time staff that administers the operation.
Jon says that exemplifies the niche that DFC intends to fill, acting more like that of the Rotary Club to provide support for the organizations that are doing the front-line work.
“DFC is never going to be like … these organizations that actually do the providing of services,” he said.
DFC’s next event — "Thirsty Third Thursday" — will be held on Aug. 21 from 7-9 p.m. at Porky's NYC, 55 W 21st St.
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